SAXON BUILDINGS

Monday, January 26, 2009


Possible reconstruction of building C12 at Cowdery’s Down, Hampshire (source: Millett and James 1983, Figure 70)


Carpentry was also extensively used to build the houses, barns and byres which were more common and fundamental to everyday life. The skills required were no less than for the intricate metalworking and jewelling skills of the period, but the effort and raw materials required were on an altogether different scale. A variety of building types is represented at some settlements, for instance Cowdery’s Down, where building C12, the largest and possibly the most elaborate, may serve to demonstrate the skills required. Any estimates of the quantities of raw materials required must be approximate as they are, in turn, dependent on a preferred reconstruction of the super-structure.


It has been estimated that to construct the rectangular timber building, C12, would have required the movement of c. 81 tonnes, or 45 m3, of topsoil, clay and chalk for the footings which would have taken approximately 90 man-hours. The building materials such as timber, daub and thatch would have weighed 70 tonnes (Millett and James 1983, M5/02). Our ignorance of the methods makes it difficult to establish accurate estimates of the effort involved in carrying out the various tasks but we may at least gain some idea of the order of magnitude of the work. The timber work presents more difficulty as we are even more uncertain about the methods used and the tools available. Millett and James take the absence of large saws (1983:198) literally and assume timbers would have been split radially; as we have already seen tools are generally rare finds during the period and the absence of a surviving saw need not represent the real situation (Wilson 1968; Darrah 1982). If an adze was used, smaller trees might have been more practical so that one finished square might have been formed from a single trunk. We gain an impression of the quantities of oak involved from the estimates for the building; the 55 m3 of oak required would have been obtained from about eighteen mature trees. A conservative estimate suggests that the principal timber work would require trees from two hectares of oak forest to construct the building, excluding any floorboards.


The probable sequence of events in erecting such a structure would begin with the excavation of the flat-bottomed wall-trenches dug into the chalk. Judging from the signs of pecking on the trench sides, the trenches were made with a pointed tool. Gaps were left for the doorways and the resulting rectangular area would have measured 22.1×8.5 m, if slightly wider at the middle of the long sides. Staggered vertical timbers were erected in the trench with horizontal members between the verticals to hold the intervening panels of daubed wattles. The most practical means of achieving this would be to partially construct the wall panels on the ground with the uprights and horizontals pegged together. The panels could then be raised into position. The wattling would then be inserted and finally the wall-plate. In the absence of internal roof supports, the wall may have been supported by two pairs of curving cruck blades supporting a horizontal beam carrying a king post to support the ridge, although other reconstructions are possible (Alcock and Walsh 1993). Rafters would be placed from the wall-plates to the ridge piece, probably supported on purlins. Millett and James (1983) argue for a raised joist and plank floor. As the majority of the roof load, thatch or oak shingles, was placed on the wall-plates, steeply inclined external raking timbers counteracted the thrust of the rafters. The total hours of work required to construct such a building is impossible to estimate. The preparation of the foundations and the timbers alone would have required considerable time and although C12 is the largest building excavated at the settlement, the effort required to build many of the others would not have been much less.


Such timber buildings would have been built using the accumulated experience of the community and would not have seemed such an intricate task to those who regularly witnessed the activity. Carpentry skills did not stop there as furniture would have been required within domestic buildings. What furniture actually stood inside them we can but guess. The rarity of artefacts from within buildings does not help our knowledge of furniture fittings. It is only in those rare instances where furniture is incorporated in funerals, whether specifically made for the funeral or not, that we get a glimpse of what was possible. There are a number of definite examples of bed burials especially in Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. The example from Swallowcliffe, Wiltshire consisted of ash plank sides and headboard, iron handrails and leather ‘webbing’ forming the base, the whole requiring a variety of iron cleats, eyelets and nails (Speake 1989: 82–115). An iron folding stool whose inlaid decoration suggests a sixthcentury date is another known piece of furniture (Wilson 1957). The clay figure decorating the lid of a cremation urn from Spong Hill is depicted sitting in a chair (Hills, Penn and Rickett 1987, Figure 82).

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