PLYMOUTH, MASS. — Much is known about the earliest permanent settlement of European families on this land - what the Pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving, how they governed themselves, their friendship with the Wampanoag tribe. America, after all, is the first nation in history to have a written record of its beginnings.But evidence of their first houses is skimpy. Were they tents, sod wigwams, or rude underground huts? Or, probably, crude versions of English timber-frames?
The Pilgrims went ashore on Christmas Day, 1620, "some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry, so no man rested all day." A visitor in 1623 saw "fair and pleasant" houses.
One Pilgrim leader warned them that their social welfare "is readier to ebb than to flow, when once fine houses and gay clothes come up."
Today, no one knows where the original village is located. Remnants may be buried under a drugstore in modern Plymouth, now a Boston suburb.
Building Pilgrim-Style Homes
On a hot day last August, Preston Woodburn and about 10 Pilgrim interpreters were crafting and lifting hand-hewn timbers to "raise" the latest house at Plimoth Plantation.
"We do not have time for fine and pretty work," said one interpreter, in Pilgrim character.
Here's a list of techniques they used, the latest thinking about how the original Pilgrim houses might have been built:
* The houses are built with no wood or stone foundation. Instead, the vertical posts are placed in four-foot holes, and made "earth-fast."
* Many timbers are only lightly hewn. "Everything didn't have to be level and square. That made house-building quicker and required as few as two workers," says Mr. Woodburn.
* Use of reproductions of 17th-century tools takes less time than more modern tools. They also leave timber with a cleaner finish, not rough chop marks.
* Studs are just small tree trunks, tapered to a point, and pounded into the ground.
* Chimneys are made of wood and clay, free-standing within the house.
* Floors are dirt and walls are filled in with a mix of clay and straw, without dung added.
"The more we know, the cruder and cruder the houses get every year," says Liz Lodge, head of museum operations.