Homes of the Past: The Archaeology of an Iroquoian Longhouse

Ontario Iroquoians are made up of three groups: the Huron, the Petun and the Neutral. The Iroquoian peoples lived in the southern part of Ontario, and had a culture similar to the Iroquois of New York state.

French Explorers and Missionaries (such as the Jesuits), spent many years living with the Huron peoples. They kept diaries and wrote letters that were sent back home to France every year. It is from these letters that we know about Iroquoian life in the 1600s.

The Iroquoians built villages that were surrounded by palisades. Palisades protected the people living in the village from attacks by other peoples. Palisades also protected the village from blowing snow in the winter and stopped wild animals from wandering in.

The Iroquoians were agriculturalists, or farmers. Corn or maize was the most important agricultural crop grown by the Iroquoians. Corn was domesticated in Mexico, and traded into southern Ontario by about 1000 AD. (See The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell for more information about the origins and the mythology of corn).

Archaeologists know they have found an Iroquoian site when their surface collections of artifacts contain Iroquoian ceramics and worked bone and stone artifacts. Clay pots and smoking pipes are decorated with designs used by Iroquoian peoples. When archaeologists find a piece of a pot (called a sherd) with these decorations, they can often tell which Iroquoian group made it and how old it is.

The Iroquoian peoples of Ontario and New York built and lived in longhouses. Their houses are called longhouses because they were longer than they were wide. Longhouses have door openings at both ends. During the winter, these openings would have been covered with skins. There were no windows on the longhouse walls. We know this because the explorers and missionaries wrote that the insides of the houses were dark due to lack of windows.

The longhouses were built by the men in the village. The wood for the houses was cut down in the spring when it was still flexible and brought to the village. The ends of the posts were sharpened into points using stone axes, and some were charred or burned to make it last longer in the ground. The walls of the longhouse were made from elm bark that was cut into rectangular slabs to be used for roof shingles and wall siding.

A post mould is the decayed remains of the posts placed into the ground, hundreds of years ago, by the Iroquoians when they were building their longhouses. Large posts made of cedar were used to support the roofs of the houses and the benches along the sides of the houses. The posts look like dark round circles in the soil when they are found by an archaeologist's trowel. In a cross-section, the post mould's straight sides and pointed end can still be seen many centimetres into the subsoil.

A hearth is the remains of a fire pit. You might have noticed that there are no chimneys in the drawings of the longhouses. Iroquoians did not build stone fireplaces. Instead, they dug shallow pits down the centre of the house. Above the fire pit, there was a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape. The roof holes also acted like small skylights, letting a little bit of light into the dark, windowless longhouse.

Although the roof holes helped to let some smoke from the fires out of the longhouse, it did not let it all out. We know this because the missionaries and explorers complained of eye problems due to the amount of smoke inside the longhouses.

Hearths are identified archaeologically by soil which has turned reddish by repeated use during the occupation of the house. When cross sectioned, hearths usually look thin and shallow in the soil. The area around the hearth is usually crowded with hundreds of tiny post moulds. These post moulds were made by posts used to hang meat near the fire for cooking, or to hang food or skins near the fire for drying.

A storage pit is a hole that was dug inside the longhouse and used to store food. When a pit was used for storing food, we think that it was lined with bark and grass and covered with bark mats for lids. This was done to keep the food inside of the pit dry and to keep mice out. It was also done to stop people from falling into the pits since some of them were quite large and deep.

The pits could have been used for more than one year, but were abandoned once they were infected with mould or mildew. Once a pit was no longer in use, it was filled in so that people walking around in the house would not fall into it. Garbage and ash from hearths are often found by archaeologists when they excavate filled-in pits.