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What is a Pit House?

Ancient Residential Structure


Pit House Reconstruction, Anasazi State Park

Pit House Reconstruction, Anasazi State Park


A pit house (also spelled pithouse) is a type of residential structure or dwelling built by non-industrial cultures all over the earth. The "pit" part means that construction began by excavating a pit in the earth, from a few inches to more than three feet. A superstructure was then added to the excavation, low walls or simply a roof built of poles chinked with mud and covered with an earthen mound.

The roof was generally flat, and entry to the house was gained via a ladder through a hole in the roof. A central hearth would have provided light and warmth; in some pit houses, a ground surface air hole would have brought in ventilation.

Pit houses were warm in winter and cool in summer; experimental archaeology has proven that they are quite comfortable. However, they are only good for a few seasons—after at most ten years, a pithouse would have to be abandoned.

Many different prehistoric groups used pit houses. Although generally associated with the American southwest cultures, such as Fremont, Pueblo, Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon, pit houses were used by a wide variety of people in a wide variety of places over the past 12,000 years.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Ancient Houses, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Cannon MD. 2000. Large mammal relative abundance in pithouse and pueblo period archaeofaunas from southwestern New Mexico: Resource depression among the Mimbres-Mogollon? Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 19(3):317-347.

Crema ER, and Nishino M. 2012. Spatio-temporal distributions of Middle to Late Jomon pithouses in Oyumino, Chiba (Japan). Journal of Open Archaeology Data 1(2).

Diehl MW. 1998. The interpretation of archaeological floor assemblages: A case study from the American southwest. American Antiquity 63(4):617-634.

Larson ML. 1997. Housepits and mobile hunter-gatherers: A consideration of the Wyoming evidence. Plains Anthropologist 42(161):353-369.

Scarborough VL. 1989. Site structure of a village of the Late Pithouse-Early Pueblo Period in New Mexico. Journal of Field Archaeology 16(3):405-425.

Seymour DJ. 1987. A preliminary analysis of pithouse assemblages from Snaketown, Arizona. In: Schiffer MB, and Kent S, editors. Method And Theory For Activity Area Research. New York: Columbia University Press. p 549-603.

Wills WH. 2001. Pithouse architecture and the economics of household formation in the prehistoric American southwest. Human Ecology 29(4):477-500.

Also Known As: Pithouse, pithouse dwelling, pit dwelling

Examples: Jomon hunter-gatherers in Late Pleistocene Japan, Viking farmers in medieval Iceland, Fremont farmers in the southwestern United States, Norwegian farmers in 19th century Minnesota, among many others

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