Longhouse 1.5

Posted By mcarter on Jun 2, 2015 | 0 comments

Longhouse 1.5 was a further attempt to test the notion of user engagement through procedural model building within 3D space.  My understanding of the visualization of longhouses from the archaeological record arises principally from the work of four archaeologists; J.V. Wright, Mima Kapches, Christine Dodd and Dean Snow. Due to the lack of any real physical evidence, models of longhouse use, style, agency, and construction have been hotly contested for decades (Kapches, 1994; Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004; Wright, 1995). The work of these archaeologists, in combination with continued observations and challenges from other exemplary researchers, form a base of understanding that helps to frame how longhouses were constructed. Using Dodd’s extensive quantitative research gleaned from an exhaustive review of longhouse data derived from field excavations (1984) and based on the qualitative and quantitative observations of Wright (1971), Kapches (1994) and Snow (1997) among others, a basic template for the construction of longhouses emerges. It is this template we seek to replicate virtually.

The integral structural element in any longhouse was its major support posts (Wright, 1971, 1995; Kapches, 1990, 1994; Snow, 1997). These elements framed the interior structure, provided guidance for the construction of the living areas and supported the external shell of the longhouse. Currently there are three major internal structural forms or supports that make up the external visual differences in longhouse construction as described in historical accounts that have been theoretically suggested (Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004):

  • Wright’s reconstruction of a longhouse at Nodwell suggests a π shaped internal support infrastructure existed which would have supported a visual ratio of 4:1 in height between the main building and a separate arbor roof (1971, 1995);
  • Based on extensive historical European oral accounts and two specific visual representations of Seneca longhouse floor plans from the 1700’s, Snow suggests that longhouses might have had a 60/40 split between longhouse body and a separate upper roof (1997);
  • Kapches, using Iroquoian oral history, suggested that the longhouse walls and roof might have been entirely integrated by long exterior posts lashed at the center roofline forming a continuous arbor effect (1994).


It is clear that framing techniques would have varied from one Iroquoian group to another and the material archaeological record is entirely void of any tangible references that could support or refute these framing theories (Snow, 1997).   However when support posts are identified, they present a pattern that is consistently 5-15cm in diameter with an average of 8-10cm’s (Dodd, 1984; Kapches, 1994; Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004; Wright, 1971). All framing techniques support the notion that external walls were constructed by lashing pliable smaller diameter new growth poles onto the internal framing structure (Dodd, 1984; Kapches, 1994; Snow, 1997; Williamson, 2004; Wright, 1971).

One of the main questions of architectural design that remains enigmatic is the actual longhouse height, but this can only be qualitatively gleaned from the annals of European chroniclers, which state that height was equal to width (Thwaites, 2008). It also has been suggested academically and historically that a longhouse’s height was equal to its width, however we have no archaeological evidence in which to verify this notion (Bartram, 1751; Kapches, 1994; Heidenreich, 1972; Snow, 1997; Thwaites, 2008; Wright, 1995). We know based on Dodd’s extensive analysis of Huron and Neutral longhouses, that the average mean widths of longhouses were between 6.5-7.2m (1984), with Wright (1971), Snow (1997) and others indicating ranges of 6 to 7.5m as minimal and maximum width/height variables.

Archaeologically, total longhouse length is easily measured from the physical record when excavated (Dodd, 1984). There is a substantial historical and archaeological range in length between 5 to 72m with unique examples both above and below that range, but Dodd and others have suggested a mean value of about 19.8 m for most common longhouse lengths (Heidenreich, 1972). Length is also correlated to the number of hearths within a structure (Dodd, 1984).   Champlain and Sagard reported seeing longhouses with 8 to 12 hearths and the archaeological record supports this (Heidenreich, 1972); however, as Bartram also demonstrates, exceptionally long longhouses can also have single hearths fitting into the category of structural use anomalies (Snow, 1997).  In Varley and Cannon’s (1994) work on hearth spacing, house length and use, hearth position and numbers are not always consistent within the archaeological record and hearth position could and likely did move throughout the interior of common longhouse structures (Heidenreich, 1972). However, generally archaeologists acknowledge that most residential longhouses had 3-5 hearths, with two families sharing each hearth with a bark-enclosed raised compartment on either side (Allen & Williams-Shuker, 1998; Chapdelain, 1993; Heidenreich, 1972; Wright, 1974).

Using low resolution 3D proxie model objects within SESI’s Houdini and the published longhouse architectural data from Dodd, Snow, Wright and Kapches, a 3D template was developed based on basic archaeological assumptions.  The sequence below is an example of the procedural engine in which changing one variable like height or width, will also change other variables that are dependent on those unique architectural features. For instance, when the length increases so does the number of fire hearths.

Although not clear in the video above, we were also able to change between the Wright, Kapches and Snow interior support framing automatically having all other architectural elements ripple through accordingly.  The initial goal of this test was to see if a procedural model from the archaeological data could be developed.  Additionally, user controls were created to allow other stakeholders to easily change parameters easily without having to know 3D animation.

A second test was conducted using the same methodology but with further refined controls and additional architectural elements.  In this attempt the model elements were greatly simplified to allow for faster render and procedural calculations when changes were made in real-time.  However, the model built was not “birthed” from an actual archaeological site map, but became a representation of the data presented by Dodd, Wright, Kapches and Snow based on the architectural variables present in the archaeological record.

This exercise provide a unique opportunity to create new tools that could be deployed to the general public as a means of archaeological engagement.  With further work on the interface and the real-time optimization, we can envision a deployable interactive tool set that could be installed in museums or through an App/Web for school curriculum needs.  From a research perspective however, it provides an excellent base to the design, development and implementation of a 3D, virtual phenomenological experience of the archaeological record.  Next, we expanded on this procedural methodology to test other longhouse construction variables in Longhouse 1.75.

Works Cited:

Bartram, J. (1751). Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice, Made by Mr. John Bartram, in His Travels from Pensilvania to Onodago, Oswego and the Lake Ontario, in Canada. Printed for J. Whiston and B. White, London.

Chapdelaine, C. (1993). The sedentarization of the prehistoric Iroquoians: A slow or rapid transformation? Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 12(2), 173-209.

Dodd, C.F. (1984). Ontario Iroquois Tradition Longhouses. Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series 124. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.

Kapches, M. (1994). The Iroquoian longhouse architectural and cultural identity. Meaningful Architecture: Social Interpretations of Buildings, 9, 253.

Heidenreich, C.E. (1972). The Huron: A Brief Ethnography. Discussion Paper Series No.6. Toronto: Department of Geography, York University.

Snow, Dean (1997). The Architecture of Iroquois Longhouses. Northeast Anthropology 53: 61-84.

Thwaites, R. G. (1896-1901). The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 73 Volumes. Burrows, Cleveland, Ohio.

Varley, C., & Cannon, A. (1994). Historical inconsistencies: Huron longhouse length, hearth number and time. Ontario Archaeology, 58, 85-101.

Williamson, R. F. (2004). Replication or Interpretation of the Iroquoian Longhouse. The Reconstructed Past, John H. Jameson, Jr., editor, 147-166.

Wright, J.V. (1995). Three dimensional reconstructions of Iroquoian longhouses: A comment. Archaeology of Eastern North America, 9-21.






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