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No matter what the Romans may have thought, we know that the ancient Iron Age
people were the same as 21st Century humans; they were was inventive and creative
as us and no doubt sometimes as lazy as us. However, it is also true that no matter
how much we would like to try, a 21st Century person with their modern thoughts and
ideas can never totally immerse themselves in the original mindset of the ancients.
But when people volunteer to live for extended stays in reconstructed Iron Age
villages and do more than wear the clothes and eat the food, as archaeologists, we
can if we are lucky get the briefest glimpse into what life might have been like in the
So, how should we imagine a roundhouse and the kind of necessary work that went
on within it each day?
Some archaeologists try to attribute the Easterly facing doors with the clockwise
rotation of the sun around the sky suggesting that in the work to be done each day
indoors was prioritized based on where the sun shining through the entrance would
fall at certain times of the day. For example it could be argued that the sun fell on the
hearth all day, whilst illuminating the Quern Stone, suggesting grinding the flour for
the day’s requirements might have been one of the first jobs done, as the light moved
and illuminated the opposite side of the interior in the afternoon, the spinning or
weaving was done. However, from practicality, I believe the doors facing east had
more to do with being away from the prevailing wind. On the few bright hot sunny
days we have in Britain, the sunlight rarely illuminates the inside of the house directly
any more than general lighting conditions during rain or overcast lighting.
So let’s interpret the houses from a Practicality point of view. Instead of carrying
water back and forth from a distant spring as needed on an hourly basis, I would
argue that the largest cauldron in the house was placed close to or above the fire in
the hearth to ensure a constant supply of hot water.
All of the cooking pots would have had wooden lids to stop the ash from the fire
falling into the food.
The iron pots at the end of each day would have been washed, dried and then
coated inside with fat to keep the rust out. Then each morning, the pots were washed
again, the fat removed and the food cooked.
During the winter, vegetables and fruit were not readily available, but in the autumn
time the Iron Age people would have strung vegetables and fruit slices up to dry in
their granaries or even in their houses. In the winter the dried foods could be placed
in boiling water and reconstituted to form soups or pie fillings.
The earth floors of the houses were levelled perfectly with a mixture of clay, dung
and straw. This made it easier to sweep them clean and in some cases their houses
even had floor boards.
The Romans tell us that the Britons and Gauls sat on sheepskins strewn on the floor.
However we know that the Iron Age people had framed wooden beds and in France,
there is a statue showing what could be interpreted as a stool or seat. You could
expect to see low tables for food preparation by the fireplace.
Did the Celts paint their houses?
Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence at all that the Celts were painting
their houses. But it would seem odd that when everyone else in the ancient world
were painting their buildings, the artistic Celts weren’t. We can also point to statues
from Gaul with traces of painted decoration on them.
An Artists impression of artwork using earth pigments.
How many people lived in a roundhouse?
We don’t really know if all the miserable old women lived in one house or if all the
warriors lived together in the largest house. But we can guess that many generations
of families probably lived together. So you can imagine living with your mum and dad,
your brothers and sisters, your grandparents and perhaps even an aunt or uncle and
There was probably very little privacy, but this helped keep the whole community
close and able to support one another. Archaeologists believe that in a typical
roundhouse there would be separate walled off rooms for beds with small storage
areas between them. Perhaps the bed stalls as we call them may even have had
thick colourful woven curtains which could be closed at night.
However, the Iron Age people, being largely an agricultural society probably spent
very little time in their houses during the day. They were an outdoors people and so
maybe only mothers, infants and old people could be expected to be in the house
during the day.