Archaeologists digging one of the roundhouses at Field 44. The image shows its circular foundations.

A tale of three roundhouses – reviewing the evidence at Field 44

Francesca Bologna
10.02.2022

Work continues at Field 44, where we are digging with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit as part of the National Highways A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet Improvement Scheme, managed by Skanska. In this blog post, we take a closer look at the three Iron Age roundhouses found at the site. But what did these buildings look like and how were they used? With a bit of detective work we are beginning to find out!

What did these roundhouses look like?

The first traces of a permanent settlement at Field 44 date to the Middle Iron Age (c. 300-100 BC). It’s the beginning of a story that will span over centuries. Three roundhouses have been uncovered on site, each marked out by circular ditches and post holes. Normally, only the foundations of roundhouses survive, the walls and roofs having long rotted away. However, remarkably at Field 44 we’ve found a small fragment of one of the walls - a piece of daub (a clay mixture) with a criss-cross pattern on its back. This exciting and rare find allows us to understand how they were built and what they looked like.

Archaeologists digging the foundations of one the roundhouses at Field 44.
Archaeologists digging one of the roundhouses. You can see its circular foundations.

The walls of the roundhouses at Field 44 were built using the wattle-and-daub technique. First, wooden posts are dug into the ground to create a circular structure. Twigs, reeds or flexible branches are then woven around them to create a sort of fence. Finally everything is covered in daub to create a solid wall. A pointed thatched roof was then added to make the structure weatherproof. Isn’t it incredible how much you can find out from just a small piece of clay?

A reconstructed roundhouse (left) and a partially built version (right), showing the wattle-and-daub walls and the beams that would support the roof.
A reconstructed roundhouse (left) and a partially built version (right), showing the wattle-and-daub walls and the beams that would support the roof. The roundhouses of Field 44 may have looked similar to these.

The roundhouses at Field 44 are bigger than most - two of them measure an astonishing 20m and 15m in diameter. Large roundhouses like these have been previously thought of as high status buildings, but there are also other possibilities. They might have simply housed a large group of people, or maybe many different activities were carried out inside them. Let’s take a look at the evidence and see what it suggests…

What has been found inside?

Based on their position within the site, the three roundhouses were named Northern, Central and Southern. The Central and Southern Roundhouses are very large and contained a considerable number of finds. All of these date exclusively to the Middle Iron Age (c. 300-100 BC). In the Central Roundhouse we found domestic items like cooking and storage vessels, traces of a firepit, and the remains of butchered animals. Here, we also discovered something unexpected: a ring headed pin and a miniature pottery vessel. The pin is an ornament used to fasten clothing, but for now the thumb-sized vessel remains a mystery - it is not clear how it was used and what it contained.

Iron Age miniature vessel and ring headed pin
Iron Age miniature vessel and ring headed pin from the Central Roundhouse.

In the Southern Roundhouse we found a large number of clay loom weights. Since ancient wooden looms, threads and wool do not usually survive, loom weights can be the only traces of weaving found at archaeological sites. Looms used in this period consisted of a wooden frame resting against the wall. The vertical threads (warp) hung from the horizontal bar of the loom and were tied to weights to keep them taut. The horizontal threads (weft) were then passed over and under the warp to create the fabric.

Triangular loom weight made of burned clay with two holes in its side
Triangular loom weight made of burned clay.

The Northern Roundhouse is the smallest of the three and only a few objects were found inside. These include fragments of pottery, which interestingly can be dated to the Late Iron Age or early Roman period (c. 100 BC-AD 70).

What do you think all this evidence means and how were these buildings being used?

What we currently think this means

The small number of objects found in the Northern Roundhouse suggests that people did not live here and it was used for other activities. Based on the dates of the pottery found inside, we also think that this roundhouse was in use over a longer period of time than the other two.

From the domestic and personal items found, it is very likely that people lived in the Central Roundhouse. The food remains and firepit provide further evidence for this – a sign that people were cooking and warming themselves at the centre of the house.

As for the Southern Roundhouse, the fact that so many loom weights were found inside suggests it might have been used as a textile workshop. It is likely this production was on a scale beyond the needs of those living at Field 44 and therefore these goods might have been traded with other nearby villages.

What questions are still to be answered?

We are still not sure what the miniature vessel was used for. Given its size it may have contained something rare and expensive - perhaps spices, medicine or make-up! Could it even have been a child’s toy? Questions also still remain about the function of the Northern Roundhouse. If people didn’t live there, what were they using it for and why was it in use over such a long period of time?

As work continues and finds are analysed, we hope to be able to answer some of these questions and others. From the field to the lab, a village of specialists are gradually building a picture of what life was life at Field 44.

 

Join us on our journey!

Excavations at Field 44 are being undertaken by archaeologists from MOLA and Cambridge Archaeological Unit, as part of the proposed National Highways A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet Improvement Scheme managed by Skanska.

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