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.