Thatching in Prehistoric & Roman Britain

A Shadowy Start… The Craft in Prehistory.

For very many years, it was accepted that the first permanent buildings erected in Britain, dated to the Neolithic or New Stone Age; the time of the first farmers. But recent discoveries have pushed this event several thousand years further back, well into the period of the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. In this period people lived a nomadic life, probably travelling within a local area, in pursuit of various food sources. And it now seems that they built some structures, intended to last quite a while.

At least two groups of these Mesolithic hunter gathers, decided to settle down. One built a structure a few miles east of Alnwick, in modern Northumberland, on a sandy cliff, now overlooking the North Sea. Hazelnuts were stored for winter use; their remains providing excellent dating material; it seems this small, round thatched structure, was used for around a century; that lay between, nine thousand seven hundred and nine thousand six hundred years ago. Another group settled near a lake, at the famous Mesolithic site at Starr Carr in todays Yorkshire. Their 11ft (3.3m) circular structure, was five hundred years older than the Alnwick example. Each putting around ten thousand years, between today’s thatchers and their Middle Stone Age counterparts…

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Same shape & size…This image, is only a century or so old. The property belonged to the well known New Forest snake catcher; ‘Brusher Mills’. He lived in this simple home for many years. Many other such buildings, littered the remoter parts of Britain until quite recently. Giving temporary shelter, to charcoal burners, chair bodgers and such like. Many carrying a thatched roof.

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Mobile Homes… In around 1900 some glimpses of a prehistoric, nomadic life could still easily be found. The left hand image, shows an Apache ’wikiup’. Constructed and thatched in couple of days; to last a few months, as these people historically, moved over what is now the south western United States.
The lower left image, depicts that classic nomadic race; the Roma. This group was pictured in Hungary, a thousand years after they began their wanderings, from India. These people moved around in heavy carts, not in the canvas covered caravans of popular imagination. And it seems a sectional wattle hut, roughly thatched, served as a home, when they settled for a while. In the lower right hand picture, Tule rushes are woven into mats. Which could be rolled up in minutes, by the native American peoples in what is now Northern California. This being more of a summer residence.

thatch history

thatch history

The later, Neolithic peoples, changed the face of their world dramatically, with the cultivation of crops, for food and thatch. In Britain, this change in lifestyle began around six and a half thousand years ago. Occupation sites are known, for the first part of this period, traces of oblong buildings being found…

The average structure was around 27x16ft (8×4.5m). Thousands of existing thatched cottages, still reflect these proportions… The width, of around sixteen feet (4.5m), keeps reoccurring down through the centuries. This is around the maximum roof span, that can be obtained without recourse to a complicated roof structure. A reason why houses were long and not wide. The distance, between the big roof timbers, became known as a Bay.

Excavations, near Stonehenge in Wiltshire have brought to light over a hundred buildings; from around four thousand six hundred years ago; these were all around sixteen feet square. What later, medieval builders called a ‘one bay cottage’… All these square and oblong buildings, probably had a hipped roof; this being easier to construct, if not to thatch; than a gabled building, which requires two higher end walls…

thatch history

Thatch, as far as the eye can see… These dwellings are of a very similar size and shape, to those that once stood near Stonehenge. And allow us some idea, of what that Neolithic settlement looked like. And the later towns, that once graced the interior, of some mighty Iron Age Hillforts. In reality, these buildings were occupied, by the good citizens of Kayes, now in Mali in around 1900.

The later part of the Neolithic period, sees the first evidence of hazel coppicing, which is so important in the production of wooden thatching spars. The ‘Walton Heath Trackway‘, from the Somerset Levels, is contemporary with the Stonehenge buildings; this consisted of wooden hurdles, that would not look out of place in a modern coppice; providing evidence, of some quite sophisticated woodland management. The flint tools then used, were certainly sharp enough to point spars. Waterlogged archaeological sites might produce some wooden pointed sticks; but no one has yet been confident enough, to call them worn out thatching spars…

The peoples of this period, did not only construct small houses; as a remarkable find in Aberdeenshire has shown. Excavations, at Balbridie, have revealed the site of a massive, five thousand year old timber building… At 85ft (26m) long and more remarkably, 43ft (13m) wide, it is the longest, Neolithic building in Britain and the widest in Europe; found to date. Creating a roof of over sixty squares, enough to make any modern thatcher wince…

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Sixty squares… This huge structure, must be around that size. Giving an idea of what some prehistoric sites may have looked like. Dating from the 1880’s, it housed the burials of the Kings of Buganda. Situated near Kampala, in Uganda; this thatch became a World Heritage Site in 2001.

It is perhaps more than a coincidence, that the introduction of metals into Britain, also brought a change; in the shape of most structures. The peoples that brought one, may have reintroduced the other; as the round house now makes a return. These became the standard dwellings, throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, and well into the Roman occupation.

This period saw the climate becoming benign, with areas such as Dartmoor being populated. The remains of many of the stone walled houses there, are still to be seen. They follow a similar pattern; round and between 8 and 22 ft (2.5 to 6.5m) in diameter. Sheltering Bronze Age families; who lived here around three and half thousand years ago. Traces of porches are often found; to keep the rain out of their living area.



Dartmoor Stone Circles… at Grimspound. These two examples both have the remains of a porch, sheltering the main entrance. Photos; copyright and thanks, Paul Ansell & Michael Murrey.*

But not all buildings were circular. The marshy ground, at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, has revealed a large oblong, hall like structure, three thousand years old; along with the more usual roundhouses. Although only half the size of it’s Neolithic forebear, in Aberdeenshire, it would still give thatchers, over twenty four squares of roof to complete; the size of a very large modern house.


Flag Fen… Large, reconstructed roundhouses. The angle of the thatch would have been greater in times past. To obtain a long lasting, waterproof roof, 45 degrees of pitch, is required, for both Bronze Age roofs and modern ones… Photo; copyright and thanks, Jo Turner*.

The most spectacular sites, from the Iron Age, are the massive hill forts of Southern Britain and the stone Brochs, in Scotland; all concerned with defence. The hill forts often contained many dozens of round houses; big enough settlements, to claim to be Britain’s first towns. The tall, spectacular Brochs, also kept thatchers busy…


Broch of Mousa… In Shetland, the best preserved Broch or defensive round tower and the tallest still standing. One of more than 500 built in Scotland, in the Iron Age. The tops of these towers would have certainly been roofed, possibly using the ‘Highland’ thatching methods, still practiced hereabouts. Photo; copyright & thanks, Colin Park.*


Ham Hill… This Iron Age Hillfort lies in what is now South Somerset. Possibly the largest in Britain and difficult to photograph in its entirety; its ramparts are three miles in length and enclose an area of around 210 acres (85 hectares). How many thatched roundhouses it contained can only be imagined…

Other forms of housing also existed, in this period. The west and north produced an unusual home, known as the Courtyard or Wheel House. Chysauster in west Cornwall, is one of the best known; four pairs of houses, around two thousand three hundred years old, have been excavated. The rooms form an oval shape, around a central courtyard. If open to the elements; the run off from the thatch, would have made a very wet, middle courtyard. But perhaps the whole structure, lay under a single, large thatched roof; somewhat dark inside but much drier…

Chysauster… from the air and a 1990’s temporary reconstruction, on an original building. Right photo; copyright and thanks, Paul Allison.*



This period also had it’s rectangular buildings, a temple was constructed near the Thames. If you have ever landed at Heathrow Airport, you may well have passed over the site of it……

As the existence of brochs and hill forts show, the last five or six centuries before the Romans appeared, were an unsettled period. Some Iron Age peoples chose to live on islands, real and man made; known as Crannoghs. Being near the water allowed the easy gathering, of reeds and rushes, to thatch the buildings on these little islands. The Lake Village, near Glastonbury in modern Somerset was an example of this type of settlement. The buildings here ranged, between 18 and 28 ft. (5.5 to 8.5 m) in diameter. The excavators found traces of wattle walls, but no thatch… I was involved in the reconstruction of two of these houses. Most thatch was tied on; only the top two or three courses and the ridge, being fixed with spars. No tools or materials, that were unavailable to an Iron Age thatcher were used. When completed and the central fire lit, the building soon became quite cosy; if a little smoky .

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After two millennia… Two reconstructed dwellings, from the Glastonbury Lake Village. On the left, is one of twenty six feet (8m) in diameter; the upper one, is three quarters of the size, with a porch. The larger of the buildings, would have housed an extended Iron Age family; living under a roof of around nine squares of thatch. The same area as a good sized cottage.

The lakeside crannog near Glastonbury, would have seemed quite modest, to some of their more powerful neighbours… Up on the Mendip Hills, south of Bath, an excavation brought a huge roundhouse to light; this one was 50 feet (15m) in diameter… This dwelling would have had a 40ft (12m) thatched roof; nearly twice as high as the larger Glastonbury house; with a roof area, over three and a half times bigger. Some Late Iron Age thatchers, laid around seven tonnes of straw thatch; or three thousand bundles of water reeds; to cover this monster dwelling…

When it’s cold and wet outside and you happen to be inside, one of these reconstructed buildings; you realise, that once fed and watered; the best and most basic human comforts, comprise of a dry and warm environment. Thatchers, helping to keep more than two hundred and fifty generations of early Britons in this happy state…


Warm and dry… A snowy, reconstructed crannog, on Loch Tay… Photo; copyright & thanks Alan Stewart.*

The Romans; Baths, Roads and Tiles… and lots of thatch.

The Romans must have felt an invasion of Britain worth their while… Modern historians tend to agree. A island, with a population level not seen again, until the Elizabethan period. With as much land under cultivation, as at the start of the First World War. A prize worth winning…

Another statistic, also casts a light on this period. With the type of subsistence farming carried out in Britain, at this time and long afterwards; it took the labour of nine agricultural workers to feed ten people… Until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the population, were concerned in some way with producing food, for at least part of the year. And only a small minority could follow other paths. In the Roman period, this majority mostly lived in the countryside and nearly all slept under a thatched roof. Yet the images we often see of Roman Britain, are of bustling towns, or magnificent villas; covered with tiles…


What did the Romans know about thatch?… More than we imagine. Ancient writers mention, that the thatched hut of Romulus was preserved on the Palatine Hill; in the very heart of Rome. To remind Romans, of their rudimentary origins… The coin, is from the reign of Constans, the last reigning emperor to visit Britain; in 343. It shows a young barbarian, being dragged from his stylised thatched hut. So it seems the Romans officially regarded the craft, as somewhat backward. But in reality, it was too useful to the empire’s citizens, to diminish to any extent.

Below… Campagna Romana, around 1910… These later Roman thatchers, are busy working, not twenty miles from the city. On the flood plain of the Tiber. What they are creating, would have been very familiar to their forebears; throughout the empire they created…



Completed roof… ‘A shepherd’s hut in Lazio, 1913’.

Two centuries after the Roman invasion, many farmers still lived in the homes of their forebears. In the north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, these types of building carried on until the fifth century. But change did come slowly. New types of wheat were introduced; and storage barns first make an appearance. A money economy, meant a few coins to spend. Also a rectangular shape, for buildings of all types, was finally established, by the time the Romans departed…

Very few Roman villages have been excavated, rich villas and vivid mosaics, are more rewarding than post holes it seems. It would appear, that most buildings were of wood and thatch; but a few tiled, masonry structures, acknowledged the technologies of the new rulers.

When the first cartload of tiles, trundled off one of the straight new roads and down the track, to some remote village, we can only imagine the thoughts of the inhabitants, as this new roofing was first used… The world they had only glimpsed, on market days, in the nearest town; had finally spread to their small hamlet. They may have found the new buildings somewhat stark and cold; compared to their snug thatched dwellings. But here was the future no doubt.

If the thatchers at this time, thought their craft was doomed, they were wrong. Tiles became as redundant as the empire that brought them. As the peoples that now coveted these islands; were much more in tune, with the culture of the native inhabitants. Nine out of ten of them at least…..

* Several of the images, found on this page, were taken from the excellent Geograph site; licensed for reuse under Creative Commons. For one reason or another I never obtained any, on my tour round Britain. So thanks to all concerned, for allowing their images to be used…