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Burning Down the House

plan map of Hank's house
Plan map of Hank's house showing charred posts and other features. Graphic by Sandy Hannum, courtesy Prewitt and Associates, Inc.
plan of Hank's house
Plan of Hank's house showing location of charred wood and grass on and just above the floor. Graphic by Sandy Hannum, courtesy Prewitt and Associates, Inc.

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plan of Hank's house
Plan of Hank's house showing location of fired daub on and just above the floor. Graphic by Sandy Hannum, courtesy Prewitt and Associates, Inc.
plan of Hank's house
Plan of Hank's house showing location of artifacts resting on the floor. Graphic by Sandy Hannum, courtesy Prewitt and Associates, Inc.
photo of small scraper
A small scraper made of the distinctive red-and-white banded Alibates agate was found near the back wall of Hank’s house. It also was slightly discolored and fractured due to heating, having been inside the house when it burned. This scraper was probably once hafted, or tied onto a handle, but its base end and working edge are broken. Photo by Doug Boyd.
photo of tiny bones and flint flakes
In the depressed channel on the floor of Hank's house, right around the central fire hearth, numerous tiny bones and flint flakes were found lying on the floor. This photo shows a group of turtle shell fragments and tiny flakes that were all clustered in one area and had apparently been trampled into the floor. They were so intensively burned that it suggests they were heated in the fire hearth rather than when the house burned down. Photo by Doug Boyd.
close up photo of burned turtle shell fragments
Close up of some of the intensively burned turtle shell fragments. When bones are first heated in a fire, they turn black. If the heating continues, they eventually turn white. Photo by Doug Boyd.

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. There are many different reasons why a house might burn, such as:

Accidental burning by natural causes—a wildfire spreads and sets a house on fire;

Accidental burning by people—a spark from the fireplace ignites the roof, or an outdoor cooking fire gets out of hand;

Intentional burning by inhabitants—an abandoned lodge becomes old and dangerous and is intentionally torched;

Intentional ritual burning by inhabitants—the lodge is burned as part of a mortuary ritual when someone who lived in the house died;

Intentional burning by others—enemies attack the village and set fire to the houses.

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.

Follow Hank's House to Kids' Activity

A Burning Experiment

To help understand the remains of over a dozen burned earth lodges uncovered at the Talking Crow site in South Dakota, University of Kansas archeologist Carlyle Shreeve Smith created a scale model of an earth lodge, set it ablaze and then documented what was left. The sequence of five photographs below shows the results of Smith's experiment. The images were taken from Smith's 1977 report on the Talking Crow site and appear courtesy of the University of Kansas.
photo of structural framework of the earth lodge
The basic structural framework of the earth lodge is constructed within a shallow pit.
photo of completed framework
The framework is completed. Next, layers of grass will be added and then a thick layer of earth.
photo of completed earth lodge
The completed earth lodge. Note human figure in doorway for scale. The visible wooden framework was added atop the earth to help keep it in place (idea based on archeological evidence).
photo of earth lodge after fire
Fire has gutted the earth lodge, causing the roof to collapse. The walls remain partially intact.
photo of earth lodge after simulated weathering
Following simulated weathering, the burned earth lodge was swept out, revealing the charred stumps of posts. The experimental pattern closely resembled the archeological pattern seen at the Talking Crow site. Although Hank's house is much smaller and rectangular instead of round, it shares many similarities.