Roundhouses

Until the advent of developer-funded archaeology, few roundhouses had been excavated in South Yorkshire, those at Pickburn Leys being amongst the first (Sydes 1993; Sydes and Symonds 1985). Examples are still not numerous. There have been no finds of the Bronze Age and late Bronze Age/early Iron Age roundhouses seen in West Yorkshire at sites such as Swillington Common South and South Elmsall (Howell 2001; Grassam 2010); or further south in Nottinghamshire at Holme Dyke, Gonalston (Knight and Elliott 2008). Instead, most if not all roundhouses excavated in South Yorkshire are later Iron Age or Romano-British in date, and usually only survive as curvilinear gullies and/or concentrations of postholes. Truncation by ploughing means that most internal features do not survive, and frequently only partial shallow curvilinear features or some postholes might survive. Roundhouses are rarely visible on aerial photographs, and often not in geophysical surveys.

In other regions including West Yorkshire, some deep, narrow and steep-walled roundhouse gullies were probably the slots for upright wattle and daub walls. In South Yorkshire, two roundhouses excavated at Pickburn Leys had steep-sided rock-cut gullies up to 0.5m deep (Sydes 1993) that were possible wall slots. Most ring gullies, however, were probably eavesdrip gullies, with shallow-dug scoops eroded further by run-off from roofs. Examples include Pastures Road, Mexborough (Williams and Weston 2008: 6, fig. 8), and at least three circular structures at Carr Lodge Farm (Stanley and Langley 2013: 14, fig. 6). To date, neither site is published. The internal diameters of 23 roundhouses in South Yorkshire are shown below (Figs 01-02). They varied between 4.5–17.5m in diameter, with the greatest number (4) at 9m across. Two size clusters are visible. This may imply that on some settlements there were primary roundhouses and secondary structures.

The best-preserved roundhouses in South Yorkshire have been excavated at Balby Carr and Topham Farm, Sykehouse. Both these sites were sealed underneath alluvium deposits, although they were disturbed by early modern and modern drainage and agricultural activity; and appear to have been truncated in the past. At Balby Carr, remains of at least ten roundhouses were excavated (Daniel 2016: 20, figs 2, 15, 18; Richardson and Rose 2005: 4.7, 4.16; Rose 2003: 4.7-4.9; Rose and Roberts 2003: 4.4-4.8), including two possible partial arcs of ring gully.

Figure 1. Chart of the internal diameters of 23 excavated South Yorkshire roundhouses (in metres, horizontal axis), and their frequency (vertical axis).
Roundhouse diameters in South Yorkshire Diameter (m)
Balby Carr D(ii) Harley Davidson (AS WYAS) 9
Balby Carr D1 Roundhouse A (AS WYAS) Unknown
Balby Carr D1 Roundhouse B (AS WYAS) 4.5
Balby Carr D1 Roundhouse C (AS WYAS) 8
Balby Carr D1 Roundhouse D (AS WYAS) 7
Balby Carr D1 Roundhouse E (AS WYAS) 7
Balby Carr First Point (AOC Archaeology) 9
Balby Carr First Point Strip, Map & Sample Roundhouse 1213 (WA) 7.6
Balby Carr First Point Strip, Map & Sample Roundhouse 1173 (WA) 5.3
Balby Carr First Point Strip, Map & Sample Roundhouse 1061 (WA) Unknown
Carr Lodge Farm 219/224/229/234 (On Site Archaeology) 9
Carr Lodge Farm 240/246/252/255/257/259 (On Site Archaeology) 6.5
Carr Lodge Farm 311/315/319/331/335/339 (On Site Archaeology) 13
High Street Shafton (AS WYAS) 8
Pastures Road Mexborough (AS WYAS) 6.4
Pickburn Leys Structure A (SYAU) 12.5
Pickburn Leys Structure B (SYAU) 9
Redhouse Farm Adwick-le-Street RH2 12
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 1 (AS WYAS) 17.5
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 2 (AS WYAS) 16
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 3 (AS WYAS) 13
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 4 (AS WYAS) 14
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 7 (AS WYAS) 15
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 8 (AS WYAS) 12.5
Topham Farm, Sykehouse Structure 9 (AS WYAS) 7.5

Figure 2. Excavated South Yorkshire roundhouses and their internal diameters where known.

Roundhouse B on the Balby Zone D1 site was only 4.5 metres in diameter but was surrounded by a subcircular ring ditch c. 12m across with a south-western entrance. Within the Zone D(ii) (Harley Davidson) site at Balby, Roundhouse gully 13 was 9m in diameter with a central hearth pit and a possible internal partition. It was adjacent to a plank-lined pit (Richardson and Rose 2005: 4.7, 4.16, fig. 3). These were all enclosed by a more substantial ring ditch 15m in diameter, 1m wide and 0.80m deep. In addition to artefacts, this ditch produced daub with wattle impressions, and there may have been a wooden bridging structure on its eastern side.

The roundhouses investigated by AS WYAS at Balby Carr produced dates of 400–200 BC, with an open settlement pre-dating an enclosed phase (Daniel 2017: 7-8). Roundhouse 1213 at the Balby First Point strip and record site produced a radiocarbon date of 197–44 BC (Daniel 2016: 7, 20), and only one posthole and traces of a possible hearth were found. To date the various Balby Carr excavations have not been fully published. At Topham Farm, Sykehouse, seven roundhouses were identified, one within an oval rather than circular ring gully; along with two more ambiguous circular structures (Roberts 2003: 27-30, fig. 24). Only a few internal postholes and possible hearths survived inside them. Further to the west, excavation revealed a D-shaped or trapezoidal enclosure with an internal roundhouse that yielded a date of 50 BC–90 AD (Muldowney 2008: 2; Wilson 2006: 4). A partial ring gully of a roundhouse possibly c. 6.4m in diameter and associated with 1st century BC pottery was excavated at Parrots Corner, Rossington Bridge (Bishop 2010: 11).

The sites of several possible roundhouses are only suggested by clusters of postholes – examples include Barnburgh Hall (Richardson 2005a: 6.13), Billingley Drive, Thurnscoe (Neal and Fraser 2004: 24, fig. 14), Roundhouses 1 and 3 in Enclosure E1 at Redhouse Farm, Adwick-le-Street (Meadows and Chapman 2004: 6-7); and two possible roundhouse structures within Enclosure 8 (Upson-Smith 2006: 4). No detailed plans have ever been published of the Redhouse Farm excavations, however. There were two possible structures identified from masses of postholes and pits at Roebuck Hill, Jump – one a possible circular building and the other interpreted by excavators as being rectangular in plan (Robinson and Johnson 2007: 8, 12, 18, fig. 6), though a circular structure would also fit. This site too is unpublished. Very fragmentary ring gullies, which might have been roundhouses but could also have been wind-breaks, were recorded at Croft Road, Finningley (MAP 2006a: 32, fig. 31), Enclosure E2 Trench 10 at Woodhead Opencast Site (Mudd and Webster 2001: 10, fig. 3, 9), Nether Moor Drive, Wickersley (Marot 2017: 13, fig. ); and perhaps at St Wilfred’s Road, Cantley (Daley 2007: 10, fig. 3).

The footings of possible stone-walled roundhouses similar to those from the Pennines and Peak District have been identified at Gosling, Long Heath and Whitley near Wharncliffe (Makepeace 1985), and Canklow Woods (Lee 2005); but to date, none have been excavated. At High Street, Shafton, however, a curvilinear ring gully 8m in diameter had stone wall footings, a south-east facing entrance defined by postholes, and remains of a possible flagged surface (Burgess 2001d; Howell 1999). It may have been Romano-British in date. Some timber roundhouses built and used in the Romano-British period include Barnburgh Hall (Richardson 2005a), and perhaps Roebuck Hill, Jump (Robinson and Johnson 2007: 8, 12, 18).

In some instances, there seems to have been a concern with rebuilding roundhouses on almost the same place, as at Topham Farm, Sykehouse (Roberts 2003: figs 4, 8). This does not seem to have been the repair of existing structures but rather the repeated replacement of them, suggesting that sometimes there was a need to retain ties to very specific places. There are similar Iron Age examples from across the midlands and northern England (Chadwick 2013b: 299-300, fig. 15.7), and this may have reflected seasonal re-occupation after periods of abandonment, but also a concern with identity and social memory.

Where only one roundhouse existed on a settlement this was probably inhabited by one extended family, but with two or more contemporary roundhouses additional structures could have been used by other members of the lineage, or by certain age or gender sets. Ethnographic evidence suggests that there could have been men’s houses and women’s houses, houses for senior men or women, for ritual specialists, for young unmarried men, or for women during menstrual or post-natal seclusion. Others might have been ancillary buildings used for a variety of craft or storage activities – one roundhouse at Carr Lodge Farm was almost certainly used for metalworking (Stanley and Langley 2013: 14). The two roundhouses at Balby within their own enclosures might indicate a different social status for the inhabitants – one enclosure had a quite large 9m diameter roundhouse within it, but the other enclosed roundhouse was only 4.5m across, the smallest recorded in South Yorkshire.

There has been considerable debate about roundhouse doorway orientations. Oswald’s ethnography-influenced study of roundhouse orientations (1991, 1997) appeared to show that the majority faced east or south-east, perhaps due to cosmological cardinal directions such as the equinoxes and the mid-winter sunrise. Such symbolic associations were also proposed by others, based on patterns of daily use and deposits of artefacts and human and animal remains sometimes found within roundhouses (Fitzpatrick 1994, 1997; Parker Pearson 1996, 1999; Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999). Traditions of construction, cosmology and inhabitation were passed down through everyday embodied movements and practices, and pragmatic and more spiritual ideas may have coexisted (Giles and Parker Pearson 1999). Pope (2003, 2007) argued that Oswald’s patterns were less clear-cut, however, and that the landscape setting of roundhouses was more significant.

An analysis of South Yorkshire roundhouse doorway orientations (Chadwick 2008a: 590, Fig. 3 below) was only based on 20 identifiable entrances from excavated examples, but this found that 12 faced east or south-east, with smaller numbers to the north-west and south-west. The distribution is still more restricted than one would expect with random patterning and appears to be independent of topography. This suggests that social conventions and traditions did influence doorway orientation, even if practical considerations of light and prevailing winds were factors.

Figure 3.
The doorway orientations of 20 excavated South Yorkshire Iron Age and Roman-period roundhouses (source: A. Leaver, from Chadwick 2008a, appendix E, table 13).

Research questions

  • Can any spatial patterning be identified within roundhouses in South Yorkshire? If so, did these correspond to different functional areas? Can patterns of internal human and/or animal movement be detected?
  • Can any clear traditions of the internal use of space within roundhouses and rectangular buildings be identified in the future? Do any differences apparent across South Yorkshire reflect functional adaptations to different landscapes, or might these have corresponded to social differences between groups?
  • Following Pope (2003, 2007), is it possible to distinguish between roundhouses occupied on a permanent basis, or examples inhabited seasonally? At present, it is also not known whether most buildings were abandoned and left to decay and fall, or whether they were deliberately dismantled or demolished and the materials used elsewhere. Can any archaeological techniques be refined or developed to investigate this?
  • Depositional patterns within and around roundhouses require more detailed consideration on future projects, especially the issue of whether there were deliberate foundation and/or closure deposits.

Priorities and implementation

  • No upland roundhouses or roundhouse platforms have been excavated in South Yorkshire, to compare with other examples recorded from Derbyshire and North Yorkshire, and with lowland examples. A targeted and detailed research excavation of a stone-footed roundhouse, perhaps one threatened by root and bracken disturbance, might provide useful evidence;
  • When excavating roundhouses known to be present from cropmark and/or geophysical survey evidence, machining could halt 0.10-0.15m above the expected footprint of the structures. This material should then be excavated by hand, and any finds 3-D plotted. Although roundhouses may have been considerably disturbed by ploughing and/or bioturbation, some finds deposited within the structures in final phases of use or as post-use closure deposits might still be broadly in their original two-dimensional positions;
  • Roundhouse gullies and all internal features should be 100% excavated. Excavations of roundhouses should include phosphate, magnetic susceptibility and portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) sampling; along with soil aDNA and soil lipid analyses, and other geochemical analyses where soil conditions are suitable. Such techniques have produced valuable results elsewhere in Britain, indicating where people might have slept, carried out tasks, and/or where animals were stalled (e.g. Evans and Hodder 2006: 106-7, 145-6; Parker Pearson, Sharples and Symonds 2004: 72). A trial of the technique at Whirlow Hall Farm produced promising results (Doonan and Slater 2017);
  • Some roundhouses in an upland setting or sealed beneath colluvium, alluvium and/or peat in a lowland locale might be better preserved. In such instances, then deposits within buildings could be carefully removed in spits, and all finds three-dimensionally recorded. Such detailed excavation may be even able to discern differences between artefactual and other remains associated with use, and those deposited following abandonment, by examining the size, distribution and fragmentation patterns of artefacts. Microstratigraphic excavation techniques using grids, fine dry sieving and extensive sampling for wet sieving might recover small bone and finds fragments, and soil column samples may also need to be taken for micromorphological and pollen analyses;
  • Larger finds within roundhouses are unlikely to represent the ‘use’ of areas inside buildings but might provide insights into post-abandonment processes. Much smaller finds may be able to highlight activity foci, however. The cross-joining of pottery sherds during post-excavation analyses may help provide insights into abandonment and/or depositional processes (such as whether material/objects were deliberately placed within buildings prior to abandonment, or simply thrown in);
  • Roundhouses must be planned in detail (at 1: 20 rather than 1: 50) to reveal subtleties of construction. Unless heavily truncated by ploughing, careful hand excavation of areas within and around buildings may find evidence of faint depressions reflecting activity areas and regular human and animal movements. These subtle contours and wear hollows need to be shown on site and published plans. There is an unfortunate tendency on some developer-funded projects to use earth moving plant to ‘grade off’ topsoil and subsoil and then plan features as if they were all originally on the same level;
  • Any entrance orientation information for roundhouses can be recorded on site and incorporated within client reports and publications. Excavators could try to visualise what features and structures might have been visible from doorways, and conversely how visible or private roundhouses and doorways were from enclosure entrances;
  • Excavators on developer-funded and research projects should be made aware that Iron Age and Romano-British buildings may often produce few finds, but where these do occur it is often in the form of structured or placed deposits of artefacts and human or animal remains within postholes or pits. Some of these examples may have been foundation or closure deposits;
  • Unless they fall well outside development areas or cannot be further investigated for health and safety reasons, all buildings must be 100% excavated. Small bone and artefact fragments, details of spatial organisation and possible different activity areas, and the presence of placed deposits might be otherwise missed. If part of a building lies just beyond a baulk on a large open-area project or a pipeline corridor, then curators should insist that small extensions are made to incorporate all the structure concerned;
  • AMS dating of charred material from well-stratified contexts such as postholes or contemporary charred deposits should be standard, and the OSL or TL of sediments should also be considered where structures produce no dateable artefacts. Archaeomagnetic dating of any hearths and ovens surviving within buildings should also become routine;
  • A particularly interesting structure or group of structures could be the focus for a co-operative joint research project between commercial field unit staff, university staff and students, members of archaeological societies and local communities. Funding for such work could be sought from research grant awarding bodies as well as the Heritage Lottery Fund;
  • Unpublished excavations of sites with roundhouses need to be published as a matter of urgency (see below).