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Roundhouses in Britain and America

oast housesI'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.

RHbluebells 04 11It 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.

roundhouse interior antlersThere'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.IMGA0012 (Copy)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.Butser_Farmx800This 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.Me-Wuk_round_house_front_view_1947Me-Wuk roudhouse Chaw Se exteriorA 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, 090-P0073123on 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 beroundhouse rooftween 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.

Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

 

Published on Categories History, Roundhouses, Sacred Sites, TeachingTags ,
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

15 thoughts on “Roundhouses in Britain and America

  1. avatarBogdan Christian Dinu

    I am a Romanian. Nuclear power plant engineer and physicist.
    The celtic tribes and the thracian tribes of some thousands of years ago, WERE BROTHERS.
    They were the descendants of a much older people that lived some 7,000 years ago in a huge area of the old Europe: from Ukrain to Greece, from the Baltic Sea to the north of Italy, and from Switzerland to Palestine: the pelasgians.
    Take just e few examples: the celtic tribe of BOII (The Oxens) lived in the plains surrounding the capital of Romania, Bucharest. They were the descendants of the BOIAN culture. The TAURISCII celtic tribe (The Bulls) and the CERBII (The Stags) lived north of Transilvania.
    In all these places, they lived together with thracian tribes: the Geti (later named GOTHS) and the Dacians.

    View this documentary, and then you will be more than convinced, that WE ARE BROTHERS, my dear friends from far-away:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TJTlvM_XtM

    And, if you have the pleasure to see my country's real history, view this series of fine documentaries. You will be amazed:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdj3se52b6Y&list=PLUg8X_6h3w7z1xjmPWaGx3VE5iLlSFDWH

    With love, from Romania,
    Bogdan Christian Dinu
    Cernavoda.

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Thank you, Bogdan,
      Coincidentally, I am currently researching our even more ancient links going back more than 30,000 years to the time when our ancestors first domesticated wolves as hunting companions so it is inspiring to receive more news of the close ties between us. And thank you for the links...
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
  2. avatarBogdan Christian Dinu

    This is for you, Greywolf.
    The Dacians had a totemic animal, THE GREY WOLF! They have chosen this, because the wolf was the only animal they knew it cannot be tamed.
    The Dacians were also the only people in the ancient history, that could not be tamed by the Roman empire. Or by anyone else!
    Their battle flag (more like a standard, than a flag) was a wolf head, made of bronze, fitted onto a wood spear.
    To the bronze wolf head, there were tied many long strings of wool in three colours: red, yellow and blue (the national flag of today's Romania is red-yellow-blue!)
    What is really interesting is that, when running on the horses with the wolf heads high above, these howled like a wolf. They were specially crafted to do so!
    And that was really frightening for the enemies, besides the fact that everybody in those times knew that the Dacians deeply believed in their immortality. And because of that, they were fierce fighters.
    Imagine thousands of flags or standards like these, howling in a cavalry assault!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dacian_Draco

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Thank you, Bogdan,
      It seems likely that our culture hero, King Arthur, and his father, Uther, bore the title Pendragon (Dragon's Head) because they rode into battle with standards that bore very similar 'singing' heads with coloured streamers attached. I have even heard it suggested that this practice originated with Dacian horse-soldiers who came to Britain to fight on behalf of the Roman Empire. I love history!
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
  3. avatarBogdan Christian Dinu

    Dear friend Greywoolf.

    It may be possible that Arthur and Uther were descendants of the Dacian fighters, recruited by the Roman Empire to serve into Britain (more or less by their own will, if you understand what I mean!).

    What I know is that there are many stellas (tombstones) all along the great wall of Hadrian, with figures of Dacian legionaires, holding the Dacian dragon into their hands. Either on horses, or pedestrians.

    I read not many months ago, a study made by a professor of the Edinburgh University, sent to me by my dear friend His Excellency the Romanian Ambassador of Romania in UK, PhD. Ion Jinga.
    A study where I found that the ancient name of the Chester town was DEVA. It was constructed by Dacian legionaires.

    This is not a coincidence since right now, in the south-west region of Transilvania, there is a beautiful city named DEVA.
    In the old tongue of the Dacians and Geti, DEVA or DAVA means "town".

    Just to mention it, there was no difference between Dacians and Geti-Goti-Goths, they were just different tribes of the same thracian population. It's like when you speak about people from Kent or from Somerset.

    Interesting, how very related are the European nations, isn't it?

    Reply
  4. avatarBogdan Christian Dinu

    Well, I've told you (directly or by documentaries) a little bit about my ancestors: the Dacians, the Getae-Goths, the Masageti (later called Sarmatians), the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Croatians, the Venetians, the Latins, the Etruscans, the Albanians, the Macedonians (Alexander the Great was a thracian!), the Frigians (forefathers of the Fenicians), the Trojans (Eneas, the founder of Rome was thracian).
    By the way, Goths are the Spanish, the Dutchmen, the Sweedish, the forefathers of the nowadays Germans-Deutschman, the Latvians, the Lituanians ...

    ALL OF THESE NATIONS HAVE THRACIAN ANCESTORS, HERODOTUS (THE FATHER OF HISTORY) WROTE THAT THE THRACIANS WERE THE MOST NUMEROUS PEOPLE IN THOSE TIMES, NEXT TO THE INDIANS.
    BUT ALSO, HERODOTUS WROTE THAT, IF THE THRACIANS WERE UNITED, THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN THE MOST POWERFULL NATION IN THE ANCIENT WORLD.
    But they were not, and I think Romanians inherit this shortcoming from their forefathers!

    Dear friend Greywolf, please send me knowledge about your Celtic ancestors.
    I would love to learn more about them.
    More then my history teachers told me: that they were formidable craftsmen of iron weapons and tools, that they had totemic animals, exactly like their thracian brothers. And that they had druidic priests, having great knowledge, just like our Dacian priests. And that they were formidable warriors.
    Can you do this for me?

    Respectfully yours,
    Bogdan.

    Reply
  5. avatarBogdan

    Dear Greywolf.
    I hope I did not bother you with my confessions regarding the ancient history.
    I HOPE.

    I will now propose you to read some things about a caste of Dacian priests, very-very similar to the Druid priests: the warrior-priests KTISTAI.

    This link presents all the Getae and Dacian soldiers, but the KTISTAI are somthing special.
    For KTISTAI, in the very old Dacian tongue, means "the ones set apart".

    http://www.europabarbarorum.com/factions_getai_units.html

    Respectfuly yours,
    Bogdan from Romania.

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hello, Bogdan,
      Your posts came at a time when I was also researching links between cultures for our Druid course, the Dacians among them. As a Wolf spirit worker myself, I am delaighted to have found many wolf societies in traditions across Europe, Asia and the Americas.
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Thank you for the link, Bogdan,
      Several Cohors Primae Dacorum ("First cohort of Dacians") and Alae Dacorum were stationed at Deva (Chester), Vindolanda (on the Stanegate) and Camboglanna (Birdoswald Fort or Castlesteads), in Britain during the Roman occupation. Many believe they were the origins of the legends of King Arthur and his Knights.
      Blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
  6. avatarBogdan

    Since you did not respond to my last posts, I guess you may have thought I am a little bit ... overreacting!
    Not at all, my Greywolf friend from far away.

    Look down here, how UNBELIEVABLY CIVILIZED were our common ancestors I told you about.
    They were formidable artists.
    I think you would like it very much to have into your house, some of these things filmed into Romanian history museums.
    They belong to Cututeni-Tripolie, Turdas-Vinca and Hamangia neolitic cultures, some 7000 years ago!
    We were told in school, at the history classes, that the stone age was related strictly to objects made of ... stone.
    Nothing more incorrect, as you can see gold and copper objects together with silex spearheads and arrowheads.

    Enjoy my friend, and have a nice weekend:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPzAgAFWoUI&list=PL04A96E4A511515A0&index=1

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hello again, Bogdan,
      The more I research, the more I find that we share a common origin, probably beginning in Central Asia about 40,000 years ago. The knowledge that so many of us in so many parts of the world are brothers and sisters is very inspiring.
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply
  7. avatarBogdan

    Just look at the beautiful colours of the pottery!
    Scientists have no explanation for their resistance, SEVEN THOUSANDS YEARS, under the ground, AND IN VERY AGGRESIVE CHEMICAL ENVIRONMENT.
    With today's chemical knowledge, THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!
    And our common ancestors, dear Greywolf, used only plants and minerals for creating such colours!
    HOW ON EARTH DID THEY DO IT?

    Reply
  8. avatarBrent O. Baldwin

    Phillip, I live in Florida, in the United States. The indigenous people in most parts of North America were very familiar with structures utilizing a circular floorplan. One particular structure which may interest you is the Apalachee Council House at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee, Florida. This was designed and constructed based on archaeological studies of the original, as well as historical study of Spanish colonial documents. It is an enormous structure, thatched with sabal palm fronds. The website is http://www.missionsanluis.org/ . I would recommend that you take the 360 degree "virtual Tour" of the Council House to gain a greater appreciation. The Mission San Luis historical site is managed by the Florida Department of State, and I am pleased to report a Winter Solstice Celebration was held there, in the Apalachee Council House, last weekend. I am sure there would be some interest in the US in learning about Iron Age Roundhouse construction, but it appears to me that the architectural styles of indigenous peoples in general were very organic, using materials from the land. As an example, the wheatstraw used for thatching in Britain is virtually nonexistant in Florida, but the native sabal palms here provide fronds which are ideal for this purpose. However, I am sure some techniques in framing the structures would be dictated by the conical design that they share and roundhouse builders from opposite sides of the Atlantic could surely share some thoughts.

    Reply
    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hi Brent,
      Thank you for the information and link. Roundhouses are wonderful places for gathering and celebration. Local thatching traditions in the UK were dictated by local availability of materials, so on the moors and highlands, people had turf roofs, wetlands used reeds, grasslands used straw and so on. So yes, absolutely, one of the things that defines indigenous peoples everywhere is the use of local materials. My visits to the States tend to be confined to the Pacific Northwest where the main traditional dwelling was the longhouse. The native style of building there would, I'm sure, have been more familiar to my Anglo-Saxon ancestors than my Celtic ones!
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      Reply

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