8 Things You Might Find In An Iron Age Roundhouse

Santa Trega Excavation 600x390

Archaeologists excavating roundhouses at Santa Trega, just down the road from Costa dos Castros, Spain. Photo: DigVentures

Roundhouses became a fairly standard home for people across a large swathe of Europe during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and in Spain, this way of living developed into what is now known as ‘Castro Culture’.

Coast of the Hillforts (Costa dos Castros) is one such place where this culture dominated during the Iron Age. Today the landscape, which is still visually dominated by 11 of these huge stone hillforts, is co-operatively owned by people who live there. They’ve grown up wondering who built these things and as adults, they’ve decided they want some answers.

Have you ever wondered how Europe’s hillfort culture arose? You can help them find out by crowdfunding the Costa dos Castros excavation, or even by joining the dig team when we head out there in October. While we’re there, we have a very concrete mission: to unearth the rest of a roundhouse that was partially uncovered in 2015.

But not all roundhouses were homes: some were used for storage, and this roundhouse is adjacent to another one. Each family usually occupied a ‘domestic unit’ of two or more roundhouses with a central patio.

So which one’s which, and what might you find that could help us understand the life of the family who once occupied this domestic unit? Carlos Otero has spent many years excavating hillforts in Galicia, and he’ll be directing the dig at Costa dos Castros. We asked him how you can tell the difference: depending on whether it was a home or storage unit, you might find some very similar things, but with come subtle and crucial differences that can help you tell them apart.

Here are eight things Carlos says you’re likely to find if you come and dig with us, and how you can use them to work out whether your roundhouse is indeed a home.

1. Pottery sherds

Pieces of Toralla Jar

Sherds of an Iron Age Toralla Jar from Castro A Cabeciña, 2015

House: We’re very likely to find hundreds of small pieces of ceramic pottery scattered all over the floor of the house, and there will probably be even more nearer the fireplace. These pots were mainly used for cooking and consuming food and drink. Some pieces might be decorated – these would be the household’s ‘luxury’ or important tableware and pots.

Not a house: Just like in a domestic building, you will probably find hundreds of pieces of pottery all over the floor, but in this case the pots would probably be of a different type: ones used for storing food and drink, rather than for consumption.

2. A floor surface

paving and burnt level

Paving at a Galician Hillfort. Photo: Carlos Otero – Incipit.

House: Roundhouses normally had a floor made of compressed sand or clay and sometimes even stone slabs. It’s not uncommon to find floors built on top of a previous one because roundhouses were sometimes lived in for many generations.

Not a house: Storage buildings would also have floors, which would be important for protecting the harvest and food from the cold and dampness.

3. A fireplace

Two fireplaces

Two fireplaces at a Galician hillfort. Photo: Carlos Otero – INCIPIT

House: All households needed fire to cook and to provide heat and light. Finding a fireplace is the key to knowing you are digging a house and not a granary or another type of building. The hearth is often a plate of hardened clay or even a small box-like construction made of stone. It is usually placed against the wall but can be in the centre of the roundhouse.

Not a house: No way José! In fact, it would have been dangerous to light a fire right next to the year’s harvest!

4. Charcoal

carbones junto lareira

Plenty of charcoal and burnt material by the side of this fireplace. Photo: Carlos Otero – INCIPIT

House: The fuel for the fire produced a lot of ash and charcoal, and if you are digging a roundhouse you will most probably find hundreds of pieces of charcoal. This is extremely useful for carbon-14 dating and also for finding out the type of firewood they used and even what type of wooden tools.

Not a house: Although you might think it unlikely because they didn’t light fires inside storehouses, you might still find a lot, especially carbonized seeds, which give a lot of information on the Iron Age people’s diet.

5. Postholes

CdC Build a Roundhouse 3

The earliest roundhouses were made of wood and this reconstruction gives us a good idea of what they would have looked like. Photo: Costa dos Castros

House: Although the timber posts will have decayed, the holes that were made in the ground to stand them in may still remain. Posts were used to support structures, furniture and even the straw roofing, often indicated by a large posthole in the centre of the roundhouse.

Not a house: Well, they’re very similar in construction so let’s just hope we find something else as well!

6. Burnt layer

burnt level

A burnt layer not associated with a fireplace. Photo: Carlos Otero – INCIPIT

House: If a roundhouse was violently and unexpectedly destroyed, you will most likely find a thick layer of ash and charcoal from the burnt roof and wooden objects.

Not a house: Also flammable, but the contents of the burnt deposits could still be helpful in distinguishing the building’s different usage.

7. Lost and found

Roundhouse Lost and Found 2

Lucky for us Iron Age people often left their things behind for us to find, like this decorated spindle whirl, gold earring, stone axe and carved stone beads. Photo: Carlos Otero – INCIPIT

House: An Iron Age hillfort is one large lost property office: jewellery, tools, weapons… If we’re lucky, we’ll find objects that went missing over 2,000 years ago, although we’re more likely to find broken pieces of objects that were misplaced or directly thrown away by their owners. Bits of iron and bronze from decorative objects, tools and weapons, glass necklace beads and very, very occasionally, fragments of gold and silver jewellery.

Not a house: You can still find all sorts of things, especially pieces of tools made out of stone, metal and ceramic – the material culture of a storehouse, a work place, rather than that of a home.

8. The door

house and shed

A Roundhouse with adjoined storage unit. Photo: Carlos Otero – INCIPIT

House: Finding the location of the entrance is highly useful for understanding the layout of the roundhouse and how it related to the rest of the settlement. It’s not always easy to find, particularly if the roundhouse walls have been destroyed below the threshold.

Not a house: Storage buildings would also have doors, but in contrast to a domestic building, they can often be difficult, or even impossible, to locate. This is because the door of a storehouse was usually built above ground level to prevent the damp and animals getting in. If the walls below the door level have been destroyed, it will be very difficult to find.

Find out more about the Costa dos Castros excavation and what’s already been found

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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