Way back in the murky past of 2002 I was in the aftermath of my exams and we had just won the fight to continue the already rare Archaeology AS (half-A level) course all the way through to a complete A level qualification. To celebrate, our archaeology lecturer had a great idea. We would build a roundhouse. A typical Iron Age (c.500BC-332BC) dwelling made of wooden posts, wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof. So, for 2 days a week we were traipsed from our college campus in Marple, to the Iron Age Hillfort just up the hill at Mellor, (a site that I also happened to be working on as a volunteer archaeologist – my first ever dig!) It was fun, it was exciting, it was subject to planning permission….
Our roundhouse was to be 1/3 size of a real one, the worry was that we may not have the time to complete construction of a full one. Logs, willow and hazel rods arrived and spades were issued. The first task was marking out, digging holes for the posts and chopping the wood. I have no idea whose idea it was to let teenage boys loose with an axe, but it seemed to work (barring one bloody finger incident). The posts were shaped to points in order to make pushing them into the ground easier and we packed dirt and stones back in around the posts to hold them in place.
To do the roof we cheated a bit, Greater Manchester is not known for its reed beds and thatch cultivation, a real roundhouse up here is likely to have had a turf roof. But we were after new skills and a professional Thatcher from Norfolk came up to show us how to make the roof. First, like with the walls we needed sturdy logs to create a cone shape. Then it was back to the hazel and willow rods to create the horizontal bars that would be the framework for the thatch. The thatch was split into sheaves and our friendly pro showed us how to sew the thatch onto the roof with a huge wooden needle, and how to bash it into shape with, what looked like a giant wooden spaghetti spoon. He got us started and we did the rest, until we got to the top where it was a bit more complicated. More willow was prodded between the thatch to create ventilation and the thatch was brought to a point. No oculus style hole in the roof for us, they have the unfortunate side effect of creating a wind funnel and dragging any hearth fire up into the thatch and burning down the roundhouse. Not that we were allowed to have a fire in there anyway, at a 1/3 size, even lighting a match in there would probably have burned it down.
Once the roof was done we got a first-hand experience of why ring ditches exist around round houses. Going up to the site after and during a rain storm showed just how effective the thatch was, at keeping the inside bone dry sure, but also at flooding the surrounding ground. So, we dug a ring ditch, no one wants rotten foundations to their roundhouse.
So, the walls were built, the roof was on the drainage ditch was dug, with spare logs laft over to create a little bridge to the doorway. There’s no archaeological evidence for these that we know of, most excavated ring ditches tend to terminate and leave a space for the entranceway, but ours kept flooding so we dug the ditch over the entrance and gave it a bridge. Then dug an offshoot into the woodland and the side of the hill when it still flooded!
Drainage sorted out it was time for the real fun stuff. Daubing the walls! Though there were some caveats, being the modern age and all, and health and safety being what it was, we were not allowed to use animal manure to make our daub, (but we could play with sharp axes and stand 7ft in the air on flimsy willow rods). So, the daub was unhistorically accurate clay and chopped up bits of thatch, which we smeared unenthusiastically on the walls and watched it crack and plop into the ditch. It was not at all sticky. What to do? DIRT FIGHT! Well, we were teenagers.
Anyhow the roundhouse got splattered as we lobbed dirt at each other and this was the solution. Lob the makeshift daub at the wattlework. In this way the clay, chopped thatch and grass mix actually worked its way in between the willow and hazel rods creating something sticky within the wall that we could build on. So, several days were spent hurling soggy wet clay at the walls. One enterprising student came up with an experiment one day. Her family cat had been to the groomers, and being a rather fluffy animal, our friend was now in possession of a full carrier bag of cat fur to add to the daub mix. It worked really well, we used the clay and cat fur mix to daub around the doorway and for years this remained the smoothest and best-looking bit of all the daubing. So, there you go, tip for the apocalypse and building your stick house, cat fur is a good bonding agent if you want a smooth finish.
Overall, we spent 6 weeks doing this, 12 days in total, which for students wholly unskilled in the art of roundhouse creation, is not bad at all. Imagine how fast these things could have gone up when being built by people who actually knew what they were doing?
To celebrate on our final day we built a fire and boiled up a stew in a replica Iron Age cooking pot, which was very welcome on a wet and miserable day! We also cooked authentic Iron Age, Linda McCartney Veggie Sausages on a fire (apparently you can’t undercook them!). We were sat enjoying our Iron Age feast complete with authentic Iron Age bread when some official looking fellow came up to ‘assess the building for council tax’!
Some of us always intended to sleep over in the house, especially during excavation season but I don’t think anyone ever successfully managed it, the place was pretty draughty, though it was always dry and was certainly a favourite place for the dig team to skive off on wet excavation days.
The roundhouse is still there to this day, although the college no longer re-daub the walls and tidy it up like they used to. About 10 years ago or so I heard that the drip gully had been filled in due to health and safety concerns. The roof was collapsing a little the last time that I saw it but that must be several years ago now … perhaps I should head back for one last look before it falls in completely.
It was an unforgettable time and fuelled my passion for archaeology as well as allowing me to see what happens when you trust teenagers with sharp tools. – For anyone who has read my books, let me tell you, a lot of Jerry is based on several characters building that roundhouse. It was certainly some of the most fun I’ve had on site and I loved explaining how we did it to visitors on Mellor open days. I would love the chance to do something similar again does anyone know if channel 4 would be up for a new experimental archaeology show? Though I’m still not sure about being trusted with an axe!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.