Roundhouses have been built in Britain since at least the Bronze Age, approximately 4,000 years ago. They continued to be built until the Roman Invasion and perhaps for a short time afterwards during the later Iron Age (100AD). Until recently, no complete roundhouse had ever been found but that all changed with the discovery of a round house in marsh at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire which,  although having been destroyed, much of the structure and many artefacts were found where they had been abandoned. Dwellings of a round plan with distinctive post holes and a central hearth have been found all over Western Europe and particularly in low-lying areas.  Often made partially of stone, when no stone was locally available then it would be entirely organic.

A lot of roundhouses used walls of wattle-and-daub, the wattle often of willow woven between upright posts buried in the ground. This structure supported a conical thatched roof and ranged in size from less than 5 m in diameter to over 20 m.  Daub is a mixture of puddled clay, soil, straw  and animal dung  mixed with water . This mixture, when dried may well have been lime-washed to waterproof it. Until Must Farm, the only evidence of the existence of a roundhouse was the drainage ditch or ring-ditch carrying rain away from the roof and post holes that were visible in the archaeological record.

To the north east of North Duffield, there are indications of roundhouse ring ditches showing up in the crop marks in the fields. Crop marks, visible from the air, are created when structures or features, undetectable on the surface, cause crops to grow at differing heights and thereby showing up as a 3D image. Indeed, doorways facing to the East or South East, are clearly visible in the aerial photographs, together with boundaries and other, as yet, unidentified features.

In an attempt to understand the technology of building a roundhouse, our ever resourceful Secretary has made a 1/12th scale model from natural materials. It is made so that part of the roof can be taken away to reveal the inner area and construction details. He has also supplied the roundhouse with typical furniture and craft paraphernalia such as a loom and hide stretching and drying rack. It further shows the hearth, beds, cooking utensils and decorations and is completed with a live-in family. Dad can be seen repairing the roofing materials.

Detail of construction of model roundhouse

We are lucky that the Ellwood family have loaned us a piece of land upon which to build our roundhouse, very close to crop mark indications of a real Iron Age hut-circle.

First, we had to fence the site for the reconstruction and to level it out. We then set about gathering the materials with the intention to use locally sourced materials as far as possible since that is almost certainly how the original occupants of North Duffield would have gone about it. There is no stone locally so our roundhouse was entirely organic. Some of the materials were brought to the site, mostly at little or no cost to the Society. This meant that we had a reserve of funds that could be put to other uses.

Based upon visits to Butser Iron Age Farm in Hampshire, Ryedale Museum at Hutton-le-Hole, Heeley City Farm and St Wilfred's School, both in Sheffield, all of which have examples of roundhouses constructed on their sites  and a model of a roundhouse, constructed  by Tony Stevens, we had a much clearer idea of the challenges that faced us.

Firstly we acquired lots of sycamore for the walls, posts and wall-plates from a clearance taking place in woods near Leeds.

Then we approached John Bramley who farms next to the Ellwood's and who grows willow for bio-mass. He was very obliging and not only helped us to harvest the withies but transported it to the site for us as well. We had to do three trips in the end. Then an approach to Natural England resulted in their employee Fallon Mahon taking us to a site near Melbourne, East Yorkshires' answer to the Everglades. Here, after a challenging ride on John Ellwoods tractor and trailer we sawed down loads of alder for the roof purlins and transported them back to the site.

The first real construction started on 21st April 2012 when four of us dug the post pits and erected the wall posts to a diameter of 5 meters, our chosen dimensions. The work went a lot better than we expected. We also raised two longer posts for the doorway and started to joint-on the wall-plates with scarf joints and hand-made wooden pegs holding everything together. The doorway, of course, faces South East(see later).

Posts erected and wattle woven round them 2012

Over the next few weeks we constructed the walls by weaving the withies in between the posts. We next measured the centre of the inside of the roundhouse and then erected a tripod of purlins tied together at the top and buried in the ground at their bottom end. These were then drilled and secured withhand-made oaken pegs. This gave us our shape and pitch of the roof. We decided to include a porch at the doorway (see photos). Finally we ran further lengths of willow round the beams to support the thatch. The wooden framework was then completed and everything treated with wood preservative.

The weather hampered our attempts to harvest water reed for thatching although, we did manage to cut and transport a few sheaves or yealms. On 11 December 2012, we took a tractor and trailer to The Brick Yard at Hemmingbrough where Plasmore Ltd kindly donated four tons of clay for the daub of the walls.

John Ellwood managed to find time to collect some miscanthus from a local farmer, Richard McNeil, who is growing it for bio-mass fuel. Miscanthus is more commonly known as elephant grass. It is not native to the British Isles but since Iron Age man would have used any materials that were available we are sticking to the spirit if not the letter of re-construction.

We started thatching despite snow and sub-zero(with wind-chill)temperatures.  We used miscanthus due to our inability to harvest Phragmites, due to the very wet period in 2012. With the thatching complete, we had a 'topping out' ceremony on 31st May 2013 and a 'house-warming' with our first fire in the hearth, bread and sausages cooked over the fire and the inevitable bottle(or two) of ale.

Finally, we had the schoolchildren from the local Primary School up to view the house and then they came up the week after to 'help' applying the mud and cow-poo daub.  I got plastered in mud as did the children and since we walked there and it rained heavily  on the way back, we got drenched as well. Think they enjoyed themselves nevertheless.

So that was the roundhouse built. It was fitted out with a loom, saddle quern, beehive quern, ‘ard’( scratch plough) wooden rake and wooden pitchfork, storage chests and a sideboard,  wooden bowls and mugs, a bed, shaving horse(early form of vice-no not that sort of vice) and Tony Stevens also made a pole-lathe.

We now use the roundhouse as an educational resource.  The children come, accompanied by teaching staff and are walked to the site from a nearby field by myself in Iron Age costume to give them a feeling of ‘walking back in time’. As they enter the site they are put into Celtic Tribes: Parisii, Brigantes, Iceni, Corieltavi, Dobunni, Cornovii, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni(all local to this area 2000 years ago).They are then dressed in Iron Age costumes and taken into the roundhouse where the fire is burning in the hearth. They are told a few ‘House Rules’ and then split up into their tribes. They then have the chance to mill grain using saddle and beehive querns, make and cook flatbread, which they then eat with honey, weave on a loom and using sticks, card wool and spin wool using drop spindles(spindles whorls), It is then  time for lunch and they go into the barn and sit on bales as they have their meal. After this they are armed with shields, helmets, spears and a sword(pipe-lagging) and a full-scale battle commences between four opposing tribes, two on each side. They are encouraged to scream and shout at the top of their voices, not that they need much encouragement.

Finally, they are taken back into the roundhouse where they are told stories and given weaving cards to make woollen bracelets.

The construction was ‘experimental archaeology’, so we were learning ‘on the hoof’. We found that the sisal string we used to tie the beams and ring-beams together and secure the thatch rotted very quickly where it was exposed to the weather. We replaced it with tarred sisal but that suffered the same fate. This meant that the security of the thatch was comprised and during the high winds of late 2015, many strands of Miscanthus fell away leaving a hole on the west side.

A fortuitous visit of my wife and myself to Blacktoft Sands Nature Reserve for bird-watching in early 2015, resulted in me approaching Peter Short, the RSPB Site Manager. He immediately agreed on a joint project: the RSPB would donate the Phragmites reeds, help to cut, gather and transport them and we would assist at all points and enter a joint publicity venture to highlight the Lottery Funded Projects of both organisations.

Consequently, on 3rd February, 2016, a team of volunteers from the Society plus Staff and volunteers of the RSPB, gathered and bundled a huge pile of reeds which were then transported off the reed-beds on a Soft Track to where they could be loaded onto trailers provided by Rob Ellwood and the RSPB. Several loads of reeds were taken to ParkhouseFarm over the course of that week. They were later combed and trimmed and then the whole roof was re-thatched.

We even had a blackbird take up residence and rear two sets of babies in 2017

Since completion of the roundhouse, numerous children have visited the site from North Duffield, Riccall, Carlton, and  Wilberfoss Primary Schools as well as lots of individual visits by local groups and children accompanied by parents. We also made it a feature of the Celtic Festival(see later report).

A full version of this item can be found in the book : ‘North Duffield:Archaeology and the Local Community’ for sale from this website at £12.50(£15 with P & P)

Tripod erected and porch in place 2012