the inhabitants of Britain lived in mean dwellings made for the most part of reeds and wood ...
Cassius Dio in his 'Roman History' wrote:
Caractacus, a barbarian chieftain who was captured and brought to Rome and later pardoned by Claudius, wandered about the city after his liberation and after beholding its splendour and magnitude he exclaimed: and can you then who have got such possessions and so many of them, still covet our poor huts?
Archaeological Evidence and Living History
The British Celts lived in roundhouses. We know this from the archaeological remains that have been excavated and dated to the Iron Age. The size of the roundhouses can be seen from the rain ditches which surround the houses. From those ditches we know that some of the roundhouses in the hill fort were quite big and that there was room for a lot of people inside.
The archaeological record for these roundhouses is incomplete due to the decomposition of organic materials and the removal and reuse of their contents elsewhere. However, Castell Henllys Iron Age Hill Fort probably provides the most authentic reconstruction of Iron Age roundhouses in Britain.
The structure and materials used
The roundhouses at Castell Henllys have been reconstructed using the archaeological evidence found at the site. Each of the upright poles which support the roof of the roundhouse have been placed into the original post holes.
Wattle and daub walls - whitewashed and painted. Photo: Dydd Cross
Archaeologists discovered that the walls of the houses were made of wattle and daub. The wattle walls were made by weaving a fence of pliable hazel or willow sticks into an extremely strong circular structure. The daub was made of a mixture of clay, straw and animal dung. The straw and dung help to stop the clay from cracking and falling away. The daubed walls were very good at keeping the heat in and the wind out. Lime-washed walls helped to create a better appearance and make the houses a little lighter.
Heating, lighting, cooking
It is quite dark inside the roundhouses with most of the light coming from the doorway during the day. In the centre of the roundhouses there were fireplaces. At night the flames from the fire provide some light but you still needed to get additional lighting from rush lights if you wanted to see things more clearly. It is more practical to use the daylight and get up at sunrise.
Inside a roundhouse displayed as a central cookhouse. Photo: Dydd Cross
The fire would also have been used for cooking. There is evidence of a saddle quern-stone, which would have been used to grind corn* to make bread. There may have been an oven somewhere in the roundhouse (pictured - right)*. Sometimes food was cooked on hot stones placed next to the fire and it is quite likely that a cauldron would only have been used in one of the houses for communal cooking as it would have been a very costly item. A firedog may have been used to roast meat over the open fire.
More about Daily life
We guess that these were the homes of the warriors and their families and
that the biggest house would have belonged to the Chief. It is thought that
the peasants probably lived in hovels outside the walls of the fort although
there has been little excavation to prove this.
* The word corn is used, in the traditional British sense, to mean cereal crops such as wheat. Americans and Canadians etc mainly use the word corn when they are talking about maize. We are not talking about maize which did not exist in this part of the world at that time. Please read the page on Celtic Farming for more detail about the type of cereal crops which the Celts cultivated at this time.
** The evidence for some things in the roundhouses at Castell Henllys is lacking. For example firedogs have not been discovered at Castell Henllys but they have been found at similar sites in Wales and they may have been used here too. There was no direct evidence for a bread oven and its inclusion in the reconstruction was based on the opinion of the Site Manager at Castell Henllys. Whether they baked the bread in an oven or on a hot surface in these roundhouses is a matter of debate.
Photos © Nigel Cross 2009
History Books and Internet Links
Celts (Usborne Beginners) by Leonie Pratt
This is a very refreshing book aimed at the younger reader up to about 7 years old. The Celts is beautifully produced by Usbourne and English Heritage. I recommend the hard back version as it will get plenty of use.
What undoubtedly makes this book appeal to the younger reader is the accompaniment of excellent cartoon style pictures. These really capture the colourful nature of Celtic life and warfare and make it accessible to young minds. The illustrations kept the attention of my four year old son and he asked lots of questions about them which led to us reading the text. It is packed with simple statements, about the Celts, which a beginner needs to know.
The format is simple and uncluttered and the photographs which are included are well chosen and more obvious because they only appear on every other page.
This is the sort of book which will turn a younger child onto history. This is the most popular book sold on this website and it is my son's favourite too!
Update - 11/09/15:
This book still gets picked off the home bookshelf even though the children are now aged 10 and 12 yrs. The book pictured here is the latest edition of the original title and I am not sure how much it has been revised. You can still get the original version (here) but prices vary depending upon availability.
History book review: Nigel Cross
The Celts in Wales - BBC Wales
Fun activities for younger children:
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