Architecture Function and Form — A 4th Century Example

27 April, 2015

This week On the Reading Rest I have a small report in Danish from an excavation in Jutland. This kind of report is called a developer’s report. It is a short description of an excavation partly paid for by the developer because prehistoric remains would have been damaged by the planned construction work. In this case the archaeologists responsible for the excavation and the report have chosen among other things to present a house from the period 400 to 550 CE, that is the Early Pre Carolingian Iron Age. The site is called ‘Domdalsgård’ or ‘Dooms dale Farm’ and although this direct translation is probably not correct I shall comment upon the house calling it Doomsdale.

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Terkildsen, Kamilla Fiedler and Boddum, Sanne 2011.Domdalsgård: gravplads fra ældre romersk jernalder, landsby fra ældre og yngre germansk jernalder (Domdalsgård: Cemetery from Early Roman Iron Age, Village from Early and Late Germanic Iron Age). Bygherrerapport nr. 61. Viborg Museum. ISBN 978-87-92778-11-6  http://www.viborgstiftsmuseum.dk/data/imagemanager/pdf/61_domdalsgaard.pdf

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Illu02On today’s farm the dwelling houses are small in comparison with dairy barns and manure basins because milk production at an industrious scale shapes the farm and its farmland, as well as and the agricultural firm called I/S Søndergaard that runs the estate. The relation employee:milk-cow is c. 1:75. It’s modern market-sensitive Denmark.

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In the 5th century when Doomsdale was built, times were different and for the first time in centuries the byre or ‘the dairy barn’, in those days part of a main house, stated to become shorter than the dwelling quarters. This change was pointed out OtRR: 16 April, 2012, and exemplified by the St Darum village. In this regulated village the change was more marked and probably the result of a change in the agricultural economy favouring crops over cattle. The byres shrank and the dwelling quarters grew – the cattle became fewer and there were more people in the household. The number of heads would have balanced each other.

At Doomsdale which might be a somewhat earlier farm the proportions dwelling:byre are a little more balanced, but Doomsdale is still a typical EPCIA building because of its formalized planning, but also a little odd.

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Usually in the PCIA the proportions between the lengths of the rooms were expressed in even numbers of feet. The central main room with the hearth was the largest room. The private quarters above the heath room were larger but divided into the gable room and the chamber. In most PCIA farms the outer room was not smaller than the chamber and frequently larger probably as a reflection of the number of farm hands in the household. In Doomsdale this is not the case although a minimal change from the proportions 8-12-17-11, 5 to 8-12-17-12 would have been a natural solution if proportions mattered as much as they usually did.

Other proportional solution such as:

A four room residence with lovely chambers and a capacious central room featuring 8-12-18-10 ft. proportions …

or

The classical balanced 48 ft. room solution: 8-12-16-12 ft., often favoured on better farms in Southern Jutland …

simply didn’t fit Doomsdale.

The size of the gable room is a consequence of the roof construction, but the three other rooms are there to express a social and practical balance. When we visit one of the evenly proportioned farm we understand that there are quite a number of farmhand and that the private quarters in the upper end of the house are capacious. The central room, therefore, may be a bit crowded, but that was probably just as it ought to be on a busy modern farm. Visiting Doomsdale, on the other hand, would give the impression that the farm hands were few or their living quarters crammed, the central room was large and the chambers capacious. This would have reminded one of a Late Roman Iron Age situation being an echo of the time when cattle were more important, and large farm owners larger.

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In the byre part of the house there are no simple proportions other than the ones that were dependent upon the construction of the house. This is quite a modern trait compared to Southern Jutland where the post setting in this part of the house was functional, mirroring the construction of the cow’s compartments, dividing this part of the main farm house into byre and barn. At Doomsdale the post pairs were probably spread out evenly east of the entrance room in order to support the roof in a rational way. This solution probably involved measuring, but also small factions of the foot which cannot be measured on an excavation plan. The general impression of the main house would thus have been a mixture of rooms mirroring the social order of the household as well as rational and practical solutions to house construction. Compared to the RIA the byre part of the house would have lost a little of its ideologically inspired Early Iron Age design.

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As mentioned, the technical construction of the building shows in the distance between the short end of the house and the nearest post pair – eight feet. In reality, however, this distance is linked to a relation between the wall plate in the corner of the house and the first roof-supporting trestle. Doomsdale was built according to a proportional system which starts with a rule of the thumb stating that if the distance from the short end to the first trestle is equal to 2 and the distance from the wall plate to the side ridge equals 1, then all the roof angles in the house will fit a thatch roof, if the height of the post in the trestle is 4, given that 2 equals the wall height. In this case the central ridge will be 5 units above the ground. Moreover, owing to the rounded corners, and supported by the first trestle and the side ridges, the rafters from the short end will meet with the rafters from the side roofs in one and the same point at the central top ridge. This will not happen if the wall height isn’t equal to the distance from the short end to the first trestle. Consequently, wall height at Doomsdale equals 8 feet, i.e. 2×4 feet. The total height of the house was thus 4×5 = 20 feet, i.e. 0.312×20 = 6.24 meter.

In the ever more open Early Iron Age landscape finding the necessary timber in order to build a house gets more and more difficult and there is thus a great point in being able beforehand to figure out the dimensions needed to build the house. In tandem it becomes all the more important to build large main houses as a symbol of the status of the owner. Social competition is in other words important and little by little architecture turns away from the functionalism of the Pre Roman Iron Age to the formality and rational technique of the Early Pre Carolingian Iron Age. There is a short revival of the functional ideal in the beginning of the Late Carolingian Iron Age, but Harold Bluetooth, who else, sees to it that formalism gets back in business (cf. OtRR 11 August, 2014).

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