North Duffield Conservation and Local History Society

Home Conservation History Archaeology Events Gallery Links Contacts Feedback Archive

Roundhouses have been built in Britain since at least  the Bronze Age, approximately 4,000 years ago. They continued to be built until the Roman Invasion and perhaps for a short time afterwards during the later Iron Age (100AD). Whilst no complete roundhouse has ever been found, dwellings of a round plan with distinctive post holes and a central hearth have been found all over Western Europe and particularly in low-lying areas where no stone is locally available for building.

The roundhouse used walls often made of wattle-and-daub panels reinforced with wooden stakes driven into the ground and a conical thatched roof and ranged in size from less than 5 m in diameter to over 20 m. Wattle-and-daub is a mixture of puddled clay and animal dung the latter giving some flexibility to the mix to resist freezing temperatures and prevent cracking.   

Most of what is assumed about these structures is derived from the layout of the post-holes, surviving hearths and associated artefacts, although a few timbers have been found preserved in bogs. The rest has been filled in by experimental archaeology, which has shown the most likely form and function of the buildings. For example, experiments have shown that a conical roof with a pitch of about 45 degrees would have been the most efficient design for strength and to shed rainwater.

Although a central fire would have been lit inside for heating and cooking, there could not have been a smoke hole in the apex of the roof, for this would have caused an updraft that would have rapidly set fire to the thatch. Instead, smoke would have accumulated harmlessly inside the roof space, and slowly leaked out through the thatch.

A roundhouse appears to have been the typical 'des res' of a family group, where everyone slept under the same roof in one large space, perhaps on layers of straw , hides, rushes, reeds and perhaps, again, on a raised platform. Articles of everyday living have been found on roundhouse sites and include, looms, pottery, querns for grinding corn, hide stretchers etc. Smaller roundhouses were used for storing food , animals and tools.

It is most likely that roundhouses, a fairly permanent structure, came into use as man abandoned his hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving from place to place following herds of wild animals, and settled down to a more sedentary life growing crops and breeding domesticated animals.

It also seems likely that these structures were made using whatever locally sourced materials were available and probably a new one built to replace an old one that had become leaky and smelly from constant use.

Most roundhouses were surrounded by a drainage ditch to carry away rainwater from the roof and were situated within a rectangular compound. The doorway, which appears to have been fitted with one of various types of 'porch' normally faces to the East to Southeast to take advantage of the rising sun and so that it was farthest away from the prevailing Westerly winds. It may , of course, be that the rising sun was of religious or symbolic significance to these pre-Christian folk.

To the North East of North Duffield, there are indications of roundhouse bases showing up in the crop marks in the field. Crop marks, visible from aerial photography, are created when structures or features, undetectable on the surface, cause crops to grow at differing heights and thereby showing up as a 3D image. Indeed, doorways facing to the East or South East are clearly visible in the crop marks transitions, together with boundaries and other, as yet, unidentified features.

In 2012, AND conducted an archaeological dig over some of the crop marks and will continue the dig in 2013. For more details see under 'Excavations' in the  HLF Menu.

Our Lottery funding includes the re-construction of a typical roundhouse using some local materials and utilizing pupils from North Duffield Community Primary School and our own members on a site very close to the actual roundhouse sites. The building of this structure will be part of an integrated archaeological element that will involve the children in hands-on archaeology and teaching them to investigate and understand their local heritage. It will remain as a permanent educational resource within the National Curriculum.

To see how we are progressing go to the next level under this Menu to 'The Roundhouse', 'Model Roundhouse' and 'Roundhouse Gallery'