Hank's Earth Lodge

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earthlodge-sectionDuring the excavations, we spent a lot of time pondering the question, "How was Hank''s house built?" We were able to figure out some things while we were digging, like the pattern of the posts along the walls, but other facts remained elusive until long after the excavation was over. It was not until the analysis phase that many of the important details, such as what types of trees and grass used in construction, became known. When all of the archeological data are considered together, we can reconstruct the story of how Hank''s house was built with a fair degree of accuracy. While we cannot be sure of the exact sequence of events, the overall picture of what had to be done to build such a house is clear.

The story of building Hank''s house, a sort of "construction reconstruction," is based on four types of data: (1) the archeological details; (2) information learned from other archeological investigations of similar houses; (3) construction techniques learned by archeologists making full-sized or scale model reconstructions of ancient houses; and (4) ethnohistoric accounts of how other peoples built similar types of houses.

earthlodge-roof-detailOne written account of how the Hidatsa Indians who lived in the Northern Plains (South Dakota area) built their houses was particularly informative. From 1906 to 1918, Gilbert L. Wilson observed how the Hidatsa constructed earth lodges at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and he interviewed elders who remembered what life was like before the reservation. This information was published in 1934 in a study called "The Hidatsa Earthlodge." Although the Hidatsa earth lodges were basically surface houses (with only a foot or so of fill removed) that were round and much larger than the pithouse at Hank''s site, there are many similarities and Hank''s house was undoubtedly built using many of the same techniques. Illustrations from Wilson''s study accompany this section.

The first step in building a pithouse like Hank''s began long before the actual house construction. The juniper trees to be used in building the house were probably selected, cut down, and trimmed to form posts many months, perhaps a year or more, before the house was to be built so the posts would be cured (completely dried). To build a pithouse like Hank''s, you would need to cut, trim, and cure the following posts:

Number and Size of Posts Needed

Approx. Diameter (inches)

Approx. Length (feet)

Construction Use and Orientation

4 large

6 to 8


central roof support posts, vertical

2 large

5 to 6


long stringer beams for central frame, horizontal

2 large

5 to 6


short stringer beams for central frame, horizontal

37 medium

3 to 5


wall posts, vertical

2 medium

3 to 5


stringer beams, along E-W walls, horizontal

2 medium

3 to 5


stringer beams, along N-S walls, horizontal

10 medium



entryway posts, vertical

5 medium



entryway beams, horizontal

38 medium

3 to 5

11 to 13

roof rafters, angled on stringers

When you were ready to start construction, many people were needed to help and someone had to be in charge of the entire operation. In modern terms, this person functioned as the general contractor to oversee all phases of the house building and direct the work. Among the Hidatsa, lodge building was a community effort, and a respected elder woman was put in charge. The family who would live in the lodge was expected to throw a feast for everyone when the house building was completed (the same practice was followed by the Caddo, the Wichita and other Caddoan groups). But before you could feast, you had to build the house. The steps in the construction process are outlined below:

(1) Preparation

  • Select the house location.
  • Gather all of the juniper posts that were previously dried and cured at the construction site.
  • Cut and gather hundreds of small branches, 0.5 to 1 inch diameter and various lengths, for the roof.
  • Cut and gather hundreds of bundles of yellow Indian grass for use in the roof.
  • Gather lots of rope‚Äîstrips of buffalo hide, tree bark, or twisted plant fibers‚Äîfor use in lashing poles together.

(2) Prepare Foundation and Construct Frame

  • Dig a rectangular pit the size of the house about 3 feet deep, piling the dirt around the edges.
  • Dig the deep holes for the four central posts (the main roof support posts).
  • Set the four central posts into the holes and pack soil around them until they are firmly planted.
  • Set the framework of four horizontal stringer beams that rest on top of the four central posts. (The Hidatsa considered the four central posts and beam frame on top to be sacred.)
  • Dig the post holes for all of the wall posts around the edges of the pit.
  • Set all of the wall posts firmly in place.
  • Set the framework of horizontal stringers that form the top of the walls.

(3) Construct Roof

  • Set roof rafters, each one extending from a wall stringer to a central stringer.
  • Construct a small framework to form a smoke hole at the top of the roof.
  • Set small branches (juniper, elm, and other woods) perpendicular to the rafters to form a solid single layer.
  • Add a layer of yellow Indian grass, 2 to 4 inches thick, by lashing closely spaced bundles atop the small branches. The grass runs perpendicular to the small branches and parallel to the rafters.
  • Add layer of sod (topsoil layer held together by roots), probably 4 to 6 inches thick, on top of the bundled-grass layer.

(4) Construct Entrance

  • Dig the ramped entryway.
  • Dig and set vertical posts and horizontal stringers to form the entryway frame.
  • Set vertical slats to form entryway walls.
  • Add clay plaster to the entrance ramp and entryway step.
  • Add clay plaster to lower interior walls.

(5) Finish Interior

  • Dig out a few inches of soil from rectangular area to create the central channel.
  • Dig the central fire hearth and line it with moist clay.
  • Add clay plaster along the edge of the channel to strengthen the channel lip.
  • Add clay plaster to the interior ceiling around the smoke hole for fire safety.

(6) Celebrate Completion with Feast

Why did Hank''s house burn? Burned houses are common in many prehistoric sites of many different cultures, and they are very common among some Southwestern and Plains groups.

Archeologists have seen evidence of all of these causes at different sites in the Southwest and Great Plains, and there are often clues as to why a house burned. An attack by an enemy group, for example, may be a likely explanation for burned houses if bodies are found within the house or if there is good evidence that violence played a role at that particular time and place. In other cases, archeologists have speculated about the cause of house burning based on the artifacts found inside. A house full of useful tools and complete pots could have been burned accidentally with peoples'' possessions left in them. Alternatively, some houses are relatively clean, with few or no artifacts found in them. Such houses appear to have been abandoned before being burned.

The Upper Republican culture in southern Nebraska is one example where houses may have been burned intentionally on a regular basis. Like the Plains villagers who lived in the Texas Panhandle, these people were buffalo-hunting farmers who built earth lodges. This culture is contemporaneous with some of the Plains Village period in the Texas Panhandle, and some of their houses were similar to Hank''s house in layout, but they were usually a little larger. The frequency of burned lodges in some of the Upper Republican sites is so high that archeologist Donna Roper of Kansas State University suggests that these people were deliberately burning old and dilapidated houses.

It seems likely that Hank''s house is another case of burning an abandoned house, and the burning may have been intentional. Several lines of evidence come into play for interpreting this. First, if the house burned accidentally, then many of the peoples'' belongings might have been left inside and burned with the house. There were few artifacts found directly on the house floor, and most were unusable flakes or potsherds that were trampled into the floor. The small cache of tools found along the south wall represents relatively unimportant, or at least easily replaceable, items.

If Hank''s house was burned intentionally after it was abandoned, another important question comes to mind. How long was the house used? Archeologists and anthropologists have spent lots of time studying the "longevity" of various types of houses among cultures around the world. They are always interested in knowing how long a particular kind of house will last and remain habitable after it is built. The biggest factors in determining the longevity of simple houses are: (1) the location and setting of the house; (2) the type of foundation used; (3) the nature of the soil/substrate; and (4) the materials used in constructing the walls and roof. Both pithouses and earth lodges required regular maintenance to keep them in tip-top shape, and a well-maintained house would certainly have lasted longer than one that was neglected. At Hank''s house, all of the juniper roof support and wall posts were set directly into the ground and would have been subjected to slow deterioration due to wetting/drying and insects. If Hank''s house were an earth lodge with a heavy earthen roof, one can easily see that big problems would eventually arise when the posts became too weak to support the weight of the roof.

Archeological studies, ethnographic accounts, and house building experiments in the Great Plains and Southwest suggest a pithouse dwelling similar to Hank''s house would last somewhere between 7 and 15 years. In extraordinary circumstances, a pithouse might last as many as 25 years. This amount of variability should be expected because of the many variables that contribute to the longevity of a house. Hidatsa earth lodges, which were much larger than Hank''s house, are said to have generally lasted between 7 and 10 years. The owners could tell when the lodge was getting close to retirement because the below-ground parts of the posts would rot causing the roof to settle and sag. Because of the large heavy roofs, it would have been difficult to replace the key support posts once they began to rot. Since Hank''s house was much smaller and probably had experienced at least one post replacement (described above in archeology of Hank''s house and site), it is reasonable to assume that it could have lasted longer than a large earth lodge. Based on comparisons with longevity estimates for Southwestern pithouses, it is likely that Hank''s house was occupied for about 15 years, plus or minus 5 years.

From Texas Beyond History

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