Raising the Roof: How to Build a Roundhouse

Have you ever thought about building a house…not just any house…but an Iron Age roundhouse!? The thought never came to my mind, until I saw a poster next to Dr Olly Davis’s office at the University. St Fagans National History Museum needed the assistance of CAER Heritage Project volunteers to help out and test our knowledge, endurance in a bad weather, and our physical fitness in a bit of experimental archaeology.

John explains all about the Thatching process with the massivce roundhouses in the background

John explains all about the Thatching process with the massive roundhouses in the background

Olly would drive us out to St Fagans every week. The first time we were walking up the little muddy path towards the roundhouse building site, we weren’t sure what to expect. Needless to say, this was something completely new to all of us. But when we reached the end of the path and there was a small opening with two massive roundhouses staring down at us, we just stopped in awe.

If you’ve ever been to St. Fagans, you will know that amazing historic buildings from around Wales have been quite literally taken apart and re-erected, piece-by-piece, at the Museum.

Laying on the heather undercoat

Laying on the heather undercoat

However, the building of Iron Age roundhouses is quite different. These buildings were originally constructed more than 2,000 years ago out of timber and clay, material that has long since decomposed. The roundhouses at St Fagans then are reconstructions, but they are based on excavated archaeological evidence from Bryn Eryr in Anglesey. However, only the ground-plans of the houses at Bryn Eryr survived so this project was all about thinking about how our Iron Age ancestors might have built their homes.

We were to help out with the thatching of the houses. The thatching team at the Museum was led by John Letts, a palaeo-botanist and historic thatch specialist. He gave us a quick introduction and unravelled the story of the construction so far, and told us a little a bit about thatching.

Bundling the straw together for the thatch

Bundling the straw together for the thatch

There is no evidence in the archaeological record of what the roofs looked like, or what the techniques of thatching were in the Iron Age. We learned that the weathering coats and thatching techniques were based on surviving medieval roofs from England and Ireland, and the materials were selected from the array of seeds found in the archaeological record. We tried out several thatching techniques to see which worked best…after all, this is the whole point of experimental archaeology!

Before we were allowed to work on the roof we had to complete a working at height training session. But once we were let loose, it turns out students of archaeology are born thatchers (backup plan!!).

Stuff-thatching the roof

Stuff-thatching the roof

The roof, almost finished!

The roof, almost finished!

If you ever visit St Fagans Museum, this is a house to see and if it’s cold and rainy, gather around the hearth and for a few minutes travel back to the Iron Age, and perhaps try some of John’s Iron Age beer while you’re there.

Admiring our handiwork - Christmas celebration in the roundhouse

Admiring our handiwork – Christmas celebration in the roundhouse

Vesna Podrzaj

For more information about the Bryn Eryr project click here