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Life in a Roundhouse


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

Ancient World.


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

their spouses.


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.

artwork Butser Ancient Farm 2011 016 Butser Ancient Farm 2011 070 Home hearth and home Inside Roundhouse IMG_4698 July Aug iphone pics 119 SL270241