Found primarily west of the Hayle River in Cornwall, and on the Isles of Scilly, Courtyard Houses as a ‘type’ have been recognised by that name since about 1933. They date from the Iron Age and were in use for several hundred years, through the Romano-British period.
Each house follows a distinctive design: a paved entrance into an area with 4 or sometimes 5 distinct ‘rooms’ leading off it. Anti-clockwise from the entrance, these are usually: a small round room, a long narrow room (sometimes divided into two), a large round room opposite the entrance, often containing a fire hearth, and finally a bay area. There may also be a smaller oblong ‘storage’ room next to the entrance. The central ‘courtyard’ also often includes a stone water channel, usually paved over. The outer walls are often quite thick in places, and the overall shape of each house is an oval.
Whilst each house is unique, they all conform to this general basic pattern, allowing some suppositions to be made about their construction and use.
The large round room is accepted as a general living room, used for food preparation, dining and sleeping. The long narrow room is usually quoted as stabling for livestock (which I personally doubt – some of the rooms are far too narrow), and the bay area may have been covered by a lean-to roof, again for livestock shelter. In excavations, very few finds have been found that were not concentrated in the large round room, or immediately adjacent to it.
In many of the large round rooms, as well as a fire hearth, hollowed out stones have been found. It has been suggested that these are either quern stones for grinding, or the base for a supporting pole for the roof.
Whilst the perceived wisdom is that the side rooms would have been roofed, and the central courtyard open to the air, Jacqui Wood (Cornish Archaeology 1997) put forward a theory that the entire structures may have been covered with a single roof, and raises the possibility of an upper floor gallery.
The houses usually occur in settlements rather than singly, and many are accompanied by a ‘fogou’; a Cornish Soutterain or underground passage. At Carn Euny, the main fogou is accompanied by a spectacular beehive hut storeroom and is entered from the main house of the settlement. At Chysauster the fogou is set downhill a short distance from the nearest house.
There are as many as 40 possible settlements in Penwith alone, several of which are disputed or destroyed. Carn Euny and Chysauster have been excavated are both open to the public.