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Did we Succeed? Rebuilding the Bronze Age Roundhouse

January 15, 2015
Day one saw the removal of the remaining thatch and its residents

BEFORE:The dilapidated state of the damaged thatch was to prove the least of our worries

I promised that I would come back to the subject of the Bronze Age roundhouse that we were hoping to repair last Autumn: a useful exercise in experimental archaeology, as we hoped to do the work as our ancestors would have done it, using replica tools and the minimum of modern equipment to satisfy safety requirements and common sense. Well it turned into quite a story.

NEARLY THERE: defeated by Winter as we ran out of thatch before Christmas

AFTER:The first layer of reed thatch is on, apart from the all important cowl which will render it watertight

As we were converging on the site last September to engage with running repairs and some re thatching little did any of us know that the authority’s site and safety surveyor was paying the roundhouse a visit. Consequently, as we arrived at Flag Fen it was to be greeted with the news that it was no longer a matter of repairs but structural rebuild. Instead of one or two of the roof beams having been compromised by the appallingly wet winter of 2013, the entire roof had held too much weight in its thatch for too long which had in turn damaged the timbers, so the entire thatch, complete with generations of swallows’ nests and resident spiders had to come down: in fact everything apart from three diagonal beams. Setting to with a will, day one saw us discover that the rotten thatch and the supporting battens came away suspiciously easily.

Once the roundhouse was stripped to its skeleton

NOT MUCH LEFT: the sskeleton is being rebuilt

This shows the wattle poking through the daub, but new diagonal trusses are going into position

the next problem emerged. Inside any roundhouse there is an inner supporting ring of strong timbers which interlock and share the weight of the roof beams which converge at the apex of the roof. When we leant against one of these timbers, it moved. Further investigation proved that these essential uprights were rotten at their base and would have to be systematically dugout, the holes deepened, new, rot treated timbers put in and the trenches back filled. So that’s what we did. Each timber was dug out, and replaced with a sound one. We do admit to a compromise here. Some may call it a cheat. We used a modern protective for the part of the timber that would be underground. The evidence suggests that in the past the people of the Bronze Age would have used a tarry pitch gained from burning old wood stumps, but time was against our experimenting with this.

We now had a sound inner ring. Working on a division of labour, some of us turned our attention to the daub that coated the outer wattle wall. In its day it had been handsome, but over 20 or so years this had also suffered from exposure to the weather. In places there was bare wattle, in others volunteers had done running repairs. One or two stretches had been concreted. However, the overwhelming experience all around the walls was that it was crumbling. Daub is an interesting substance. It has survived as a building material for millennia, used in this country from Cornwall to Scotland. Essentially it involves taking mud – raw clay – and mixing it with binders such as chopped straw or hay,( in some areas heather has been added). The ‘glue’ comes from animal droppings. Experience has shown that the offerings from cows are best because of its ‘gloopy’ texture, but horse manure was more easily collected from local friends. Once everything has been mixed, and the right consistency achieved with water, there’s no smell by the way. However, treading all these ingredients into a cohesive material involves heavy stamping about and not a little sliding around.

New Daub for Old

DAUB:Many hands, large and small, came to help with this. Even some visitors gave it a go

It does take a very large amount of clay, horse poo and straw to make enough daub to cover the entire exterior wattle wall of a family sized roundhouse…and then there’s the entire interior of the wall as well. Ideally, daubing works best with a team of two working in harmony: that way both sides of the wattle get hit with daub simultaneously which bonds the daub to the wattle and leaves no air spaces which may crack open later on. Flag Fen were lucky enough to receive very local clay from Hanson Bricks who own the site where the famous MUST FARM discoveries were made. (The large sea going boats, beads and evidence of status items found there are of major significance). This gave us a huge sense of connection to the importance of the prehistory all around us.

Working out the next job. Bronze edges needed frequent resharpening

Working out the next job. Bronze edges needed frequent resharpening

By now winter was definitely starting to close in. Interested visitors were preferring to stay home in the warmth, and the Black Knight team giving up their weekends to see this through were finding their breath frosty in tents each morning and night.

While daubing was going on at ground level, the roof beams were being hauled upright using simple ropes and levers.

Sometimes safety as well as modesty dictated the dress code

Sometimes safety as well as modesty dictated the dress code

Once that was finished, row upon row of horizontal chestnut battens were fixed across the beams and everything was pegged and tied. Piles of local reed from Wicken Fen arrived. Initially it all had to be stacked safely where it wouldn’t be attacked by the weather, but then the bundles all had to be separated and tied into manageable units to pass up for tying onto the battens.

Round and round the roof the reeds went. Bundle after bundle tied, passed up, tied and secured onto the battens. By now very real and visible progress was evident. The roundhouse was starting to stand proud again, and then we ran out of reeds. Almost at the apex, there was nothing left to finish the crown and render the building properly watertight.

In theory, there are two stages left. Another complete layer of reeds is needed, and over that goes a layer of turf. As this settles, the grass roots embed surprisingly strongly and secure everything. However, it is not at present looking like there will be a particularly happy ending to Black Knight’s great endeavour. We all know we are living in a time of austerity, and that councils up and down the land are having to make hugely difficult decisions between one essential service and another, between one good cause and another. Flag Fen, not for the first time since its inception, is undergoing difficulties as it seems there is no money in the authority’s kitty to pay for what some may see as the extravagance of a round house when set against the competing needs of the community. At a time when the government has stressed the need for children to learn about our early periods, the unique site at Flag Fen simply isn’t attracting a sufficiently heavy footfall of day to day visitors despite offering a unique combined annual heritage card to all its historic places of interest. How sad.

Vivacity has been actively promoting Flag Fen

Local BKH family found fame when they featured on the local council ‘what’s on’ guide for children as well as enormous posters

Peterborough is a unique jewel in this country’s heritage. Nowadays it is often held up as an example of how multi- cultural tolerance can thrive, but underpinning it is century after century of immigration and settlement. The site at Flag Fen is of European significance: ancient trackways, a Roman road, evidence of early spiritual belief, offerings, suggestions that this might have been a site looking not parochially but internationally, with links across Europe. How sad if so much potential for learning, discovery and education disappears back into the Fens. Peterborough may not figure at the top of everyone’s list for a cultural weekend as say, York might do, but with a wonderful cathedral – the resting place of Katherine of Aragon, a fascinating museum which charts Peterborough’s development with varied displays, and the little known but unique gem of medieval secular wall painting which is Longthorpe Tower, it has so much to offer visitors. And who knows, perhaps one day it may again invite visitors into the peaceful and evocative gloom of life in a roundhouse during the Bronze Age.

If you would like to know more about Flag Fen then please use these links:

All photos courtesy of members of the BKH team. Many thanks




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