Sunday 22 April 2012

Simple Pictish Buildings Part 2 - Figure of Eight House

A figure of eight house is considered to represent a slightly later phase in building design compared with the wheelhouse, but there seems to be evidence of contemporary occupation on some sites, so making one of each and having them side by side on the gaming table didn't ought to ruffle any but the most pedantic of feathers.

The term "figure of eight" derives from the two near-circular rooms joined together under a single roof - "jelly baby house" is sometimes used in less reverent sources. The single roof is considered to be more likely since a split pitched structure would leave a valley between the two chamber roofs where water might collect.

This breathtaking reconstruction at Bostadh on the island of Great Bernera in the Hebrides is the basis of my plan, again with input from Professor Harding. Based on the dimensions from Harding, the structure would end up about 200mm long, which was a bit too big. So, I scaled it down, whilst trying to keep the proportions the same. For those of a certain age, this is the "Barratt Box" version...

It's an interesting question whether the best way to do this is to produce a wall stucture, fix this onto / into the ground base, and set the roof on top of it, or carve the whole thing en bloc. Whichever way you go, the key thing is that the angle of the roof is pretty much constant along the whole length of the ridge. This means that the ridge slopes downward from the doorway end. Based on the various photographs of the reconstruction, I came up with a figure of about 40 degrees. This is shallower that might be seen on many buildings. There's a reason for this: a lot of these dwellings are / were in the west of Scotland, in coastal areas. Here heavy prolonged snow, which will overload the roof when it lays on it, is far less common than in the Highlands. However, howling Atlantic gales are very common, and the lower pitch offers a better chance of the roof actually staying in place! You need to make yourself a construction drawing and actually measure or calculate the true value.

Waste foam base, marked out.

I went down the road of taking individual bits and sticking them together, as per my normal practice. Not very original, perhaps, but it works for me.

Base cut out.

I cut out the base using a circle cutter to mark out, followed by a big knife. After cutting a doorway in, I followed the Wheelhouse scheme as far as the wall structure went - Slater's textured plastic card.

The roof is the key part of the whole thing. There's very little overhang over the walls, given that the rafters bed into the centre of the walls (see the photograph in Professor Harding's article). I took a big hefty block of waste packaging foam, and went from there.

 Roof block.

Using the base as a guide, I marked out the outlines of the roof. The walls, complete with Slater's card stonework are here. The Greenstuff is to merge in the joints, as per the wheelhouse.

Roof marked out.

Next, I carved away all the bits that aren't involved with making the roof the right shape. A sliding bevel to guide the roof angle, and a couple of cocktail sticks to mark the high points of the roof help. The one at the lower end was measured to provide a reference for the apex height.

Roof, carved to shape. Plenty of waste!

 It was then installed, using a good coat of Evo-Stik.

Roof installed.

The base is MDF, with foam sheet glued down, and a cutout for the building to sit in. It sounds obvious, but use the building itself to mark this. However, wait until you have applied and stone effect, as this can change the shape and make life hard if you don't.

Footprint cut out

I put in the same sort of slope, steps and revetting from ground level down to the door as I did with the wheelhouse. The doorway  was cut out, and a door (cut from balsa with detail engraved) was installed as it's easier at this stage. I'll tidy up the edge of steps at some point, and add a lintel from plastic card.

Door and steps fitted

The base needs a bit of modelling to provide a natural look (which is easy), and the addition of the low wall visible in the reconstruction (which is harder). This could be stone, like the one in the Hebrides, or turf, which is easier to make, or a combination thereof. Take your choice... I plumped for making a turf wall made from the offcuts left over from cutting out the base. Here's the wall installed. The pins are temporary while the Evo-Stik goes off. The wall then gets trimmed and shaped a bit to make it a bit more even looking.

Wall pinned while drying

The thatch  is towelling, fixed with copious amounts of Evo-Stik, trimmed to size once with a very sharp knife once the glue has dried, then wetted down with PVA. The roof is then accented with a web of "ropes" made from 3/0 flytying thread over it. These ropes have rocks (larger bits from the sharp sand bag) "tied" (actually superglued) to the ends to hold down the thatch. This is still normal in the Western Isles. Doing these ropes is laborious and best does in stages. Who am I trying to kid? Laborious doesn't begin to describe it!

Thatch  done and roped down

Groundwork is the usual sharp sand over PVA. Once this was dry I gave the whole thing a good coat of panzer grey emulsion followed by flock in the places that need it. This included a patch or three on the roof, where weed seeds in the heather thatch have taken hold!

Next, I gave the entire structure a wash with burnt umber acrylic, well thinned and with some flow improver added. After this is dry, it's a case of drybrushing with as many shades as you can manage without going insane. I lightly retouched the ropes around the rocks with a little more wash at the end, to re-emphasise the contrast here, which was a bit lost during the drybrushing. After a coat of Pledge floor wax for protection, I sprayed two coats of Galleria matt varnish.

 One side

 Front door

View coming down the mountain

Here's a couple of views, with a Black Tree Design Pictish warrior for scale. I added the mail and helmet, to provide some heavy troop support to the usual collection of woefully under-equipped light infantry.


Monday 9 April 2012

Sub-Roman Buildings (1) A Simple House (or Two!)

 Someone asked whether I was going to construct any Sub-Roman buildings as part of this project.

I don’t have a Sub-Roman army, and I don’t have an intention of getting one (and if I keep telling myself that often enough, hopefully I’ll start to believe it), so I don’t have any obvious need for any such buildings. Also, I had thought that the Sub-Roman period had really ended by about AD600, which is too early for my Anglo-Saxon army (although feasible for my Pictish / Alban Scots army).

However, a bit of reading turned up the fact that the last Sub-Roman kingdoms in the north, Rheged and Strathclyde, were extant until they were annexed by Northumbria (AD730) and the Alban Scots (1019-1053) respectively. Apparently the Sub-Roman state in the southwest (Dumnonia) lasted until about 1042 when it was incorporated into the England of Edward the Confessor. This provides me with an excuse to add Sub-Roman buildings! It also makes avoiding building a Sub-Roman army that much harder...

I'll add a note of caution here. Compared to what is available regarding Roman, Saxon and even Pictish architecture from archaeological sources, the records regarding Sub-Roman buildings seem quite sparse. Also, differences in local culture, geography and geology would suggest (to me at least) that buildings in Dumnonia might be quite different to buildings in Rheged, which would be different again from Strathclyde. I would therefore be reluctant to make any sort of claim of archaeological authenticity for most of what follows!

That said, the limited resources I’ve found suggest that the building styles retained a good deal of Roman form and shape, but (especially in rural areas) abandoned stone and / or brick construction and tiled roofs, replacing this with timber-framed structures with cob or wattle and daub walls, and thatch on the roof. There seems to be some evidence that this method of construction carried on changing only in minor ways for centuries, in the same way that the great halls built in the Romano-British period differed only in detail from those in the Saxon and Anglo-Danish periods. Therefore these should sit comfortably with the Saxon great hall I'm building.

Excavations at Yeavering, in Northumberland, turned up the foundations / outlines of a number of what were suggested to be pre-Anglian (not a very useful term since it has a specific geological meaning too!) domestic buildings, although this attribution is a matter of debate (see here). These were all 8-9m long, with a length to width ratio of 1.5-2. Interestingly, this matches closely with the size of the Viking terraced houses excavated in York.

These dimensions give a range of 140-160mm long by 70-105mm wide, which is a nice, convenient size for the tabletop. The walls are set at 35mm high to the eaves, with roof height 60mm vertically from eaves to ridge (a roughly 60 degree pitch). The evidence suggests load-bearing posts with a wattle and daub infill, although a daubed timber wall is a potential alternative, all of which is suitably nebulous for our purposes.

The roofs obviously haven't survived at all, so whether these are straight rafters or curved cruck structures is absolute conjecture. Therefore you can feel free to have either!

The building techniques described above are very simple to replicate using the same basic method I used for the Saxon church. Make the walls from foam sheets, or use MDF to make a vastly stronger piece, at the cost of considerably more work. The third alternative, as used here, is to cut this relatively small building out of a solid block of foam. Whichever method gives the general structure, it gets rough tissue paper applied with PVA to give the appearance of a wattle and daub or cob structure. It is then very simple to add the timber framing afterwards, appliquéd on using thin wooden strips. Coffee stirrers are (or seem to be) about 1mm thick. This scales out at 56mm (no, really?!) or roughly two inches. Whether this is over-scale or not is debatable: looking at timber-framed buildings in York, and at Wealden houses, (both much later, of course, but essentially using the same techniques) the projection varies between nothing and several inches, so pay your money and take your choice. The width, at about a foot in scale, is at the upper limit. A lot of the timbers would be narrower than this. I took a different route to coffee stirrers, as noted below.

All I will say is that looking at old timber framed houses, the timbers are NOT uniform. The wood was worked green, using axes, adzes and drawknives, and the dimensions vary considerably not only between different timbers, but also within individual pieces. I’d rough my coffee stirrers up a bit and even split some down a bit thinner to avoid it looking like a job lot of planks from Jewson’s timber mill, and remember that as the wood moved when it dried, the joints could tighten, loosen or twist, and that individual timbers might even split a little, so some unevenness (within reason) in the construction is a good thing!

Windows would be limited in number, small in size, and closed with shutters. Unless you are going to build an interior, it's simpler to just add false shutters to the outside and be done with. There would probably have been a door in each gabled end. These can be appliquéd too, but I think look they better set into the thickness of the wall with a frame.

After a roof is formed, thatching can follow the teddy bear fur or towelling method, according to preference. Remember, no chimney!

Anyway, on with the build. This is such a simple build, I've done two, one from solid foam and one from MDF.

Check this bad boy out! What a find it was when this huge block of foam turned up - a bit like the Holy Grail of salvage. It's perfect to get the structure of one house from.

 Big bit of foam!

Here's a block cut out with a saw. It's too big even for my PM8 knife or the throat on the scroll saw! This one will get a slightly curved roof, per a cruck beam design.

House-sized bit.

This pile of bits cut on the table saw and mitre saw, will build the other house. The MDF build is reinforced inside with some bits of angle section timber to provide more glue surface. Square section would work, but I didn't have any suitable stock lying around. This one will get a straight raftered roof.

Kit-form house.

Here are the shells, straight and curved, mounted on bases (for stability) and with the doors cut out. I added the paper layer next, by coating the whole structure in PVA, leaving it to dry then sticking the paper down with more, diluted PVA. Once this was dry, I went on to install the roofs next.

Sub-Roman housing estate under construction!

The roof bases are foamcore - it's the easiest solution. The underlying structure and covering provides plenty of strength, and foamcore is an easy way to get the requisite thickness for a thatched roof. The straight raftered roof is facile, since it's simple square, flat pieces. The curved cruck structure looks harder, but is easy enough if you score the outer side of the roof whilst leaving the inner paper layer intact. You can then simply make the requisite curve.

Paper and roofs on.

The next bit is to start planking! Get a pile of coffee stirrers, balsa strips or bits of spruce; a good sharp knife and a chisel; a pot of glue and (most importantly!) a comfortable chair, and away you go. I used balsa sheet 1/16" thick, heavily roughed up on the face with a wire brush. The straight beamed house got "smarter" looking timber, whereas I made the cruck beam house rougher-looking. Ironically, the rougher work was much more time consuming! The solid foam structure lends itself to having some exposed wattle showing - nicely in keeping with the rougher appearance of the woodwork. I cut down between two of the timbers and removed a shallow slice of the structure, then glued a piece of wattle cast from Fimo clay into place, making sure it sits slightly below the surface.

Timber structure and exposed wattle.

Windows (shutters actually) and doors are the next stage. They're really starting to look like houses now.

Doors and shutters.

The thatch is towelling, cut into strips and and stuck down with Evo-Stik. PVA wets down the fabric and makes it lay properly. Again, the cruck beam got a rougher looking appearance. It wasn't my plan when I set out to make it look like it belonged to the Sub-Roman equivalent of Albert Steptoe, but it seems to have ended up like that.

Thatch in place

 A bit of basework, PVA and sharp sand over a few slivers of waste foam to break up the ground line was the next thing before a good stiff coat of panzer grey emulsion.

I continued with the theme of a better and a worse-kept house as the painting went along. The roof of the straight-beamed house is slightly brighter and greyer, whilst the cruck beam house with its older, less tidy thatch has a bit more brown, and a touch of flock, where moss and even weeds are starting to grow. I also made the walls of the cruck beam house a darker, more brownish colour, to represent less-frequent limewashing of the plastered surface. The sense of decrepitude was emphasised with a wash of green over the wood (representing slime / algae), rank plants growing in the immediate area and a little flock on the walls to show where ivy had started to take hold.

Side view showing decaying thatch

End view

Here's the whole development with a Renegade Anglo-Saxon ceorl for scale. As I said, houses like this would very likely have continued to be built into Anglo-Saxon and even later times, so it isn't totally anachronistic.

With figure for scale - bang goes the neighbourhood!

He seems quite upset - perhaps he owns the straight-beamed house and is narked by how his neighbour's lack of civic pride has dragged down the value of his property. I could do with some sort of Anglo-Saxon Albert Steptoe making an uncouth gesture to make this complete,  but you'll just have to use your imagination!


Thursday 5 April 2012


As it's Easter, it seems an ideal time to put up this post. I needed a "merry" monk for my Saxon church, but having looked around, I hadn't found anything I really liked. So, I made my own - or at least, converted my own (bad pun, I suppose...).

At the time, monks and priests too had military obligations and were fully expected to defend themselves and their flock.

This one was converted from a Crusader unarmoured warrior (DAS009). The bald head appealed as it would look like he was tonsored with no additional modelling, and the bare legs were ideal for someone whose only garment would be a tunic.

The conversion involved grinding out a small amount of metal around the waist and belt (to give space to model folds), then adding length to the existing clothing, and modelling a scapular (the apron-like garment) over the robe, and a hood. Finally, I added a knife in a scabbard to the belt. All the work was done with green stuff, in short bursts, to allow bits to set before my great fingers squashed what I had just managed to shape!

He has his belt over both tunic and scapula, which whilst not strictly adhering to the rule of Saint Benedict, would be easier in combat. Note that a belt, rather than a rope tie, appears to be the correct form - and no crucifix! An abbot would have a crucifix, but not a simple brother.

The internet has plenty of references to monastic habits, but it would be unfair of me to not point out that the late Angus McBride's lovely illustration in Osprey Men at Arms 154 "Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars" was a major source and inspiration.

Looking at him, I'm not sure that "merry" entirely fits the bill. There's a statement that has been (incorrectly, in fact) attributed to the Rule of Saint Benedict:

"...But if he have been found gossipy and contumaceous in the time of his sojourn as guest, not only ought he not to be joined to the body of the monastery, but also it shall be said to him, honestly, that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him..."

Emphasis mine. He looks to me like he fits the description, and that in all probability, he wouldn't have to explain anything to anyone twice!

Well, here he is, painted up.  With a neighbour who looks like he's a bit too familiar with the local pie shops and ale houses. Bit like the blogger, really...

One of him on his own, in front of the church.

 All ready to keep thieving fingers off the silverware.

And again, with his burly buddy to help him.