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The oldest houses in Britain

At Star Carr we have found the oldest known houses in Britain, made from a variety of plant materials. Professor Nicky Milner explains more.
On the dryland part of the site we found the remains of at at least three houses, probably more. Because these are not preserved in the waterlogged deposits we do not find posts or any of the structural elements remaining which means we have to piece together evidence in order to discover how these structures might have been made. The first house we found was discovered because there was a huge quantity of flint in the area being excavated and the soil was darker in colour. As we dug down we began to discover post-holes - these are holes in the ground, filled with a darker coloured soil, and in these holes, posts would once have stood as supports for the structure.
People probably used the digging sticks, found in the waterlogged deposits, for making these holes. In the middle of the structure, there appeared to be a hollow and this was also filled with a darker coloured soil. When this soil was analysed by a soil scientist it was found to contain a large quantity of decayed organic material suggesting that perhaps plant materials or hides had been laid on the ground. However, further analysis of the soils showed that they contained phytoliths. Phytoliths are microscopic silica structures which occur in plants. Although the plants generally decompose, these silica structures can survive in most conditions.
In addition, the shapes of these phytoliths vary which means it is sometimes possible to provide more information on how plants were used in the past. In the case of the structure it was shown that reed stems were found around the structure area, suggesting that reeds had either been used as some sort of bedding or matting, or perhaps also for the construction of the structure. As reeds were so common in the area, and as they make excellent thatching, as still used today, it is highly likely that they were the material used for covering the structure. Animal hides are another possibility but a large quantity would have been required and they might have required much more work than thatching would have done.
In order to tie the reeds onto the structure, some sort of cordage or bast fibre would have been required, which could be made from plants such as nettle or birch bark. It is very hard to know for sure whether the houses were made in a teepee like shape, or whether the posts used for making the structures were bent over to create a dome shape. Either way, if they were tall enough for people to stand up in them, they may well have had to construct some sort of ladders in order to build the structure and then thatch it.
No such ladders have been found from this period, although ladders are thought to have existed around this time, from a rock art picture in Spain which depicts two people climbing a ladder to get honey from a bees nest. Overall, when we start to think through how such a house might have been built we can see that a wide range of knowledge, skills and experience must have been required. In particular, they needed a good understanding of the property of plants, they had to create tools such as digging sticks, chop down trees for posts using stone axes, and harvest reeds for thatching. Plants are so often invisible in the archaeological record, and yet were absolutely essential for survival in the Mesolithic.

At Star Carr we have discovered Britain’s oldest known houses. Here Nicky explains how they might have been made, using a variety of plant remains.

Further resources

If you would like to find out more about the houses, please read Chapter 5 in our free, online books.

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Exploring Stone Age Archaeology: The Mysteries of Star Carr

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