Courtyard houses

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The interior of a courtyard house at Chysauster (Cornwall) with small rooms leading off from the central open area. (J.Dyer)

Plan of the completely excavated site of Walesland Rath, Pembroke, showing circular huts and rectangular structures, not all of which were contemporary. The excavator interpreted some of the buildings close to the bank as a continuous run of huts, but some of these could be interpreted as four-post structures as indicated. (After Wainwright, 1969)

As one moves from central southern England to the west and north, areas begin to display their own regional peculiarities. In western Cornwall and Scilly are about 60 courtyard houses, usually sited on fairly high ground. The best known examples have been excavated at Chysauster and Carn Euny where they occur in groups, but they are more frequently found as isolated farmsteads set amongst fields. A typical house was oval in plan and consisted of a central courtyard, sometimes paved, and almost certainly open to the sky. Around it were ranged four to seven rooms with thatched roofs, the largest opposite the courtyard entrance. This big circular room was often raised above the level of the yard and was most probably the living room. As well as a central hearth it often contained benches and drains. Other rooms may have been used for sleeping, working, storage and perhaps housing animals. The houses were very strongly built with carefully designed granite walls often 2–3 m. (2.2–3.3 yd) thick. A number of the houses had small paddocks or gardens attached, whilst beyond were extensive field systems. Most courtyard houses seem to date from around 200 BC and continue into the Roman period.

Another feature of western Cornwall are underground structures known locally as fogous. Most are found attached to settlements like Chysauster, Halligye and Carn Euny. They vary considerably in size but consist basically of a stone-lined and roofed underground passage. At Chysauster it is very short, but at Carn Euny the passage is 20 m. (22 yd) long with a corbelled stone chamber 4.5 m. (5 yd) in diameter on one side. It is almost certain that these structures were cellars or storage places, where food could be kept at a fairly even temperature. As hiding places they would have been death traps. A radiocarbon date from Carn Euny suggests that some may be as early as the fifth century BC thus predating the courtyard houses, but they continued in use throughout the later Iron Age.

Banked and ditched enclosures known as rounds are another feature of the Cornish and Devon countryside in the late first millennium BC. Essentially agricultural in economy they are difficult to define since they come in many shapes and sizes. Suffice to describe them both as farmsteads and hamlets, surrounded by a non-defensive bank and shallow ditch, and seldom more than a hectare in extent. Each contains a number of huts, usually sited against the inner face of the bank. They fit without difficulty into the pattern of enclosed farmsteads found in the rest of Britain.

Many similar sites also existed in southwest Wales where banks and ditches sometimes make it difficult to decide whether the site is not in fact a very small hillfort, since 50 per cent of Welsh forts enclose less than 0.5 ha. (1.2 acres). One such site, extensively excavated in 1967–8 was Walesland Rath in central Dyfed (fig. 60). Earliest occupation began in the third century BC with a settlement enclosed by a low clay bank and shallow external ditch. The western entrance had limestone walls leading up to a timber gateway. Over the south-east gate was a bridge or tower supported by six massive posts. The inner edge of the bank was lined with a continuous run of roughly rectangular wooden huts, with hard earth floors, occasional paving and indications that some had been used for animal housing. Evidence of grinding grain and metallurgy suggest that most of the buildings were occupied by people. Other circular houses with conical roofs stood inside the enclosures, together with at least one of rectangular shape.

The peripheral buildings at Walesland Rath have been compared with similar structures at Clickhimin broch in Shetland and various Scottish duns, and it is possible that they were a feature of contemporary sites along the Irish Sea coast. One word of caution; some of these buildings at Walesland may be interpreted as four-post granaries.


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