the oldest modern roofing technology
Man first constructed dwellings in the Mesolithic period, 8,000 years ago. Traces of habitation dating from this period are scarce but post hole evidence suggests that tree branches anchored in the ground were bent and tied to form stable pitch-roofed structures. Sewn animal skins were a probable covering - at this time hunter gatherers would still have moved with the seasons, carrying lightweight essentials with them - but the practicality of using local foliage would surely have been an option.
The great civilisations of the Middle East and Mediterranean would have recognised thatch, and the Romans are known to have had a machine to remove ears of wheat from their stems. In sub-Saharan Africa a wide range of thatched village houses are still found, bearing witness to a continuing ancient tradition.
By the Iron Age when proto-farmers were established in a fully sedentary way of life, round houses were roofed using timber poles covered with natural materials. Turf or heather would have been in common usage, but for sheer water-shedding efficiency nothing matched the performance of water reed, which grew in vast beds along the margins of wetlands and slow-flowing rivers. In the east of England reeds continue to be cultivated, in a protected and sustainable fashion, in locations that include Wicken Fen (link) and the Norfolk Broads.
As the early farmers became increasingly proficient at cultivating field crops like wheat, barley, oats, rye and even linseed, stems that were the by-product of threshing would have formed a convenient thatching material. As cross-cultivation yielded more sturdy and weather resistant varieties of cereal the quality and performance of their stalks (straws) as a roofing material would have increased.
Thatching therefore became tied into the management of wetlands and waterways on the one hand, and into agriculture and its by-products on the other. That was the golden age of thatching when almost every building, other than the grandiose, would have sported a thatched roof. This was gradually eroded by urbanisation, competition from manufactured roofing materials and a growing passion for modern building techniques. We have seen a great reversal of these trends and EMMTA members, like all British thatchers, are dedicated to preserving a unique part of our building heritage.
East Midlands Master Thatchers' Association
© EMMTA: East Midlands Master Thatchers' Association 2008