5.11 The Role of reconstructions and replicas

The definition of reconstruction in architecture is defined by British Standard BS 7913; "re-establishment of what occurred or what existed in the past, on the basis of documentary or physical evidence." (BS 7913, 3). Furthermore, this definition acknowledges that the accuracy of the reconstruction depends on the strength of the evidence. Where evidence is poorly preserved, the reconstruction will remain largely hypothetical. The BS statement emphasises the research aspect within the process of reconstruction. The result of the reconstruction process is not a rebuilt structure, but an academic hypothesis concerning the original appearance of the building. This hypothesis can form the basis for physical rebuilding or restoration. Rebuilding is defined as "remaking a building or part of a building or artefact which has been irretrievably damaged or destroyed" (ibid). This has to be "on the basis of a recorded or reconstructed design" (ibid). Restoration in contrast is concerned with the alteration of a building with the objective to "make it conform again to its design or appearance at a previous date" (ibid). Again, it is emphasised that the "accuracy of any restoration depends on the extent to which the original design or appearance at a previous date is known, or can be established by research" (ibid).

The last ten years have seen comprehensive studies of the architecture of the three main types of Iron Age houses that dominate the settlement record (Pope 2003 for timber roundhouses; Armit 2006 for wheelhouses; MacKie 2002, 2007 and Romankiewicz 2011 for complex Atlantic roundhouses). Architecture is used here in its widest meaning as concerned with the design, the construction and structural system, and the construction process, and the use of spaces, as well as their maintenance, repair, collapse and decay. The narrative and graphical ideas advanced in these academic works have not yet been tested by any attempt at physical reconstruction. Reconstructing houses raises questions regarding the processes of planning and erecting these structures. The requirements for building materials and a skilled workforce for construction and maintenance need to be understood and the impact of technical matters such as heating, lighting and drainage require testing. While the study of complex Atlantic roundhouses was primarily concerned with the architectural understanding of these buildings (Romankiewicz 2011), other analyses also looked beyond purely functional aspects and reconstructed the use of space, depositional patterns and abandonment processes; aspects that should be similarly considered when reconstructing Iron Age houses.

Such analytical results will always be limited by the variable preservation of these houses. Stone robbing and collapse have reduced the walls; any organic building components have generally decayed, perhaps even without trace. Although it will never be possible to gain a complete picture of an Iron Age house through archaeological evidence alone, the record is sufficient often to allow speculation about the nature and dimension of the lost building parts, the available materials and the use of space. Related disciplines can help to enhance the level of detail for such reconstructions, their plausibility or to help find analogies. Architectural analysis of spatial use and structural systems and the discipline of structural engineering in particular have proved to offer useful tools to develop reconstructions, graphically as well as physical (available through doctoral research undertaken at University of Edinburgh by Ian Thew and Alasdair Sutherland; Romankiewicz 2011). Scotland‘s vernacular buildings, as recorded from the 1750s onwards, hold information about the architectural detail and material required to build physical reconstructions, offering analogies for buildings constructed in essentially the same environment with the materials that the same environment has to offer (compare Trigger 1978, 170; Romankiewicz 2011, 131).

The recent archaeological and architectural analyses have also demonstrated the very regional character of Iron Age roundhouse architecture within Scotland. It is therefore important to acknowledge these regional differences in any reconstruction. Similar regional traditions are identified in the vernacular record, thus regional variants for the missing building elements can be developed. Such "interpretative Rekonstruktionen" (Luley 1992, 60), suggesting regional variation, allow for more diversity than most general reconstructions have previously achieved. The more varied reconstructions and alternatives which are presented, the clearer it will become that a single reconstruction cannot explain sufficiently the variety in the architectural record of Iron Age roundhouses. It is therefore necessary to emphasise and communicate this singularity through the medium chosen for visualisation. A hand-drawn sketch is easily recognised as an hypothesis, whereas computer-aided three-dimensional animations and built reconstructions are progressively more readily accepted as presenting a de facto Iron Age building. This problem can be overcome by presenting alternatives in order to demonstrate the hypothetical nature of the reconstructions and to encourage engagement with different readings of the evidence.

Dryden's watercolour of Dun Troddan © RCAHMS.

The frequent lack of alternative reconstructions has been criticised before (Drury 1982, 1). Where parts of buildings have been lost, there cannot be one single reconstruction. The production of alternative reconstructions also acknowledges the variation in the surviving structural records. Reconstructing in alternatives is to reflect the individuality of the original structures and the individuals that built them. It is important - whenever possible - to avoid generalisation and to base reconstructions on particular (and acknowledged) rather than generalised evidence.

Reconstructing by analogy is perfectly permissible, but the analogies should avoid blurring together different structural details. Developing only one solution and expecting that this can explain the diverging evidence between various roundhouses can always be disproved by an individual instance of evidence for which the single solution is unsuitable. Individual, site-specific evidence should not be ignored or compromised in the attempt to present a generally applicable picture. In the light of the variable evidence, the 'evocation of an archetypal Iron Age roundhouse' has to be avoided.

Although reconstructions depend on analytical results, practical experience and experiment, they are also a reflection of the theoretical standpoint of the ‘reconstructor‘. As different definitions and theories of reconstructions are discussed academically (Reynolds 1979; 1982; 1993; Stone and Planel 1999), it is necessary that every new reconstruction is explicit as to the theoretical stance of its originator/s, their knowledge, skills and experience and their understanding of the prehistoric circumstances, but also their own cultural background. Reconstructions will always be inherently affected by the reconstructor‘s attitude and philosophical position.

Scientific archaeological reconstructions or replicas of excavated Iron Age structures are essentially experiments to test hypotheses about the patterning of archaeological remains, and how structures might have been constructed and might have looked (Harding 2009, Townend 2007). They are simulations based upon interpretation, not recreations, and can address only a limited range of questions about past ways of living, since the original social conditions cannot, of course, be replicated (Harding 2009).

There have been criticisms (Townend 2007) that Iron Age timber roundhouse reconstructions (which have been the Iron Age structural form in Britain most frequently attempted) have focussed upon the technological and engineering aspects of construction as opposed to the process, methods and symbolic dimensions of building, and that reconstructed roundhouses tend to look the same as they are based upon the ‘hyper-rational myth‘ of ‘simple and effective‘ cone-on-cylinder engineering developed by Reynolds at Butser Farm, Hants.(Reynolds 1979, Harding et al. 1993; but see Harding 2009, 217 for a rebuttal of Townend).

Several reconstructions have been made of Scottish Iron Age structural forms, including the structure excavated at Monymusk, Aberdeenshire believed by the excavators (Greig 1996) to have been a timber roundhouse and reconstructed at the now closed Archaeolink Prehistory Park. A crannog on a piled foundation at the Scottish Crannog Centre, Kenmore (Dixon 1994, 2004), has not gone without challenge, (e.g. Cavers 2006, 399),  while elements of complex Atlantic roundhouses have been specifically used to asses structural features. A Late Iron Age ‘ventral‘ house was built following excavations at Bostadh, Isle of Lewis, and the experimental building of a wheelhouse and a corbelled cell, based upon structures excavated at Scatness, Shetland, was undertaken by the Shetland Amenity Trust (Dockrill et al. 2010, 72-74; see also Malcolmson et al. 2004). The majority of these endeavours were intended for public display or involved community engagement in their execution, and thus have had to take cognisance of public access and currently legally sanctioned health and safety issues. Attempts have also been made to recreate the process of vitrification in timber-laced walls (Childe and Thorneycroft 1938; Ralston 1986), albeit with only partial success, while engineering model reconstructions of brochs have also been attempted by researchers within the University of Edinburgh Architecture Department. Very little of this work has seen any detailed publication.

The range of reconstructed Iron Age structural forms in Scotland has been limited, and there are some further types that could be usefully reconstructed as controlled experiments, in some cases building upon existing proposals represented graphically, for example:

  1. a two-storey timber roundhouse ( as proposed in relation to ring-ditch houses - Reynolds 1982; Kendrick 1995), of which there has been no reconstructed example in Britain (H Mytum, lecture to Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Glasgow Archaeological Society, 17/02/2011);
  2. a timber-lined souterrain (e.g. Redcastle, Angus; Alexander 2005 and suggested reconstruction in Dunwell and Ralston 2008, 125, fig. 44);
  3. a Late Iron Age cellular building (‘shamrock‘); and
  4. a Western wheelhouse, e.g. as postulated by Armit 2006 for Cnip, Isle of Lewis.

There is also the potential to examine certain ill-understood architectural components of generally better preserved Iron Age drystone structures, where the case for total reconstruction is arguably less compelling - e.g. some of the architectural aspects of brochs (Romankiewicz 2011), and the postulated ‘partial corbelling‘ of certain Late Iron Age structures in the Atlantic west (Gilmour 2000).

There is also potential value in attempting to use experimentation to look for the archaeological correlates of non-earthfast house construction. This could help to identify and understand possible vestigial archaeological remains of settlement recovered in the future that would enlighten the view of settlement in the middle part of the 1st millennium AD across much of Scotland.

It is recommended that future projects are designed to be of sufficient longevity as to allow for observation of construction, use (including maintaining an internal fire), repair, decay, removal, and ‘archaeological‘ excavation (e.g. Butser, Harding et al. 1993; Experimental Earthwork Project, Bell et al. 1996). None of the reconstructions attempted to date have attained such longevity.

There is also a need for academic publication of current and future reconstruction and replica projects, identifying the aims, methods, limitations, experiences and outcomes (e.g. Ralston 1986; Harding et al. 1993).

See also the ScARF Case Study: Roof Reconstructions


Ever wondered how to reconstruct an iron age building or what might be involved in experimental archaeology? Then "Rebuilding the Iron Age - Excavation and Experiment at Castell Henllys" - lecture by Professor Harold Mytum, Centre for Manx Studies, hosted jointly by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Glasgow Archaeological Society in March 2011, might just be the lecture for you!

See the fullsize video here http://www.socantscot.org/article.asp?aid=1342