Longhouse 3.0.5

Posted By mcarter on Jul 13, 2015 | 6 comments

Based on all of the great feedback and some excellent research leads, in Stage 3.0.5 of our virtual Iroquoian longhouse project, we look at fur, bark and pole positioning to envision sleeping platform construction within a 3D environment.  There isn’t a considerable amount of reference material available to help guide our visualization process and we will go into further detail later on the visual staging of the interior environment, but we have relied heavily on Dean Snow’s 1997 research entitled The Architecture of Iroquois Longhouses to determine how our interior bunks will be constructed.  We especially wanted to visualize the concept of actual “cubicles” for each sleeping compartment.

Based on European historical accounts, the sleeping platforms that occupied either side of the fire hearths along the interior length of the longhouse were raised 4-5ft from ground level (Snow, 1997). Snow challenges this assumption by citing later 1700’s era European accounts that the sleeping compartments actually consisted of a sleeping level or bottom platform that was 30cm’s (1ft) from the ground and the canopy or storage shelf on top no more than 1.5 -1.8m high or 5-6ft off the ground (1997), with storage for additional firewood and possessions below (Heidenreich, 1972).

Clearly, if we follow previous historical accounts of the sleeping platforms being 4-5ft from ground level, the young and old as well as most adults, would not only have had great difficulty climbing up into a platform of that height but they would have also been exposed to the intense layer of smoke from cooking and heating hearths, making it difficult to breath or see (Sagard, 1939; Smith, Williamson, Fecteau, & Pearce, 1979; JR 10: 91-93). These contested ethnohistorical observations fail to account for seasonal sleeping preferences or even actual longhouse height, which if architecturally higher as Wright suggests, would have greatly reduced the smoke layer well above standing height (1995).

Further, using references from oral history, the common Iroquoian building measurement was ten (Allen & Williams-Shuker, 1998; Kapches, 1993). It was believed to be 1.5 meters in length or equal to the normal size of a body in the sleeping position (Allen & Williams-Shuker, 1998; Kapches, 1993). Dodd discovered based on the archaeological record that the standard range of the sleeping compartments would have been 1.5-2m in depth based on the bunk line pole positions (1984). This assumption would have been supported by French Missionary descriptions of the time and their own general height in the 16th and 17th centuries of 1.6m in size or roughly the same as their Iroquoian hosts (Komlos, 2003). Other’s have suggested, primarily in fictional narratives, that family also slept on the top bunk as well.

Therefore, based on support post positioning within the archaeological record, it is generally accepted that 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.     Measurements_MetresOur first attempt in Longhouse 3.0 had the bunk slats running the width of the platform in short 1.8-2.0 poles. Keeping in mind that pre-contact Iroquoian longhouse builders only had the use of stone axes and fire for initial harvesting of the trees, the notion that they would be chopping multiple platform poles into even length slats seemed like a considerable amount of work for relatively no benefit.  In F.W. Waugh’s Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation, he states:

A method described by David Jack was to ties some saplings around the tree, forming a small, scaffold-like structure. Sods were placed on this, water was poured over them and a fire built up below. By alternatively hacking with stone aces and burning, the tree was finally cut through. If it was desired to cut it into lengths, a double pile of sods was made around the trunk where it was to be divided , and fired applied to the space between. Chief Gibson’s description of tree-felling was essentially the same, except that, according to him, a quantity of rags was tied to the end of a pole and used for wetting the trunk and localizing the action of the fire. Both Lafitau and Kalm give similar descriptions, indicating the method to have been one in common use. *Lafitau, Moeurs des Sauvages Ameriquain, pt. 2, p.110 &  *Kalm, Travels, vol. II, p.38. (1916; p.8)

Thus, we made the decision that it was probably more efficient to harvest fewer but longer poles, which would act as the platforms for the bunk that would run horizontally along the length of the longhouse.

Also keeping in mind that poles were generally harvested around the 8-12m length and that White ash for sleeping benches were likely used.  White Ash tends to grow straight with very little branches and have consistent diameters even when it is long.  According to (http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/fraxinus/americana.htm) a 20 year old White ash will generally be 4inch (10cm) in diameter and 12m in length.  So if we’re running a 24m long longhouse, we could have two 12m long 10cm diameter poles end to end for sleeping platform support beams. My estimate would be 16 beams (8 for each side of the sleeping platform).  The diameters had to be substantial enough to allow for at least 400-500lbs of weight (3-4 people) to be supported without buckling in the middle and long enough to be tied down on both ends and likely in the middle to the main structural elements.Double_supportsIn switching the direction of the poles however, it was quickly realized that there could have been a couple of additional enhancements to the bunking system to reinforce the poles and to deal with the weight of family members and their daily activities on the platforms.  Additional support poles were added at the major support posts (see above) and Craig suggested that it would have been better to tie down such long poles in the middle to keep them from shifting (see below).Middle_StrappingPosts (anything in the ground was Cedar) and beams (white ash) were tied together typically using basswood cordage (wood rope).   JV Wright supports this approach although we don’t have much visual or oral history to back it up.  Hitches or knots aren’t explained at all in the historical accounts, but this 1500’s image show a cross hitch/knot where the posts were lashed together (http://www.virtualjamestown.org/paspahegh/structure8.html).  We used a threaded looping knot and will use the cross hitch for the major support poles.

Another issue on our first try was the rounded look of the ends of the poles.  Obviously they wouldn’t have been uniformly rounded so we attempted to roughen up the ends of the poles a little more, but recognizing that over time and use, the ends themselves would be come rounded and dull.  There isn’t a lot of visual references available for wood cut by stone tools but Sensible Survival had a blog post on how to make a stone axe.  Below is an image from that blog posting which clearly demonstrates how rough the ends of a pole would be.12 tree cut 5Below is still frame from a Youtube video by freejutube, which shows a larger diameter tree that has been freshly cut by a stone axe.  As discussed above, the effort is extensive event to cut small diameter trees and the finished product is substantially rough in texture and feel.maxresdefault The image below has two end caps that haven’t been treated and the middle end caps have been modelled more to mimic the roughness.  A texture map will be applied to further enhance the visual look.LengthWise_Bunks_EndsAlthough we will talk further about these little details, a lot of this finite detail will be lost in the final gaming environment mainly because of lighting effects and the need to reduce the model complexity so the game runs in real-time.  However, seen or not, we are trying to logically address all of the visual elements that may be representative in this virtual reimagination of the archaeological record.


Another part of the last blog’s discussion was the notion of whether bark was removed from the support posts and bunking poles or whether it was left on.  This is obviously pure speculation because the oral, historical and archaeological records have no information on this or not. General consensus from the commentators was that removal of bark would have been preferred.  Completely by accident Dr. Jennifer Birch had suggested a great quasi-ethnographical account by F.W. Waugh entitled Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation written in 1916 (mentioned above) when I was starting to enquire about storage of food stuffs within longhouses.  In it, F.W. Waugh spoke extensively on the use of bark for a multitude of household and work related tools.  So much so that it seems impossible that Iroquoian longhouse builders wouldn’t have also harvested the bark for other needs prior to building the longhouse.  In the latest test below, among testing possible bedding, we ensured that the bark was either partially or almost entirely stripped from the poles.  In addition to the removal of the bark, the next step would be to add dirt, creosote, hand prints and other stains to the exposed wood to give the benches a looked in feeling.screenshot005Additionally, we started looking at what the potential bedding would be.  Again there isn’t much written on the subject, but everything from cedar boughs, woven mats to various furs were suggested.  Originally we thought Black Bear or Grey Wolf (current species that inhabit Southwestern Ontario) along with the common Deer, would be represented in the form of bedding.  However, the faunal (animal) remains within most archaeological sites near the Lawson Site area have limited or no Black Bear or Grey Wolf skeletal remains.  Deer, along with medium sized fur bearing animals such as Racoon, Rabbit and Beaver is much more representative .  The test image below shows a mixture of bear, wolf and deer.screenshot006Upon further discussion, we decided the next iteration to be a mixture of cedar boughs and primarily deer skin for bedding material.  As discussed above, the top level of the bunk may or may not have been used as a sleeping platform.  The historical references suggest that the smoke layer was somewhere in the 4ft-5ft level within a longhouse when all of the fires were going.  Ron Williamson reports from an experiment done at Ska-Nah-Dot in the middle of the winter during the 1970’s, that when a few warming and cooking fires were at full-capacity within the reconstructed longhouses, the smoke level was dense, leading to difficulty in breathing and to see.  I would speculate based on the references from the Jesuit Relations and Ron’s experience that the top bunk was used primarily for storage and thus for our next round of renderings, we’ll start placing household objects that might have been stored there.  screenshot007At this point, the next stages will be to add cubicle walls, the exterior walls, roofing, fire hearths and vestibules.  Again, there are several roofing methodologies and theories that can be visualized and easily reconstructed in 3D as we’ve seen in Longhouse 1.0 and Longhouse 2.0, however we will go with the Kapches model of bent wall poles that terminate at the roofs centre forming an arbour effect along the roof line.  Our decision will be discussed further in the next few posts, but for now we have provided one vision of how the initial internal structure may have been represented within Northern Iroquoian Longhouses of the 15th century.


  1. In a 3D model I made the choice to position the bottom bench poles in perpendicular fashion as opposed to parallel with the length of the bench. My idea was that shorter poles can support an equal amount of weight while being thinner which would allow to make use of the straightest limbs trimmed off the trees. Imagine the amount of branches piling up when building a longhouse, that would be a readily available material for that purpose. I also thought that thinner poles might be more comfortable than logs.

    About barking the poles, they would probably have done so to make use of the bark for cordage and containers and also because removing the bark allows the wood to dry faster and prevents bug infestation.

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    • Hi Martin,

      Many thanks for your comments and observations. Originally we thought perpendicular bench slats would be better, but I was unsure of the amount of manufacturing and specifically cutting Native longhouse builders really wanted to do. I understand from your website Technologies autochtones that you reproduce Iroquoian tools. Have you been able to do some experimental archaeology on the ease of harvesting poles? I’d love to see if it wasn’t as hard as we are assuming. Perpendicular bench slats make perfect sense for the reasons you mentioned.

      I’m glad that we are on the right track with regards to the removal of the bark. Cordage and containers have been mentioned by other contributors along with the drying and bug issues, which I hand’t thought about.

      Many thanks for your time and thoughts. Do feel free to comment anywhere else you feel we should look at an alternative solution.



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  1. Longhouse 3.1 - theskonkworks - […] have made some progress on the internal modeling and the initial external longhouse structure.  In Longhouse 3.0.5 we started…

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