The Bronze Age in Europe: Architecture & Houses

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Europe's Bronze Age saw many developments, and this is nowhere more obvious than in architecture. In this lesson, we'll examine Bronze-Age houses, tombs, and palaces across Europe.

European Bronze Age Architecture

There are a few things that anyone traveling through Europe today will not want to miss: The food, the street performers, and of course, the architecture. All of these can be found in abundance, and in truly awe-inspiring quality. But was it always this way?

If we could travel back thousands of years to Europe in the Bronze Age, we're not sure what kinds of entertainment we'd find. The food would have been organic, that's certainly true, but the recipes probably wouldn't be what we're used to today. The architecture, however, might have been worth seeing. Although the buildings of this time period were not the towering cathedrals of Europe today, the Bronze Age introduced some of the first large-scale architecture in European history, thanks to greater wealth from longer-distance trade and better political organization. Architecture is one tradition that's defined European lives for quite some time.

British Bronze Age Architecture

Let's start our tour of Bronze-Age Europe in Britain. The late Stone Age, or Neolithic period, of Britain left little behind in the way of architecture. What survived are mostly large megalithic structures, like tombs and henges. In the Bronze Age, however, we get our first substantial look at domestic architecture, which became more prominent and suggests that people were becoming stable enough to build lasting homes.

The Bronze-Age British house was generally created by placing timber posts in the ground, then filling the space between them with a lattice of woven wood or reeds and covering it in a sticky, insulating concoction of mud, dung, straw, and sand. We call this wattle and daub construction, and it worked well enough to create multiple-room houses that were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Add a thatched roof to keep out the rain and a subterranean pit for storage, and you've got a solid Bronze-Age house.

Reconstruction of a Bronze-Age British wattle-and-daub roundhouse

One thing that distinguishes British domestic architecture is the layout. British houses were almost always circular in this time period, or what we'd call a roundhouse. Why is this significant? Those megalithic tombs and henges were also circular, in those cases communicating cosmological significance. It could be that British domestic and monumental/ceremonial architecture were ideologically linked.

Northern and Central European Architecture

If we head over to continental Europe, we'll mostly find the same mixture of megalithic tombs and wattle-and-daub houses. However, they didn't look exactly the same. Continental European houses had rectangular, not circular, plans. While homes in Central Europe were probably 3-4 rooms, Nordic cultures took to creating communal longhouses, some up to 35 meters long.

Towards the middle Bronze Age, there were some significant additions to these structures as well, primarily linked to emergence of the Urnfield culture around 1,300 BCE. So named because they cremated their dead and buried them in ceramic urns, Urnfield people built wooden fences or stone walls around their houses, creating a more defined domestic space. By the late Bronze Age, many European cultures also started building animal pens and stalls directly into the house, likely to store animals in the winter, which shows an increasing reliance on domesticated livestock.

Aegean Bronze-Age Architecture

Where architecture changed the most, however, was around the Aegean, starting on the Greek island of Crete. This is where the first truly urbanized civilization of Europe appeared, known as the Minoans. Minoan power came from wide-reaching trade networks and economic control over large parts of the Mediterranean.

This was managed through a complex political hierarchy, which means that the Minoans had administrative palaces. The largest and most famous of these is at Knossos. The Palace of Knossos is a large structure with a timber frame holding together clay-brick and stone walls. It was brightly painted and adorned with frescos, and was the largest structure in Europe at that time. The palace made use of sliding walls and doors that, coupled with the size of the building, apparently intimidated outsiders. In fact, Greek legends speak of a Minotaur in a massive labyrinth; the Minoan palace of Knossos was likely the inspiration for this maze.

Interior of the Palace of Knossos

The Minoan civilization collapsed around 1,400-1,100 BCE, and a new culture rose to fill the power vacuum. This was the Mycenaean culture, based in Greece's Peloponnesian Peninsula. The Mycenaeans built upon Minoan architectural traditions, but also introduced the practice of building large defensive walls around their cities.

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