This old house

01:00 Sat 02nd Mar 2002 |

Q. So what is the oldest building in Britain

A. That depends on what exactly you mean by 'building'.

Q. A building's a building, isn't it

A. You'd think so, but the Council of British Archaeology on being asked the same thing replied: 'Do you mean roofed structure, a building that was lived in, a place of worship, a fortification, remains of or extant building ' Their exact words, and not unreasonable questions.

Q. OK. What is the oldest evidence of the existence of a man-made structure in the UK

A. Broom Hill near Braishfield in Hampshire has the remains of four pit dwellings. Part of one of these has been radio carbon dated to 6,500 BC. However, this is not one single building, as the site was inhabited for some considerable time and some bits are older than others.

Q. How about roofed structure

A. If you include burial sites then one of Britain's 260 long barrows are your best bet. There is a particularly impressive Neolithic tomb called West Kennet, situated on a chalk ridge near Avebury, Wiltshire, which dates from about 3600 BC - some 400 years before the first stage of Stonehenge. West Kennet measures more than 100m (320ft) long and 2.4m (8ft) high with a row of large, upright sarsen stones leading into the chamber. It is thought that this tomb was in use for as long as 1,000 years and at the end of this period the passage and chamber were filled to the roof by the Beaker people with earth and stones, among which were found pieces of pottery, bone tools and beads.

Q. Beaker people

A. A Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age people living about 5-6,000 years ago all over the temperate zones of Europe and not just in what is now southern England. They get their name from the distinctive bell-shaped beakers that they made, which were decorated in horizontal zones by finely toothed stamps.

Q. Fair enough. And the oldest house

A. The seven houses in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, which lies on the shore of the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Orkney's Mainland, dates from around 3200 BC. These are probably the earliest dwellings which retain any of the actual structure and certainly the earliest which contain furniture. Because there are almost no trees on Orkney all the furniture was made from stone, and perfectly preserved dressers, beds, cupboards and chairs, as well as pots and bone pins, necklace beads, carved stone balls and containers holding red ochre have all been found there. The village was rediscovered after a storm in the 1850s dislodged much of the coastline in Skaill Bay, and excavations were begun in 1927. Some remains have disappeared into the sea and the village is in constant danger of being swept away.

As for houses which have remained above ground since their construction, two Norman examples have survived on Steep Hill in Lincoln. Wattle and daub or timber were the normal domestic building materials of the day, so these stone houses are an indication of the city's commercial importance at the time, when Lincoln was the fourth largest city in England.

Q. Extant building

A. The chancel of St Paul's Church in Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, dates from the time of St Bede in the 7th century. At this time the church was a free-standing chapel within the monastery there. Inside the church, cemented into the wall of the tower, is the stone slab which records in a Latin inscription the dedication of the church on 23 April AD 685. It reads: 'Dedicatio basilicae Sci Paul VIIII kl Mai anno XV Efridi Reg Ceolfridi Abb eiusdem q eccles do avctore conditoris anno IIII.' ('The dedication of the basilica of St Paul on the 9th day before the Kalens of May in the 15th year of King Ecgfrith and in the fourth year of Abbot Ceolfrith founder, by God's guidance, of the same church.')

Q. How do these compare to man-made structures elsewhere in the world

A. Well, the oldest known remains of a structure in Europe, those at Terra Amata in France, date from around 200,000 to 400,000 years ago - which is a bit vague when you think about it - so, they're much older than anything in Britain and for many years were thought to be the oldest anywhere.

However, Japanese archaeologists have recently uncovered the remains of what is now believed to be the world's oldest artificial structure, on a hillside at Chichibu near Tokyo. The remains, which have been dated to around 500,000 years old, consist of what appear to be 10 post holes, forming two irregular pentagons. It is thought these are the remains of two huts used as shelters. Given the date, the architects of the site would not even have been modern humans but Homo erectus, the immediate ancestor of Homo sapiens. Erectus is known to have used stone tools, and thirty tools were also found scattered around the site.

See also the answerbank articles on Stonehenge 1, 2 & 3

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By Simon Smith

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