Cladh Hallan: exploring the roundhouse way of life in South Uist

Located in the Outer Hebrides, the prehistoric settlement of Cladh Hallan is best known for the Bronze Age mummies found buried beneath its roundhouses. As well as these insights into how the dead were treated, though, the dwellings have yielded illuminating insights into the world of the living, as Mike Parker Pearson, Jacqui Mulville, Helen Smith, and Peter Marshall explain.


Cladh Hallan first attracted public attention nearly 20 years ago when it produced the first evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Skeletons from this site, which lies amid the sand dunes of the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, revealed microscopic evidence for the arresting of bacterial decomposition to enable soft-tissue preservation (see CA 297 and CA 368 for more about Bronze Age curation of the dead). Two of the skeletons had even been reassembled, using parts from multiple bodies – a man had his lower jaw replaced by that of another male, and a woman had her head replaced by a male skull. While these composite mummies attracted considerable interest, however, the row of roundhouses that they had been buried under has proved to be just as extraordinary, with 500 years of household debris preserved in house floors spanning the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

Excavations at Cladh Hallan, South Uist. This photograph shows half-metre sampling squares within the north–south row of roundhouses, viewed from the north. Photo: Mike Parker Pearson.

Cladh Hallan’s roundhouse settlement followed a long sequence of earlier activity that started at the beginning of the Bronze Age. The deep machair sand was initially cultivated in the Beaker period around 2000 BC, with fields criss-crossed by ard-ploughing. From feeding the living, these fields subsequently became a burial ground through to the Middle Bronze Age. Bodies were burnt on stone pyre platforms, one of them serving as the base for a cremation burial, and by 1200 BC inhumations were being buried alongside the cremations. One of these was the mummified woman. Around 1050 BC, she was exhumed from her initial grave and then reburied, leaving her left knee and other body parts behind in her first grave. That robbed grave was one of several large pits dug into the cemetery, some of them also containing remnants of disturbed burials. It seems that the Bronze Age dead at Cladh Hallan were not intended to rest in peace for long.

Cladh Hallan and other later prehistoric sites in South Uist and the southern isles of the Outer Hebrides. IMAGE: drawn by Ian Dennis

We don’t know what happened to the mummified woman’s own skull – a man’s head was added to her body when she was reburied beneath a north–south row of three roundhouses. Her composite body was placed within the southern quadrant of the northernmost of these houses, and another three burials were recovered from beneath each of the three houses’ north-west quadrants. The body under the central and largest house was the only one that had not been recycled – this was a 10- to 12-year-old, probably female, individual. Having died around the time of the houses’ construction in 1080-1020 BC, this girl may even have been chosen as a foundation sacrifice.

This plan shows the north–south row of roundhouses constructed in 1080-1020 BC. The four foundation burials are marked in red and the original grave of the mummified woman (second from top) is marked in blue. IMAGE: drawn by Irene de Luis.

Illuminating patterns

The roundhouses were semi-subterranean in construction with floors sunk below the ground. The central house was the deepest, dug down a metre to the Beaker ploughsoil. These floors were formed of thin layers of sand mixed with peat ash from the hearth, incorporating small, trodden-in materials, as well as debris left on their surfaces. To excavate these floors we devised a methodology of 100% sampling for flotation on a half-metre grid, and combined this with geochemical and magnetic susceptibility sampling backed up with soil micromorphological analysis to examine patterns of use. This was the standard, integrated scientific methodology that we applied to all our excavations on South Uist’s machair, investigating variously Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Viking settlements.

The range and quantity of materials recovered from the house floors were outstanding: pottery, bone, clay, shell, carbonised grain, coprolites, and tools or artefacts of pumice, stone, bone, antler, flint, quartz, fired clay, and bronze. Sieving through a fine mesh of 1mm meant that even the tiniest of items were recovered, and provided patterns of discard across the floors, which also preserved features that included the central fireplaces, sleeping platforms, and other internal features such as water tanks. The central house contained all of these features, as well as a sunken storage area beneath its floor in the south. With interior dimensions of 10m by 8.5m, this was the largest of the houses. It was entered via a ramp sloping down from its east-facing doorway. This entrance was later extended eastwards so that those entering the house had to first pass through a small circular anteroom.

Patterns of debris on the central house’s floor were striking. Pottery sherds were most numerous in the south-east, whereas the majority of tools – of bone, stone, pumice, and flint – were concentrated in the south-west quadrant. Some of these spilled over on to the raised sleeping platform of laid turfs in the north-west, while the mammal bone (variously chopped, burnt, cut, butchered, and gnawed) formed a half-moon pattern immediately west of the hearth. These fragments of bone represent food waste, tossed or dropped by those sitting and eating around the fire. The sherds from cooking pots, on the other hand, reveal where the food was prepared and cooked, south-east of the hearth.

This plan, of the earliest floor in the central roundhouse, shows the hearth (red), areas of black sand and charcoal (black), peat ash and charcoal (orange), a clay-lined basin (edged in green), and the various brown sand layers in and around the sub-floor ‘cellar’. Interior space between a water tank and a cist (beneath the entrance) and the inner wall face is shown in light green. IMAGE: drawn by Irene de Luis.

Curiously, there was relatively little material in the north-east of the central house. Yet this particular quadrant, above the girl’s burial, had some very unusual items within and on its floor. These included a piece of coral, a fine-ware bowl, human remains – not children’s milk teeth, which were recovered from the sleeping platform, but fragments of adult bones of the hand – a small strip of iron and, lying on the surface, two small bronze blades. The iron strip is one of the earliest pieces of iron found in the British Bronze Age and may possibly derive from a fibula or bracelet. The two bronze blades, meanwhile, may constitute a ‘closing’ deposit when this phase of the house came to an end. The other items reference the exotic and the dead, and are perhaps remnants of a small shrine. A spread of ash above the girl’s burial produced the highest density of barley grains from anywhere in the house, possibly the debris from a burnt offering.

Suggestions of status

The southern roundhouse revealed similar spatial patterns – an east- facing entrance, a central hearth, and a sleeping area in the north- west – except that pottery sherds (both sooted and unsooted) were rare here, indicating that less cooking took place in this house. Hide-working was evidently an important activity in the settlement, using bone pins to peg out the hides, pumice to scrape them, and polishing stones to soften them. This hide-working kit was found in the same south-west quadrant of the central house, and the high proportions of calves and fawns among Cladh Hallan’s faunal remains reveal that the end products were calfskin and deerskin, presumably used for garments and bedding. The southern house’s north-east quadrant was largely devoid of debris, as in the central house, though a stone cleaver and hammerstone were left on the floor here – low-value items compared to the bronze ‘closing’ offerings of the central house.

Selected spatial distributions of pottery fragments (<10mm), pumice (>10mm), worked bone (>10mm), coarse stone tools, phosphorus values, and unusual items (including the iron object) on or within the earliest floor of the central roundhouse. IMAGE: originals drawn by Harry Manley.

The northern roundhouse was laid out in similar fashion to the other two, with the entrance, the hearth, and a sleeping area in identical locations. Among the pottery sherds, again concentrated in the south-east quadrant, were those of an unfired pot, evidence for pottery-making alongside the cooking debris. Yet the house had been used differently to the other two. Tools were rare and were not confined to the south-west quadrant, while food waste was principally dropped south-east of the hearth. Soil micromorphological analysis reveals that herbivore dung had accumulated on the floor of this house – cattle and/or sheep had been stalled here. This was not so much a permanently occupied dwelling as an ancillary building used by both people and animals. Even so, the ‘closing’ deposit in its north-east quadrant was a broken bronze bracelet – an item of relatively high value.

The different uses of each roundhouse hint at social distinctions among their inhabitants. Those living in the small southern roundhouse did little cooking and had simpler materials than those in the central house. They may have been dependants – elderly relatives, servants, or even slaves – of those who lived in the main house. Perhaps they even did the cooking in the central house. The northern roundhouse may not have been an all-year-round dwelling, and sometimes housed domestic animals, either alongside or alternating with people. In the Hebridean ‘blackhouses’ of recent centuries, farm animals were over-wintered indoors, sharing the same building as the human inhabitants.

Selected spatial distributions of mammal bone (>10mm), unburnt mammal bone (<10mm), bones of small mammals (<10mm), metalworking debris, magnetic susceptibility values, and carbonised grain (<10mm) on or within the earliest floor the central roundhouse. IMAGE: originals drawn by Harry Manley.

Another key activity was metalworking, which was carried out periodically by the people in the central roundhouse. At its foundation, they deposited hundreds of mould fragments in front of the doorway before the anteroom was built. These clay moulds had been used to cast weapons, tools, and ornaments – swords, spears, razors, axes, and pins. When the central house was renewed some decades later, a second casting took place beside the central hearth, presumably while the roof was off so as not to set light to it. A third casting took place at the next renewal of the roundhouse but not thereafter during the transition to the Iron Age. The inhabitants of Cladh Hallan may have been caught out at that moment by the collapse of the metal trade, since their use of flint tools actually increased temporarily during the Bronze Age–Iron Age transition.

The northern roundhouse during excavation. North is at the bottom of the picture. PHOTO: Mike Parker Pearson.

Repeated renewal

The central roundhouse went through six phases of renewal between 1000 BC (1025-920 BC) and 600 BC (640-580 BC). Each time its shape and size were remodelled, and each time the old floor was covered with clean sand, on which the new floor was laid. On average, renewal occurred every 60-70 years. The first such episode took place in 1025-920 BC, when the southern roundhouse was abandoned and the three-house module reduced to a pair of structures. Both remaining roundhouses were rebuilt in this phase, and the division of activities between them became even more pronounced. In the main house, unusually, the pottery included a high proportion of unsooted sherds derived from storage pots, most of which were found in the south-west quadrant among the craft-working tools and potting clay. The south-east quadrant, however, with its high proportion of sooted sherds, continued to be the cooking area.

The two-house module continued into the next phase (995-860 BC), the final part of the Late Bronze Age, though the northern house was now in a state of increasing dereliction. In the main house, the same range of craft activities was being practised, though the working area now encroached further towards the north-west, over the southern end of the sleeping platform. In this phase, the floor of the area associated with food preparation, in the south-east of the main house, was strewn with smashed cooking pots. These had been left where they had broken, with no attempt to remove the larger sherds to a midden. The nearest such dump was 100m away from the houses, a surprisingly long distance to take out the rubbish!

Selected spatial distributions of pottery fragments (<10mm), worked bone (>10mm), pumice (>10mm), flint (>10mm), charred grain (<10mm), charred weed seeds (<10mm), phosphorus values, and mammal bone (>10mm) on or within the floor of the southern roundhouse. IMAGE: originals drawn by Harry Manley
Selected spatial distributions of pottery sherds (>10mm), coarse stone tools, worked bone (>10mm), pumice (>10mm), mammal bone (>10mm), and phosphorus values on or within the earliest floor of the northern roundhouse. IMAGE: originals drawn by Harry Manley.

In the run-up to the Bronze Age–Iron Age transition (930-775 BC) only one roundhouse remained: the large house formerly at the centre of the row. Activities were organised in the traditional layout, with cooking in the south-east, craft-working in the south-west, and the sleeping platform in the north-west. In the north-east quadrant, two dogs were buried under the floor, one of them lying across the doorway. The other, directly above the girl’s burial from 300 years earlier, was headless. Were these spirit guardians protecting the house and its inhabitants from malign external forces?

In later phases, into the Iron Age, the same arrangement of activities continued in the different quadrants of the surviving roundhouse, but with modifications. The house was changing in terms of how it was used. Quernstones for grinding barley grain were now absent and the smaller quantities of pottery imply that food may have been largely prepared and cooked elsewhere. The characteristic platform with turfs for sleeping on was also absent from the north-west quadrant, suggesting that the house was now more of a daytime work space rather than a permanent dwelling – and by 735 570 BC it was also serving as a store of agricultural tools. It appears that this was now an ancillary outhouse, but we don’t know where the people using it were now living.

Finally, two unusual buildings were built on the margins of the Cladh Hallan settlement during its decline and abandonment. Both were double roundhouses formed of two circular rooms joined together. One, built on top of the midden 100m away from the row of roundhouses, was used for bronze-casting, while the other is interpreted as a smokery and steam room. This latter building may be the 3m-high ‘beehive shaped structure of dry stonework’ that is recorded as having been demolished just over a century ago when the walls of the modern cladh (cemetery) were being built.

A plan of the central and northern roundhouses in 1025-920 BC, during the Late Bronze Age. A baby burial in the north-east quadrant of the northern house is marked in red. IMAGE: drawn by Irene de Luis.
Plan of the central roundhouse in its third phase in 995-860 BC. The northern house was close to abandonment by this time. IMAGE: drawn by Irene de Luis.

‘Sunwise’ structures

At the time we started excavating Cladh Hallan in the early 1990s, archaeologists were discussing new ideas about how domestic space was organised within prehistoric roundhouses (see CA 179). From his excavation of an Iron Age roundhouse at Thatcham in Berkshire, Andrew Fitzpatrick had formulated a ‘sunwise’ model of roundhouse use, proposing that the spatial arrangement of indoor activities mimicked the sun’s passage around the sky. His provocative cosmological model proposed that, as the sun rose, food was cooked in the south-east, then daytime activities were carried out in the south and south-west, while at night-time people slept in the north where the sun passed below the horizon. Further elaborations of the model presented this sunwise circle as the life cycle, with birth in the south-east and death in the north-east, and as sunwise movement into and out of the house.

A lively debate followed – were roundhouses organised in these cosmological terms, or were their interiors laid out in purely practical ways to make the best use of light and wind? If pure utility was the rationale behind their internal arrangements, for example, activities such as craft-working would be expected to be carried out in the lightest part of the house, nearest the doorway.

The smashed pots and other ‘kitchen’ debris on the floor of the central roundhouse’s south-east quadrant in 995-860 BC, viewed from the east. PHOTO: Mike Parker Pearson.

Resolving this debate was difficult because of the lack of opportunities for finding preserved roundhouse floors anywhere in Britain. In the vast majority of cases, roundhouses survive only as rings of post-holes or circular gullies, their floor surfaces having been ploughed out and eroded away. This was why Cladh Hallan was such a significant site to dig. Not only was the central roundhouse rebuilt and re-floored six times, but the other houses on the site provided a further nine examples of well-preserved floor layers. It was the perfect situation to test the Fitzpatrick model, which has been overwhelmingly supported by the evidence from Cladh Hallan. It will be interesting to see whether such patterning is found in other roundhouses with well-preserved remains, such as the waterlogged sites of Must Farm in Cambridgeshire (CA 312 and CA 319) and Black Loch of Myrton in Dumfries and Galloway (CA 284 ‘News’).

This plan shows the single roundhouse (the central roundhouse) in 930-775 BC, just before or during the Bronze Age–Iron Age transition. Two dogs were buried north-east of the house’s central hearth. IMAGE: drawn by Irene de Luis.

Cladh Hallan provides rare insights into the interplay of continuity and change. While these traditional ‘sunwise’ practices of domestic life endured over centuries, other aspects of life did not. Architectural design, ‘module’ organisation, and styles of material culture, for example, all changed. Even the remarkably plain pottery – known as Plain Ware, not surprisingly – changed gradually in small ways that are detectable from one century to another over this span of 500 years. Diurnal and annual cycles intersected with longer cycles of generational time and house renewal. Rituals of house renewal included depositing cooking pots in the liminal time and liminal areas between dismantling and rebuilding, as well as the deliberate retention of part of the old house within each newly built house.

In terms of ‘modular’ organisation, the changing number of Cladh Hallan’s roundhouses followed wider trends. The initial arrangement of a row of three or more houses is a format that is well known in many parts of Britain from the Middle Bronze Age. Cladh Hallan’s contraction to a paired module towards the end of the Late Bronze Age similarly chimes with two-house modules recognised elsewhere from that period. The subsequent shift at Cladh Hallan to single, isolated roundhouses, before the settlement’s eventual abandonment, also fits well with what we know of Early Iron Age landscapes in the Outer Hebrides and beyond.

The Fitzpatrick sunwise model and its modifications. IMAGE: drawn by Adrian Chadwick.

Many questions remain to be answered. What was the household structure? Did a nuclear family live independently in each house, or did one extended kin group inhabit all the dwellings? What was the relationship between households – were some of the houses home to dependants, whether enslaved or free, kin or related by marriage? How were gender relations negotiated within the house, and between the house and the wider world? Was every small community sufficiently independent, for example in making its own bronze equipment, or was there a wider hierarchical order of chiefs and commoners in the islands or across the west of Scotland more broadly?

While much remains unknown, what Cladh Hallan has shown us is an intimate glimpse into domestic life, not in a single Pompeii-like frozen moment, but played out over centuries in the ceaseless dynamic of continuity and change. We can see where people cooked, ate, worked, worshipped, and slept, and we can also understand something of the cultural logic behind the organisation of their daily lives. For the people of Cladh Hallan and prehistoric Britain, the practical was rooted in the spiritual and given form and meaning by their circular world.

Further information

Cladh Hallan: roundhouses and the dead in the Hebridean Bronze Age and Iron Age – Part 1: stratigraphy, spatial organisation and chronology, published by Oxbow Books (£35, ISBN 978-1789256932), is the first of two volumes about this excavation by Mike Parker Pearson, Jacqui Mulville, Helen Smith, and Peter Marshall. The project began when the team were all at Sheffield University and grew to include staff and students from the universities of Bournemouth, Cardiff, Southampton, and Oxford, and King Alfred’s College, Winchester.

The site has been digitally reconstructed in augmented reality in a brand-new app, Uist Unearthed (Ulaidhean Uibhist), which you can download from the Apple Store and Google Play. The app was created by archaeologists from Lews Castle College UHI.