BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE LOGO


ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 54, August 2000

PETER ELLIS

Knock knock. What's round and has an entrance to the east marked by interesting deposits? If you've read JD Hill's article elsewhere in this magazine you'll probably guess the answer. It's that old joke the prehistoric roundhouse - one of those ridiculously passé designs abandoned by anybody with any sense since the Romans came, though you can still see them being set on fire in Westerns.

Apart from the Dome, a few modern cathedrals, and those street loos that seem impossible to enter without a letter from the mayor, there aren't many round buildings today. We left the roundhouse behind millennia ago, and according to ideas of progress this just shows what a hopeless design it was.

Not true. The advantages of round houses are as follows. Firstly, they are easy to assemble. If you or I were to start putting up a house today we would prop a lot of tree branches together so that they met at the top where a youngster could shin up and tie them together, and we would then add on whatever took our fancy in the way of covering material - not forgetting to leave an entrance. The alternative, measuring out the ground, arguing over how to achieve a right-angle, sticking in your corner posts, making door frames, getting in a state trying to prop up roof timbers before you secure them, is an obvious non-starter.

Secondly, inside a round house you get a nice, even spread of warmth. No freezing corners, icy lofts, or windswept landings and one simple direct heat source. Thirdly, the whole interior is very democratic, thus fostering social skills - no one is going to be shoved off into that upstairs back room or only congregate to eat microwaved meals whilst watching Neighbours.

Fourthly, the thing is a thrill to live in with lots of firelit architectural space giving one a noble feeling as opposed to the gloom of tracing the cracked plaster across a rectangular room's walls. Then, lastly, round houses don't require straight streets. If we had kept them we could have had towns laid out like our fields in all sorts of different shapes.

Look instead at the miserable rectangular house. Horrible poky rooms. No interior drama. Everything graded in importance from master bedroom down to utility and pantry. Inside loos (yuck) needing lots of pipes and gurgling drains. Horrid spider's web-filled corners, angles everywhere, cramped landings, miserable views south-east onto more houses with similar miserable views north-west.

Rectangular houses all have to be lined up as though on parade. This was presumably because in the Roman coloniae the retired military enjoyed bossing everyone about to make sure all buildings faced the same way and had best-kept town competitions where everything had to be neat and tidy to win. For it was the Romans who forced us to get rid of the roundhouse and replace it with imposing features like courtyards and porticos, and having to have those awkward rooms leading off each other or needing to be accessed by nipping outside. The modern era did away with civilised features like public baths and lavatories at the bottom of the garden. Our houses today are a source of worry rather than a home. The underlying meanings of the home are demonstrated in the exciting new ways of looking at buildings now being produced by archaeologists. Rectangular houses are analysed in terms of public and private spaces, differential access, class separation, defence, emblems of power - that sort of thing. But round houses are approached in terms of the profounder dynamics of light and dark, female and male, life and death etc.

The less pedestrian meaning of a prehistoric house is borne out by the weird deposits you find in the ring ditch ends. These show how the building involved all sorts of gestures and messages far more interesting than the rectangular house's typical datestone or I've got uPVC windows and you haven't.

Waking up each morning in our rectangular beds, going to different rooms for different functions, eating our rectangular toast and reading our rectangular news, we are being forced into compartmentalised ways of thinking. We need to return to round houses - and there watch the smoke ascending into the cone above us where darkness reigns and our thoughts can take wings.


Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage


© Council for British Archaeology and author, 2000