iron age

5.4 How were roundhouses used?

Identifying structures as houses immediately poses the question - are buildings always dwellings? Many Iron Age structures were probably inhabited in some form (whether short or long term, permanently or seasonally), but there are also examples where there is evidence to suggest a non-domestic function for a building which on the basis of direct structural comparison with other known examples would be classified as a house (e.g. Over Rig, Dumfriesshire; RCAHMS 1997, 84-86).

Many 'houses' may have had both domestic and non-domestic functions. An increasingly used concept is that of 'byre-house' (Harding 2004, 2009), where animals and people cohabited; this has been used in studying Atlantic roundhouses, ring-ditch houses and the stalled structures known as wags (e.g. Baines 1999) at various times. In ring-ditch houses, the circumferential ring-ditch is seen as the byre (see theme 4.2); in other cases there is assumed to be a ground-floor byre and upper storey living quarters. Such multiple floors are demonstrable for complex Atlantic roundhouses where scarcements survive, but conjectural for timber-built round houses. There are drawbacks to this idea, in that hearths or cooking pits are often found on the ground floors of such structures (although demonstration of primary layout is rare), and unequivocal evidence for cattle stalling (e.g. cow dung) has yet to be confirmed (E.MacKie, contribution after ScARF workshop).

Analysis of the possible uses of space has seen discussion in the Atlantic (e.g Foster 1989; Romankiewicz 2011, 39-71), but little published synthesis for timber structures or other areas; while there remain great problems in attributing specific roles to the use of particular spaces, broad similarities and differences in the character of architectural space should offer more help than they currently provide to an understanding of building functions.

Crannogs or artificial islets present an extreme illustration of this point. The argument that crannogs functioned solely as residences is far from proven, and excavations have very largely failed to produce convincing house plans (Henderson 1998, Cavers 2006); the reconstruction of one of the most extensively excavated sites (Oakbank, Loch Tay) has proved contentious (Cavers 2006, 398); see theme 5.7.

Understanding floors

Although sites in the Atlantic zone often produce surviving deposits within their structures, it can be difficult to interpret daily activities and practices from constantly used, re-used and cleaned floors, often truncated by later activity (e.g. Armit 2006, 240-241). Indeed, the end-deposit of any period of use preserved for archaeological study may be a very specific accumulation left in circumstances that may not reflect daily use in any way.

Yet not all house floors are as mixed and confused as those heavily cut, re-cut and truncated examples from sites such as Sollas and Cnip on the Western Isles. Some Northern Isles sites appear to show less practice of intrusive deposition into the floors of buildings, and these deposits may provide a clearer manifestation of patterns of activity and practices. At least this proposition can be tested: detailed investigation and analysis of well-preserved floor deposits is vitally important in this regard. To date there has been no modern large-scale analysis of well-preserved floors that might represent activity dating to the original use of an Atlantic roundhouse.

Indeed, while debate has continued over the specific interpretations of the scientific analysis of floor deposits, these have largely revolved around the floor accretions of southern timber roundhouses floors and modern experimental roundhouses (Macphail et al. 2004, Canti et al. 2006, contra Macphail, Cruise et al. 2006). Atlantic Iron Age structures represent a very useful body of extremely well-preserved structures that could help resolve some of these debates.

Plan of the Wag of Forse from Figure 1 Curle 1948, 276.

Building use and layout as indicators of Iron Age cosmology: roundhouses, social lives and social practice

The topic of cosmological influences affecting house construction and use has been previously addressed (Fitzpatrick 1995; Giles & Parker Pearson 1999). It has been suggested that the dominant entrance orientation to the east/south-east; the siting of activities within the house in accordance with the movement of the sun in the sky relative to the open doorway (represented by particular artefactual patterning in floor deposits) and emphasis upon symbolic regions within the house associated with sleeping and waking are an expression of the Iron Age cosmos itself. This approach has been criticised. Pope has argued that the approach is overly reliant on cross-cultural analogies (2007, 204-206), and that some of the aspects purportedly revealed by the approach do not stand up to closer detailed scrutiny. Webley (2007) has pointed out that some of the artefact patterning in English roundhouses does not support the specific ordering as envisaged in the cosmological explanation offered by Fitzpatrick.

Such criticism does not invalidate the idea that Iron Age communities may have constructed, construed and lived by elaborate cosmological schemes, nor, perhaps, that the orientation of the house, arrived at for altogether more mundane reasons, was not incorporated into those schemes. This needs further pursuit as a research theme utilising ethnographical, sociological as well as archaeological and architectural approaches. Regional and local variations of cosmological schemas in the structure and organisation of architectural space (e.g. Foster 1989; Romankiewicz 2011, 53-66, illus 79 and 65) and artefact deposition should also be explored.

The nature of so-called 'floor deposits' is a key issue requiring further research, and the settlements of the Atlantic zone offer an ideal opportunity for this.

  1. Study of building use needs to be more of a priority, drawing on a range of evidence; this needs to include integration of field evidence of use, repair, etc; comparison of artefact assemblages and their distribution; the ecofactual record; and an understanding of the taphonomic processed governing this evidence. Such integrated work is rarely carried out
  2. Cosmological approaches have been influential in recent years, but after recent critique more work is required to demonstrate any patterns in the evidence.

5.3 Types and variations

The range of recurring ground-plans of timber roundhouses in much of southern and eastern Scotland are often known by short-hand reference to their salient structural feature as of ring-groove, post-ring and ring-ditch construction . The broad distinctions have merit, but the structural features are not exclusive: buildings with a ring-groove wall regularly have an internal post-ring providing the main structural support, while ring-ditch houses always have a post-ring and sometimes have a ring-groove wall; post-rings alone may have had a turf wall, but could also have lost any ring groove to erosion.

It is unclear what these distinctions signify, particularly as in many areas they are in use over the same long timespan and, indeed, are not uncommonly found as elements of the same settlement. An attempt was made to model possible ethnic, functional or social variations for the post-ring houses and ring-ditch houses juxtaposed at Kintore, Aberdeenshire. Here the excavators argued for the occupants of ring-ditch houses having a dominant relationship with their post-ring counterparts (Cook & Dunbar 2008) an argument that has not found general agreement.

Tofts Ness roundhouse, Orkney © Dockrill

The idea of houses as cultural and chronological markers in the Tyne-Forth area proposed by Hill (1982b) has been applied in Eastern Dumfriesshire to ring-ditch houses (RCAHMS 1997, 161-2). It does not, however, seem to be applicable for other areas - e.g. the North-East (Cook & Dunbar 2008; Dunwell & Ralston 2008). For most Atlantic areas (with the possible exception of East Lothian) the chronological control is currently inadequate to support the use of house plans as type-fossils, and indeed the evidence generally contradicts such simple views.

Stone-built 'hut circles' occur extensively across Scotland, in 'upland' contexts on the mainland and on the inner isles in Bronze Age and Iron Age contexts, though not in parts of the south-east, or on the Northern Isles or Outer Hebrides. They occur in both Bronze Age and Iron Age contexts. Excavation suggests that the majority belong to the second millennium BC, with a smaller proportion indicating activity in the first millennium BC (Halliday 1999, 56-8).

The most dramatic stone-built roundhouses are those traditionally called brochs, and typical of Atlantic Scotland. The dramatic broch towers such as Mousa are now normally seen as a development from earlier, less complex but still massive stone roundhouses, the details of which remain a matter of considerable debate. The terminology of simple and complex Atlantic roundhouses was developed to encompass this architectural variety (including sites otherwise termed brochs and duns) while emphasising that these were variants of the roundhouse tradition; this is discussed and referenced more fully below (see theme 5.9).

Coring on the Iron Age islet site of An Dunan, Uig, Western Isles © Uig Landscape Project

While there is a great preponderance of round or oval buildings, there is, however, also a much smaller range of other structures present, of unrelated forms, that are generally ascribed a non-domestic function (i.e souterrains, 'four-posters' and a miscellany of odd structures like that at An Dunan, Uig, Western Isles (Gilmour 2002); some are considered further below (see theme 5.10).


Crannogs (artificial islets) are distributed across Scotland where conditions are suitable, with Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age dates for the earliest recognisable timber crannogs and artificial islets constructed on a large scale during the period c. 800-500 BC, which has been termed the 'crannog event horizon' by Cavers (2006). Regional distinctions have been proposed by Henderson (1998), based upon visible characteristics, although the value of this classification has been questioned by Harding (2000), particularly in terms of the relationship with island duns. Crone (2000, 4) understands these regional differences principally in terms of the availability of raw resources rather than as cultural differences. She notes that currently known distributions may reflect research bias (Crone 2000, 2), except for the situation in the south-east of Scotland where there appears to be a genuine dearth of crannogs, probably largely due to the relative scarcity in this region of suitable locations.

There is no reason to assume all crannogs were domestic residences or even supported a single circular house (Harding 2000). 'Crannog' has been argued as a portmanteau term (Harding 2000) for a type of site that included domestic occupation, but the excavated sample is insufficient to say whether or not crannogs performed a range of functions, whether permanent, periodic or seasonal. Marine crannogs (a disparate group found mostly in the Firth of Clyde and Beauly Firth) probably were not primarily domestic residences, instead serving a range of functions for craft-processing and utilising the sea's resources (Hale 2000). Certainly Irish investigation of crannog sites, which has been more intensive than in Scotland, suggests that these sites vary widely in function, over a very widely varying chronology, with industrial, ceremonial / funerary and settlement functions being identified (Fredengren 2002).

  1. There is a continuing need for the definition of local types and sequences (see also theme 3.3).
  2. Is variation in house size and construction simply a product of the availability of resources (Cook & Dunbar 2008 , 13), or were other social factors responsible? Can clearer patterns in space and time be discerned?
  3. What range of activities took place on crannogs?