I’ve loved the idea of roundhouses since my teens when I went to a party hosted in an oast house in Sussex. As soon as I entered, I just thought there was something inherently right about living in a circular structure. When everyone sat around the walls in a circle, it seemed to encourage conversation and sharing, whether of conversation or food and drink. Oast houses, incidentally, were traditionally used for drying hops in South East England. Quite a few still exist and they are, I think, beautiful buildings, as you can see from the picture of these Sussex examples.
A few years later I became interested in the ancestral spiritual traditions of Britain and was delighted to find that our ancestors in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and well into the Roman era had lived in roundhouses, a period of about 4,000 years.
It wasn’t until 30 years later that a friend offered me the opportunity to build a roundhouse (above) in a clearing in a wood in Shropshire that she inherited from her parents. Working only in some of my sons’ school holidays, it took three years and a lot of help to create our roundhouse. Most of those working on it were Druids, though a few Buddhists and folk of other traditions helped out too. All put great spirit energy into the place and the building. We had to learn a lot of new skills. My design used elements from the archaeology of half a dozen different sites, combining them into something that seemed like it would work and create a good, structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and useable building. We use it mainly for ceremonies, music and storytelling. The acoustics are excellent.
There’s something about learning all these old craft skills, from growing and harvesting the straw and cutting the right wood, through wattling the walls to thatching the roof with the straw we’d grown, that really connects you with the spirits of our ancestors. You get a clear sense of what it was like to walk in their shoes. The fact that the building project was accompanied all the way through by rituals designed to weave the building into the place and integrate it with the spirits of nature helped to build that sense of connection. Our roundhouse has a 22 foot internal diameter, a wheat-straw thatched roof partly supported by an internal circle of ash posts, lime-washed wattle and daub walls and a beaten earth floor (right). For more photos, see the albums on my facebook page, especially the one covering the building process.
Five years on from the completion of that first roundhouse, I’m working again with John and Ken. John’s the guy who taught us to thatch and Ken is another core member of the team from the Shropshire build. We’re working on a pair of conjoined roundhouses for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in South Wales (below). These are based on archaeology from a site on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, ‘Hill of Eagles.’ As in Shropshire, we’re being aided by many helpers, from archaeological students to men on probation. Also helping out are Ian, the Museum’s resident Iron Age reenactor, and Dafydd, whose website, britishroundhouses.com, lists over a hundred reconstructed roundhouses in England, Wales and Scotland with photos of each one.The first of the St Fagans roundhouses is being thatched with a base coat of gorse and heather onto which straw is stitched. We’re then stuffing straw into this base coat. This roundhouse is 32 feet in diameter. The second, larger roundhouse (40 foot diameter) will have a short row of gorse around the base of the roof as a rodent deterrent and will then be thatched using a long-straw thatching technique. Neither has an internal post circle, relying instead on very thick clay and earth walls.
Of course, most of what happens above ground in modern roundhouse reconstructions is based on educated guesswork. Almost everything that survives in the archaeological record is at or below ground level. Peter Reynolds set the style for roundhouse reconstructions with his pioneering work at the Butser Iron Age farm in Hampshire in the early 1970s (below). This includes using straw thatch for the roofs. The logic of this is that cereal crops were being grown and the by-product of straw would therefore have been readily available. In other parts of the country, water reeds or grasses such as marram grass may have been used. It’s also possible that turf, tree bark or wooden shingles were used.This morning a facebook friend suggested I might go to the USA and show folks over there how to build Iron Age roundhouses. This got me wondering if there weren’t already reconstructed roundhouses in America. An online search failed to reveal any Celtic ones. However, there is a Native American tradition of roundhouse building. Here are two examples from California:
First is a 1947 picture of a roundhouse on the reservation of the Tuolumne band of the Me-Wuk (or Miwok) tribe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A typical Me-Wuk village consisted of umachas (cedar bark houses), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the center of tribal life, used for a variety of purposes by different groups. They are typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and roofed with earth, bark, or, as with this one, wooden shingles. Dances are still held in these roundhouses to give thanks and to honour all that the Earth Mother has given to the people.A second Me-Wuk roundhouse (left) was built in 1974 within the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. As with the Tuolumne example, the door faces East, towards the rising sun. Four large oak posts support the roof of the sixty foot diameter structure (below left). The rest of the roundhouse is constructed of cedar poles secured with grapevine and the roof is topped with cedar bark. Inside is a central fire pit. A fire exit was added in the rear of the structure in 1993 to comply with state fire regulations. The door faces the east to catch the sunrise. The roundhouse is still used today, on occasion, for ceremonial dances. It has a plaque outside designating it as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1001.
One notable similarity between the two roundhouse-building traditions is that both British and Native American examples have doors oriented to the East, or an arc between East and South-east. The practical reason is to allow maximum daylight into the roundhouse via the doors. The spiritual reason, which I’m sure is the same in both traditions, is that the sun is recognised as a divine source of light, warmth and healing.There’s archaeological evidence that some larger British roundhouses were used for ceremonial purposes during the Iron Age, as ours in Shropshire is and as the Me-Wuk ones are.
One difference between the two traditions, obvious from the photos here, is the pitch of the roof. Having a straw-thatched roof on a roundhouse means you have to apply a fairly thin thatch so that smoke from the central fire will filter out through it. A thin thatch means you have to rake up the angle of the roof so that rain will run off it quickly and not have time to soak through. A bark or wooden shingle roof with a central smoke-hole allows for a much lower pitch that will still shed rain off successfully.
There’s an idea that leaving a smoke-hole in the roof of a British-style roundhouse will create a funnel that will draw up sparks and set fire to the thatch. Having lived with a roundhouse for six years now and lit many fires in it, I’m not convinced of this. I think that if the smoke-hole is created by pulling out a ring of thatch towards the top of the cone, you’ll have a way for smoke to get out but will still have enough inside the upper part of the roof that any sparks going up above the rafters will be extinguished from lack of oxygen. I’m going to try it with ours in Shropshire (above right).
Will I end up teaching Iron Age roundhouse building techniques in the USA? It’s a thought. After all, there’s a lot of interest in Celtic heritage in the USA. You only have to look at the string of American presidents since at least John Kennedy who have traced their roots to villages in Ireland or, occasionally, Scotland. Many European-Americans do have Celtic ancestors and value those ancestral links. Helping to build, or being able to visit, the kind of houses their ancestors lived in would be another powerful way to honour and enhance those ancestral connections.