Roundhouse Rises from the Ashes Bringing Medieval Age to Life
Three years ago, arsonists in Ireland destroyed a recreated medieval roundhouse. Now, a team of students from the University College Dublin (UCD) have rebuilt it on campus.
During the medieval period in Ireland, rural farming families lived in homes called roundhouses. Made using stone and wood, with straw and oat thatched roofs, the vast majority of people lived in roundhouses, while only local elites occupied hilltop stone castles.
Now, a team of Irish students has recreated a medieval roundhouse on their campus. But this is much more than a house! The professor in charge has tasked his students with building an interactive archaeological teaching pod, in which they will get hands-on experience of how people lived in medieval Ireland.
Students in UCD’s Experimental Archaeology program engage in interactive activities to learn how those in ancient Ireland lived, worked, and played. (UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology)
“Intriguing” Finds from Roundhouse Fire
The new roundhouse is built on UCD grounds near the Owenstown park entrance of Roebuck’s Castle. Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan, a professor of archaeology at UCD, told Dublin Live that the structure is “the second one” to be built by UCD’s Centre for Experimental Archaeology.
Professor O’Sullivan told Dublin Live that he and his students had expected that the previously reconstructed roundhouse, largely made with heather plants, was going to stand for 10 years. However, in 2019, it was burnt down in what was thought to have been “an arson attack.” Because all of the materials used to make the roundhouse were organic, it burned down in less than 15 minutes, giving firefighters no time to save it. And the blaze was so hot that all of the reconstructed pottery inside the roundhouse “exploded into fragments,” according to O’Sullivan.
The team made the best of a bad situation and turned the arson into an opportunity for an archaeological excavation of the reconstructed roundhouse fire remains. This allowed student to discover “all kinds of intriguing things that would have happened during a genuine early medieval house fire, including the complete destruction of the building, the fragmentation of pottery and the impacts on a range things inside a house, when it was burning at such a ferocious heat,” Professor O’Sullivan told University of Dublin media. "We were very surprised by how subtle and ephemeral the archaeological evidence would be after such a fire. The floor was not baked; the heat obviously went straight up. Although the house was reduced to carbonized materials, the posts still survived deeper in the soil." The group’s findings may offer insight to other excavations of burnt artifacts.
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Although the first reconstructed roundhouse burned down, UCD experimental archaeology students used the event as an opportunity to conduct an archaeological excavation on the site. (UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology)
Could You Live In A Roundhouse?
As suggested by the name, these houses were circular in shape, with diameters measuring between 2 meters (6.56 feet) and 7 meters (22.96 feet) across. With conical thatched roofs supported by wooden posts, the bases of the walls were built with stone while the upper walls were wooden and wickerwork panels.
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Iron Age reconstructed roundhouse interior at Bodrifty, Cornwall, England. This reconstructed roundhouse replicates those excavated nearby. (Rod Allday / CC BY SA 2.0)
So comfortable were medieval Irish roundhouses that earlier this year Irish Examiner told the story of the 28-year-old Julius Brummelman, who “plans to live in his forest roundhouse.” Over the last two years, Julius and his cousin Dylan van Leeuwen have built a medieval roundhouse in a beautiful woodland setting in County Galway which Brummelman now plans to live in. He also desires to immerse himself in Ireland’s past, just like the UCD students.
Reconstructed roundhouses have proven to be quite comfortable, likely providing significant warmth for medieval Irish people (UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology)
Gripping the Past with Both Hands
The new roundhouse mimics the structure of a medieval home that was excavated on an archaeological site in County Antrim. This way, according to Professor O’ Sullivan, both undergraduate and graduate students can learn about Ireland’s past “in innovative ways.” Aidan explains that the UCD archaeology students spent three days in the old roundhouse applying Middle Age day-to-day skills, and that the new building will serve a similar educational purpose.
When completed, which will be sometime in the next fortnight, students will get a hands-on experience of living in times past. Essentially, this roundhouse is an interactive archaeological learning pod, and the professor said to assist learning it will be fitted out with “beds, fireplace, equipment, the cauldrons for cooking, the ceramics, the various tools.” He added that the archaeology students will also be conducting “light and smoke” experiments, testing different living conditions and environments.
Ireland, Like Most of Europe, Was Built With Iron
According to a University Cork paper published in 2014, the landscape of late medieval Ireland, like most places in Europe, was characterized by “intensified agricultural exploitation, the growth and founding of towns and cities and the construction of large stone edifices, such as castles and monasteries.”
In medieval Ireland, all these aspects of life depended on iron. Farmers needed iron for strong ploughs and axes to clear woodland. Iron saws, hammers, and nails were required to make wooden buildings. For these reasons, the UCD experimental archaeology students will also learn the secrets of alchemy, being taught how to smelt iron from ore.
Top Image: A second reconstructed roundhouse has been built by University of Dublin Centre for Experimental Archaeology students, after the first was subject to arson. Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan, crouched in the entryway of the roundhouse his students built. Source: UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology
By Ashley Cowie
Butler, R. November 18, 2022. UCD students create impressive medieval roundhouse three years on from 'arson attack'. Dublin Live. Available at: https://www.dublinlive.ie/news/dublin-news/ucd-students-create-impressive-medieval-25546527
Kearns, D. February 9, 2022. UCD Archaeology builds new early medieval roundhouse after arson fire. University of Dublin. Available at: https://www.ucd.ie/newsandopinion/news/2022/february/09/ucdarchaeologybuildsnewearlymedievalroundhouseafterarsonfire/
Nairn, R. June 18, 2022. This man plans to live in a medieval-style house in a Co Galway woods. Available at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/outdoors/arid-40898054.html
Rondelez, P. 2014. Ironworking in late medieval Ireland, c. AD. 1200 to 1600. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
Welcome to Roebuck Castle. n.d. UCD Dublin. Available at: https://hub.ucd.ie/usis/!W_HU_MENU.P_PUBLISH?p_tag=AC-RESIDENCE&SITE=RCC