Round-houses, Holes in Roofs, ‘Reconstructionisms’, Stonehenge and Durrington Walls.

It is a tricky thing reconstructing stuff. The first reconstruction of something tends to set the trend, and further reconstructions are often really recreations of the first persons interpretation rather than new approaches or even genuinely based on the evidence.

As I am an instrument maker, I can give you a good example of this with regards to lyres. When the British Museum asked Arnold Dolmetsch to make a reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo lyre (a fragmentary find originally interpreted as a harp) he didn’t have much to go on. No pegs, and seemingly no tailpiece. He did what anyone would do, and filled in the gaps with what knowledge he had. Since he was a violin maker his reconstruction featured pegs in from the front and a nice tailpiece, clearly modelled on medieval violins.

Sutton Hoo Lyre by Dolmetsch

This meant that Sutton Hoo lyres got a reputation for being unplayable, as since the pegs were in from the front (and they were lacking a nut like a violin would have) the tension in the strings pulls the pegs out of their sockets. Nobody thought to reconsider the design, and a couple of generations of luthiers just copied Dolmetsch’s design, without even comparing it to ethnographic evidence from places like Ethiopia where they still play lyres. When they found the Trossingen Lyre in Germany a few years ago it was well enough preserved to see its pegs were in from behind, where string tension would hold them in place, and make it easy to keep in tune. It was obvious they would be, and yet until this was found instrument makers continued to copy Dolmetsch rather than think for themselves, the direction of the pegs had become received wisdom, what I would call a Reconstructionism…

Round Houses and Roof Holes

When people made the first reconstructed round-houses they tended to base their designs on extant buildings from Africa. The traditional African level of technology is Iron Age after all so this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Many African roundhouses are conical and have holes in their roofs, or thin thatch at the centre, and the first reconstruction built by Peter Reynolds at Butser Ancient Farm also had a smoke hole and a conical roof. Sadly for the history of roundhouse reconstructions this first building burnt down. The staff there to this day blame the hole in the roof, for causing the fire to draw too well.

The logic trotted out to every visitor of every reconstructed roundhouse everywhere is that a closed roof causes the build up of CO2 in the roof, and this extinguishes sparks. Of course it also causes the build up of CO2 inside the lungs of anyone who is inside the roundhouse as they inhale the smoke. This is worsened by the usual burning of entirely the wrong types of wood. For goodness sake, people, burn small hazel and pine sticks not smouldering chunks of lumpwood! Native Americans talk about the ‘Grandmother Fire’ which you have in the Tipi. This term doesn’t mean a fire to keep Granny warm, but rather a fire made of sticks of a size that your Grandmother could break. Anything thicker shouldn’t be burnt in a Lodge, or a roundhouse for that matter!

So now we all build African Roundhouses with Peter Reynold’s adaptation, ie no hole in the roof and then light fires with massive chunks of lumpwood and marvel at the ability of our ancestors to endure such awful smoky conditions…. The Celtic Roundhouse has become a Reconstructionism. I would like to suggest two sources of alternate ideas for roundhouse roofs. Firstly archaeological finds of model huts from the early Iron Age Villanoven culture of Northern Italy would seem an obvious source! Unlike African buildings these have to weather a European climate, and they are from the right period, so they would seem much more obvious candidates as the basis of reconstructions here, in my opinion. Some of these hut urns are very detailed, and they show two features at variance with the Peter Reynolds school of construction.

hut urn 1hut urn 2hut urn 3

So as you see they have holes in their roofs, but not in the centre but at each gable end. The second thing is that they have gable ends, ie the roof isn’t a simple cone but rather a hybrid of cone and apex. There are also some branches fulfilling some role in holding the thatch down, some seem to show shuttered window openings, and the bronze one above has rings hung around the edge of the roof which could represent weights to help keep the thatch down, as used in Ireland until quite recently. When I was working for the people who built the reconstructed Neolithic houses at Stonehenge,  I was able to persuade the designer to adopt this roof shape, and they look very fine. Sadly for reasons I do not understand he did not include the smoke holes, perhaps to amuse South African visitors who upon entering the reconstructed buildings always remark “we have buildings like this at home in Africa, except that ours have smoke holes. Why don’t these have smoke holes?”.

Perhaps buildings with smoke holes in the centre let the smoke out a little quickly, and as Peter Reynolds discovered, burn down? Perhaps they don’t, perhaps buildings with the seed heads left on the thatch (ancient varieties would have shed theirs naturally) are prone to burning down. Perhaps you should just have a smaller less hot fire? Its tempting to really stoke those lumpwood fires up to try to burn off the smoke. Anyway there is obviously no problem in having holes in the eaves, as the numerous Hut Urns testify.

Maybe there are some extant buildings with a long history that might answer these questions? It turns out there are. The Baltic, an area that is extremely conservative culturally (Lithuanian for example is considered the closest living language to Proto-Indo-European) happens to have a vernacular architecture that uses exactly this style of roof.

lithuania house 2lithuania houseestonian fishermans hutsestonian fishermans huts 3estonian house 4??????????????????????estonian fishermans huts 2

Its not too far off a Viking Longhouse/Medieval Long Hall roof actually, with their holes in the gables (that eventually evolve into chimneys in the long hall). Viking Long Halls even featured a small raised apex roof in the centre of their rooflines to let out smoke, according to most scholars. I consider these buildings, and the hut urns, far better models for the roofs of British roundhouses than the conical African hut we’ve all been copying from one another, and they even fit into an evolving architecture as the prototype of longhalls.

Durrington Walls

When Kate found that last image, the one with two buildings one of which features a large roof overhang held up by some poles, it got us thinking what these buildings would look like in the ground if you dug them up. What would they look like if they had a hazel fence around them to ensure privacy, and/or some poles to help hold up the roof?


It would look exactly like the Durrington Walls buildings do. These remains have been interpreted as fairly large squarish roundhouses with hazel wattle walls. Inside each house is a rectangular area of carefully finished chalk floor, with long sockets around it. For some reason our ancestors didn’t finish their floor up to the wall, and had large pieces of built in furniture made of logs set into the ground.

I suggest that this interpretation is entirely wrong, and what we are looking at is a smaller rectangular building with a fence around it. The building is either constructed from logs, or has footings to the walls made of logs set into the ground, and the entire internal floor area is finished, as is the case all over the world.

durrington walls 3

For anyone who thinks these buildings would have been too small if they only occupied the area of the finished floor, I should remind them that they are interpreted as temporary accommodation for visitors to Stonehenge. Also I should say that having lived for many happy years in a 14′ caravan, the size of these buildings would be luxury in comparison! They are also roughly the same size as many old wooden houses we saw in Scandinavia.

As one last point, I am going to add a picture of the latest thoughts about Anglo Saxon ‘Sunken Feature Buildings’ taken from Mark Gardiner’s work “An Early Medieval Tradition of Building in Britain”. As you see it features a log floor plate, just like my interpretation of the Durrington Walls buildings.

early medieval building

So were the Durrington Wall’s buildings on a log footing, with a fence around them? Have we become so hypnotised by the Reconstructionism of the typical roundhouse that we see them everywhere and can’t see the alternative? It does answer the question of why the floor ends so abruptly short of the walls. Perhaps they were roofed like our hut urns or Estonian Fishing Huts? I personally am certain of one thing though, they had holes in their roofs.



  1. Round Houses and Roof Holes

    I am a great believer that one theory need not discount another.

    Could it be the case that CO2 build up in the roof does extinguish sparks and that the roof holes were deliberately as far away and as low down in order that a volume of CO2 could hang undisturbed above the fire?

    • I think this might well be the case, as with a hole at each end presumably smoke pools above the central fire and finds its way out of an end. In practice the smoke often fills up roundhouses down to the level of the lowest opening, so having a hole in the end of the building above head height ensures it doesn’t come down as far as the heads of the occupants, acting as a vent rather than a true chimney. Often modern roundhouse builders leave a hole above the door for the smoke to leave by, this is the case with the big roundhouse at the ATC, if the hole was a few feet higher up, as in the hut urns, it would work even better. The Estonian buildings seem to have shutters over the holes making some control possible, presumably only opening the one on the downwind side.

      A related issue with reconstructed buildings is the provision of too much ventilation. In an attempt to make sure there is plenty of fresh air, builders don’t close the building around the eaves and leave gaps of other kinds, like the ‘windows’ all along the walls of the ATC’s Longhouse. This is completely counterproductive as any breeze gets into the building and blows the smoke all around, making it much smokier than if there was just holes in the roof. Anyone who has ever spent much time in tipis or lavvus knows that a single hole in the top lets the smoke out well, whereas opening the door or lifting the walls for ventilation actually makes it smokier as it disturbs the ability of the heat to make the smoke rise out of the way.

  2. Brilliant article! Cogent and well researched ideas that make total sense. There are also references to skylights in stories that have been culturally dated as iron age. I look forward to the day you get to build a round house using all your knowledge and experience.

  3. Doc Martin said:

    It’s also possible that there were solutions to the problems highlighted above that go beyond the roof structure. I have seen leather ‘spark catchers’ used to great success. Suspended over a fire, they can collect and extinguish sparks most efficiently whilst not precluding some sort of hole to allow smoke to escape the roof.

    • Knight_of_Infinite_Resignation said:

      that is certainly possible. I have seen canvas false ceilings in tipis impede sparks the same way. A layer of poles inside the roof would protect the thatch from exposure to sparks too. I suspect though that holes in the eaves provides the best of both worlds- enough CO2 in the roof to extinguish sparks, but increased ventialtion to reduce smokiness.

  4. This is a great article, and I can really see where you are coming from. As a volunteer at the Stonehenge visitor centre I have lit fires in the reconstructed houses there and it is impossible to breath! I share your thoughts that if these structures were roofed they would have been likely to have some kind of way to let the smoke out. I am writing a paper for an archaeology course I’m doing at the moment and wondered if you would mind if I used the picture of the excavation here, with full attribution of course, in my paper? It would save a lot of description! Many thanks and keep up the good work 🙂

    • glad you enjoyed the article. I’m afraid I shamelessly stole the photos so I cannot give you any permission! I think if you do a Google image search for durrington walls excavation you will find it. Good luck with your paper.

  5. Colin Whiting said:

    moving on: why are there post holes? Wood in contact with soil rots rapidly, surely better to stand them on rocks above the ground? However there are no “rocks” only post holes in the archaelogy!

  6. Dana said:

    Now THAT makes sense. The simple sawhorse construction of the Cruck building is much easier than having 8 rafters come together at a single point. The square building requires less material than a rectangular one for the same area. A circle would require even less so why not round out the corners. On hot days a vent in each Gable end would keep the house cooler and you open the most leeward vent in the winter. Vents are accessible from the loft you’d be inclined to build for sleeping in the warmth. You always want a small fire cuz 1) less work gathering fuel and 2) no way you risk sleeping in a fire hazard trap. So fire is out after cooking, that’s all the warmth you get, close the vent and go to sleep. Rocks around the hearth are a bit of a heat sink, thatch mildly insulates.
    If you’ve ever lived in a10′ x12′ with no loo, you’ll wind up putting a wall around at least part of the back for privacy, and summer outdoor showering. Storage is a need inside that wall and the wall around the front maybe lower to let in light, the standard picket fence, to keep the live stock from eating yr delicate lettuces. Those have to be close by so you can pick the bugs off manually.

    Absolutely nobody lives in smoke. I want to build a roundhouse and I just won’t build it without a vent. It is unlivable. You can only accept no vent if you don’t plan to actually live in one

  7. Glad I found this. I am writing a fantasy where the houses are early iron age. Suddenly, I find lots of articles saying “no smoke hole.” But they all point to Peter Reynolds.

    I am certain he is right that if you have a huge hole you will turn your entire roundhouse into a fireplace. But equally, the Iron and Bronze age is not that long ago in the overall scheme of things, and the people of the time might not have had our knowledge, but they had our brains.

    I can’t imagine them wanting to sit in a smoky environment.

    So, is it so hard to imagine that not only did they play with the placement of the smoke hole, but perhaps also the size? Maybe even have a flap over it that could be raised and lowered. There are a lot of possible solutions here that do not require the complete removal of a smoke hole. As you said, keeping the fire smaller would be a start…

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