Why did the round house builders of Bronze age and Iron age Britain point their houses toward the rising sun. Was it cosmological or to keep the house dry?
Question – you are to build a round shelter for yourself. It can have walls and a roof but no windows. You can have a doorway but (for the sake of argument) no door.
The following weather is going to affect your house:
There’s usually a strong prevailing wind from the west or south-west. This often brings rain. Sometimes the wind switches to the north or north-west. This wind is not as strong but is much colder and also brings rain.
Occasionally there is a north-east or east wind. This is again cold but is very rare and is generally dry. Also occasionally there is a wind from the south-east, but this is generally warm, light and dry.
Where will you put the doorways on your shelter?
Ritual in archaeology
In archaeology, when something is dug up that cannot be explained through simple logic it is generally taken to have ‘ritual significance’. So, for example, ‘ritual deposits’ could be things that were put into the ground with bizarre and seemingly pointless care.
Alternatively, ‘ritual alignments’ could be rows of posts of stones set up to point to something that no-one can now be sure of. Indeed, even now there are plenty of examples of people all over the world doing things that really are of no practical use. This blog is ritually significant.
The ritual British round house
There is an increasing belief among many British archaeologists. This is that the orientation of the doorways in British Bronze and Iron Age roundhouses is of ritual significance. This conclusion is due in large part the fact that almost all their doorways faced somewhere between east and south-east, with particular peaks of positioning either directly east (toward the rising sun on the equinoxes) or directly south-east (toward the midwinter rising sun).
The diagram showing round house orientations is taken from a Mike Parker-Pearson and Colin Richards paper, they in turn having taken it from a 1991 PhD thesis by (?) Alistair Oswald (which I’ve never seen).
Due to the positioning of certain household objects found in a few key archaeological digs of British roundhouses, the idea of ritual orientation of round houses has now been elaborated. The orientation of the round houses’ entrances and the placing of items in the houses are now all seen as ritually significant. They are taken to reflect the ‘cosmological’ ‘metaphor’ of a person’s journey from birth (sunrise) to death (sunset).
Now I can’t argue with what these archaeologists are currently saying. They may be right or they may be wrong. There are undoubtedly alignments with points of the compass in many monuments, including round houses. What I would be interested to see are how these alignments vary with time, latitude, local topography and local weather conditions. That would truly sort out the details and perhaps answer some of the unresolved questions.
But I find it disturbing that in the recent literature on round houses I’ve found only one author (Anthony Harding) who has mentioned the obvious consideration when orienting the doorway on your roundhouse. And that’s the weather.
A pattern language
‘British’ house builders throughout the millennia must have mulled over the problem of how to orient their houses to combat the weather. Over time rules have undoubtedly been established to sort out the problem.
For example the Scots Gaelic saying “Cul ri gaoth,aghaidh gu ghrian” (which translates as something like “back to the wind, face to the sun”) spells out a Hebridean rule for orienting your home in the high winds of the islands.
So why not something equivalent in ancient Britain, such as “If you don’t want a wet inside*, point your door to mid-winter’s sunrise” or some such piece of folkloric wisdom (*NB ancient people may or may not have been as smutty as you are).
And this is a kind of ritual orientation, what Christopher Alexander, in his classic work of architecture, would call a ‘pattern’.
Interestingly, if you turn this on its head and say “I need lots of wind zipping through this building to get rid of the awful smell,” – for example in a mortuary house – then making the doorway of your building point into the prevailing wind is an excellent solution. Indeed, likewise, always point your hearth toward the air from the doorway if you want a good blaze.
So, to answer the original question I set, the best orientation for your doorway would be somewhere between east and south-east. Give yourself a peanut for being correct.
Alexander, C. et al. 1977 A pattern language: towns, buildings, construction, Oxford, pp1171
Harding, A.F 2000 European Societies in the Bronze Age, Cambridge, pp572
The Met Office 2009 Met Office Virtual Met Mast (pdf showing the yearly pattern of wind of Britain), pp11
Parker-Pearson, M. & Richards, C. 1994 Architecture and Order: approaches to social space. Routeledge, pp230
Crowther, T. 2011 Shedding Light on the Matter: An Exploration into the Regional Orientation Patterns of the Brochs and Duns of Iron Age Scotland, Assemblage 11, p47-58.
A discussion of Scottish Broch and Dun entrance orientations. These late Iron age Buildings show quite variable entrance orientations, with regional differences in preferred orientation, although overall the most common orientations are to the NE (duns), or E and SE (brochs). The detail (or lack of detail) of the rose diagrams (16 orientations only are recognised) means that orientations tend to be bunched (e.g. all angles between 34 and 56 east of north are considered to be roughly 45 degrees east of north). All the same, intermediate orientations (e.g. ENE) are uncommon, suggesting that builders used a simple division of orientations, aligned roughly at 45 degree angles from N, as is shown in the Oswald diagram. These orientations are SE, E, NE, NW, W and SW. The author goes on to speculate about these orientations being related to sunrise and sunset positions, which seems reasonable.