Longhouse 3.0

Posted By mcarter on Jun 5, 2015 | 6 comments

In starting our virtual archaeology project to visually reproduce a 15th century Virtual Iroquoian Longhouse from the archaeological record, our assumption right from the beginning was that we would follow the process that J.V. Wright had initiated so many years ago when reconstructing a longhouse from the archaeological record.  Through experimental archaeology, Wright used the exact pole positions at the Nodwell site of an excavated longhouse floor to position and build the longhouse.  Pole diameters were matched with the archaeological record however certain logical decisions were made in the building process to determine which archaeological post hole positions were relevant for the rebuild.

Nodwell A

Traditionally, if a longhouse was to be physically rebuilt from the archaeological record, the existing pole positions would act as a guide in the reconstruction process and as in Longhouse 1.o we intended to use existing excavation maps to guide our 3D virtual longhouse build. However our pivoted goal was the phenomenological experience of being in and around a longhouse within virtual space.  Thus, we chose instead to use substantial quantitative data, to build a representative version of a Northern Iroquoian longhouse prior or just at point of European contact in the 15th century.

As discussed in Longhouse 1.5, J.V. Wright, Mima Kapches, Dean Snow and Christine Dodd along with Ron Williamson, John Creese and others generally agree based on the archaeological data, that there is a basic building process that Iroquoian builders used when building longhouses.  What differs, based on historical European visual and written accounts, oral histories and language of the Iroquoian themselves and the speculations of practicing archaeologists was how the roofing structure was built and the possible positioning of the sleeping platforms.  I will go into more detail later, but these are just a small example of the research questions being raised as we start to build.

Following Dodd, the basic building blocks of a 15th century Norther Iroquoian longhouse are:

  • An average of 18m’s in length.
  • Height is as tall as the width (note that the archaeological record only provides data on width and oral history provides data on height).  Generally the average width is 7.6m’s.
  • The centre corridor width is 4.0m’s.
  • Sleeping platforms/family cubicles were generally 1.1-1.8m’s in width, 3.7-4m’s in length and 1.8-2m’s in height.
  • The actual sleeping platform itself has been recorded to be anywhere from 0.30-1m off the ground level with the roof of the platform where personal storage was commonly thought to be, being 2m’s from ground level.
  • Average interior support post were 8.6-9.1cm’s in diameter.
  • Exterior wall post diameter was 1-3cm’s in diameter and on average there was 4.5 poles per meter along the length of the longhouse.
  • Typical fire hearth spacing was 2.9-3.6m’s between hearths.  Each hearth support two families on either side of the longhouse.
  • Exterior roof and wall shingles were 1x2m cedar or elm shingles.

The difficulty is that most academic literature describes longhouses in a similar fashion, leaving the reader to visually imagine what a longhouse might look like.  How do these measurements equate visually if they were to be represented?

In addition to the basic measurements that Dodd was able to collate through the archaeological site data of over 400 Iroquoian longhouse excavations, there is the discussion between the roofing structure, which is highly dependent on the initial support post or internal skeletal structure 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).

Snow_framingSo our initial variables in the construction of a digital longhouse are: width/height, length, inner support post diameters and exterior roofing/framing style.  As discussed in Longhouse 1.0, there is an ability within several 3D Animation & Modelling software applications to create a dependent procedural modelling environment.  Basically, the ability for the modeller to change any parameter at any time during the model creation process.  In traditional Animation & VFX production, this flexibility would be severely constrained due to the danger of clients changing their minds and the massive interdependencies that are involved technically when creating assets for a Film or TV production.  However in this particular project, the procedural approach does allow for the ability to experiment visually with the known archaeological data.Longhouse_v1aUsing Autodesk Maya, we started with the initial framing design based on the average building parameters discussed.  As seen in the image above, basic eometry represents the interior and exterior framing elements and a Metric Measurement standard was used within the 3D modelling environment to mimic the size and object relationship to real-world data.  Ten centimeter diameter interior support posts were used, with 3 cm diameter exterior wall posts bent in an arbour effect, similar to the Kapches theory of longhouse construction.Longhouse_v1bSeen in the image above, we ensured that the longhouse height was equal to it’s width and that the sleeping platform widths and the corridor width were distributed appropriately based on the averages within the archaeological record.  On the left of the image, the support posts were positions roughly 4m apart which corresponds to both archaeological and written data.  Lastly, the middle section of the image demonstrates the average number of exterior support poles per meter.ao_testWith regards to the sleeping platforms, written accounts from the Jesuit Relations indicated that the Iroquoian longhouse members would sleep head outwards toward the main corridor (and the heating source) and their feet towards the exterior walls.  the Jesuits indicated that the Iroquois men were on average, their own height or slightly larger. The average height of a French male in the 1500’s was 5’6″, which is just a few inches shorter then the normal 1.8m width of the sleeping platforms which would allow for individuals to lie fully prone on the bed.  The image above is a previous test to determine if a 5’6″ 3D character could lie comfortably within a 1.8m width platform to support observations of sleeping berth dimensions the Jesuit priests discussed in the Relations.Longhouse_v3aOur next iteration of the model was to add placeholder bunks, supported by long horizontal posts running the length of the longhouse and short platform and roof slats for the family cubicles.  The gap in the upper roof is based on several modern interpretations of how families might have accessed goods typically stored above and/or the “loft” for additional sleeping.  Currently the diameters of all the wooden elements are uniformly 10cm’s.  Also, we have to rely on “common sense” to determine how the bunk itself was constructed as there is no written, oral, visual or archaeological references that describe this building process.Longhouse_v2aIn an attempt to better understand how the bunks might have been constructed, we borrowed the same technique of making an “h” support system on either side of the main corridor from the modern architectural test version in Longhouse 2.5.  This made complete sense as it would almost be impossible for the outer 3cm diameter exterior wall posts to support the weight load of not only the bunks, but the numerous people and goods they would hold.Longhouse_v3bThis next image was a simple ambient lighting test.  Basic grey non-reflective shaders (surfaces) are used to determine how the light diffuses as well as identifying any potential modelling or lighting issues early on.  Additionally, we added a slight taper to the support posts from 10cm’s at ground level to roughly 9.5cm’s at the top to mimic the natural tree growth diameter as the tree matured.Longhouse_v3cA closer image reveals the typical 3D uniformity of assets that are built and copied.  What immediately sticks out is that the bunk poles and the other pole surfaces are flat faced tubes, lacking any taper, diameter sizing or surface variations.  A sparse virtual environment that lacks any connectedness to the real-life building materials or even construction techniques.  Our next task was to add some visual variables in order to convey a more realistic material environment.screenshot000The first remodelling request was to give the support posts more thickness.  In the previous images, the poles when visualized with the upper range of Dodd’s average 10cm thickness, they looked too thin to support the benches.  Now this might have been my own artistic interpretation of what I was seeing, but after talking with Ron Williamson, he had suggested that the data gleaned recently from the 99 longhouses at the massive Mantle Site, suggests that inner support posts for Mantle were actually an average of 15cm’s in diameter. We applied this diameter along with an adjusted taper in length which produced a more satisfying visual result.screenshot001As we started applying textures to our wooden posts, the first question was; “did the Iroquois strip bark from the posts before they were erected and would that act as a fire safety measure due to the proximity that the support posts would have to the fire hearths”? After discussions with Dean Snow, Neal Ferris and Ron along with an exhaustive searching of the historical writings, the answer was non-conclusive.  A chance discussion with Namir Ahmed about the problem led to the suggestion that bark might have stayed on the support post as it was erected in place, but during time, out of boredom or necessity, the bark would have been stripped away.  Thus we mimicked bark removal in areas directly adjacent to the sitting or laying parts of the sleeping bunks where it would be easily removed.

An additional layer of texture mapping will be applied later to visually suggest a buildup of creosote which would have most definitely been present within the rafters of longhouses as numerous fires would have been contributing to the smoke layer within the structure.

Additionally, no tree grows straight.  Thus the 3D posts were given a slight randomness and curvature to represent what would be typical tree growth patterns.  Tree nots and protrusions on the support posts were also added in an attempt to better visualize the natural material being used. screenshot002Finally end surfaces of poles were rounded off in an attempt to visualize a rough cut made by stone tools.  Texture maps with lateral cracking was added to the ends to also mimic the drying of the wood as it aged.  Test 3D cordage was added to determine how the poles would have been secured to the main supports.

In visualizing the initial framing process, we were able to not only raise more questions as it pertains to traditional longhouse construction, but experiment in order to arrive at variants from the existing data.  We immediately recognized that to build bunks with multiple 1.8m length poles for support and roof surfaces, would be a highly labour intensive endeavour.  It was more likely that longer and less quantity of poles would be used along the length of the longhouse instead of the width.  Also, our textures and modelling of the end caps of all poles and posts had to be rougher in order to mimic the use of stone tools.  Lastly, issues like the cordage type and even the knotting of the ropes, would have to be researched further.




  1. Interesting stuff – thanks for sharing your thought processes with us as you work through these challenges! It provides food for thought for the reader as well.

    For instance, I think the general idea behind stripping bark from a log is for longevity – bark would retain both insects and moisture, both of which would act to decompose the wood more quickly and shorten its use life/strength quality. I also know from unfortunate, personal experience that you don’t want to put a post straight into the ground – ground moisture and insects will rot it pretty quickly. Today we can use cement and/or pressure/insecticide treated wood to avoid such issues – but we know from longhouse post molds that there does not appear to be any additional support for posts sunk into the ground. So – perhaps logs were treated in some way? Which in turn may have an impact on how they appear in reconstructions 🙂

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    • Many thanks Rhonda for your observations. You bring up some great points that we will have to explore more as we continue our virtual build!



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    • Re: stripping bark from posts…. In PNG where I work, people use a kind of antarctic beech (Nothofagus) that is very rot-resistant – especially the heartwood. What they do is to fell the posts and then plant them vertically in the ground and exposed to the elements for several months (or even longer). Sometimes the bark is stripped off mechanically, but in any case – by the end of their period in the ground the softer outer wood has rotted away, leaving the durable heartwood. When they get to that point, they then take them out of wherever they were standing (often on a track near where they were originally felled), and carry them to the village where they are then planted into the (wet) clayey soil. They last for years – often longer than the men who cut them. House thatch is renewed every few years or so, and some of the wood and bark lining for the walls and floors rots away – but at the end of the lifespan of a house, the main beech posts (am kun = ‘house bone’) remain and are re-used. In fact, they are just about the only material objects (apart from stone, bone and shell) that endure and are inherited.

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      • Dan, this is great stuff. I have been wondering if when the Iroquoian Villages were abandoned if they salvaged any of the key structural elements. The support posts would make sense and if like the PNG example the posts would have been the key building elements that were processed to withstand rot, it might have been a possibility. Dean Snow indicated that Iroquois from below the Great Lakes would have a key totem post that would be removed and taken by the household when the village was abandoned however I know of no other mention of structural elements being reused.

        I’ll take a look now at PNG building techniques. Many thanks!



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