More historical research: What kind of homes did Dark Age people live in?

Writing can go fast, and then you run headfirst into a wall: how did ancient people live? What did they eat? What kind of clothes did they wear? What were their houses like?

This gets more challenging the more obscure you get, particularly when you’re dealing with pre-literary cultures.

I’m deep into writing The Triumph of the Sky, Book 2 of the Dark Ark trilogy. As most of you faithful readers already know, it’s a story set 1500 years ago, in the early 7th century CE. This was a dark time for the Eastern Roman Empire.

In the part of the story that I’m working on now, the hero, Javor, returns to his birthplace in central-eastern Europe. He’s part of a dispersed group of people known to the Romans (who were mostly speaking Greek by this time) as the Sklavenes, or Slavs.

How did the ancient Slavs live?

Bronze gate and wall in Biskupin - reconstructed Lusatian culture settlement from Bronze Age
Ancient gate and wall in Biskupin in Poland. Photo by Fazer. Licensed under Wikimedia Commons cc-by-sa-2.5.

I’ve set Javor’s home just south of the lower slopes of the Carpathian mountains, in the area that today overlaps western Ukraine, southeastern Poland and eastern Hungary.

According to sources like the Ukrainian Encyclopedia and Orest Subtelny’s Ukraine: A History, the proto-Slavic people of that region lived in small villages, growing crops and raising small herds of animals and keeping bees. Honey was a major trading commodity of the time.

Ancient Slavic houses

Diagram of ancient Slavic semi-subterranean home, 5th to 6th century, Eastern Poland. Source: Broch, Crannog And Hillfort blog.

Semi-subterrannean dwellings were common in this period and region. People would dig an oblong excavation about a metre deep, lining the sides with cut timbers. They would build a stone or clay oven in one corner, and erect an A-frame roof over the top. It made for a basic, warm and safe home suitable for a nuclear family. Villages consisted of a collection of these in a suitable spot, near water and other resources, protected as much as possible from the elements. As more materials were available, people also built surface level log houses.

A reconstruction of a 6th to 7th century Slavic surface log cabin, based on archaeological finds in the Zlín Region of the Czech Republic. Source: Old European Culture blog.

Interestingly, the ancient Slavic people would erect a grady or holody, a fortified palisade for protection in case of attack, but their houses were not located inside these structures. At least in their earlier history, their houses were outside of the fortifications, and they would withdraw within it when they needed to.

Over time, the fortifications became larger and more elaborate, and came to enclose dwellings and other buildings. But in the period I’m writing about, the houses were outside the fortifications—which could prove problematic, as I’m sure you can imagine.

See? I told you historical research could be fun.

Next installment: houses in ancient Constantinople.

1 Comment

  1. This is so interesting, Scott. I really enjoy reading about your research.


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