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Pit Houses

A pit house is, as its name would suggest, a dwelling that is at least partly below the ground. In New Mexico, near Taos, they are completely below the ground. The roof beams rest on the ground, atop four supports. As you might expect, this is a very rudimentary form of housing, and the inhabitants of pit houses have to be satisfied with very little in the way of creature comforts.

The Pit House

Pit houses are typically small, usually no more than ten or twelve feet in diameter. They are easily built - the only tools needed are a shovel, a saw, and a hammer. If one hits rock while excavating, a "pony wall" may need to be constructed on a footer at ground level in order to bring the ceiling height up to a habitable level. Because the diameter is usually so small, access is not gained via a traditional staircase.

The form of entry and exit is generally a ladder.

Old Pit House

One advantage to a pit house is that in the hot weather, it can be pleasantly cool inside the dwelling. The other side of the coin is that, when the weather turns cold, it is often necessary to build a small fire in a central hearth in order to provide warmth. The fire will be needed to provide light for various activities, and will also be needed for cooking, since the power utility is not going to bring electricity to your pit house. On pleasant days, therefore, the pit house dweller typically prefers to be outside.

In the days when pit houses were common, the day-to-day business of living was time-consuming and difficult. People ground their own corn and grain, and made their own pottery to carry water and serve food. Grinding was hot, time-consuming work, usually done outdoors. Making pottery could be difficult. The heat from the fire was useful for drying the clay, but if the piece was placed too close, the clay could dry too rapidly and would crack.

Modern Pit House Interior

Arrowheads had to be made from stone in order to hunt animals for food and hides. Meat was typically dried into jerky, food preservation methods not being as refined as they are today. Hides were also dried for use in clothing and bedding. Again, proximity to the fire could result in the hides becoming dry too quickly, and they would become tough.

Keeping the pit house clean was also challenging. No matter how often a dirt floor is swept, something is sure to be left behind. Pit houses can also become home to unwanted guests, like insects, snakes, and other vermin.

Outside of a Pit House


Pit houses are easy to build, and the materials needed are dirt cheap. If nothing else, it might be fun to build a pit house as a family activity. Children will have hours of fun in this unique sort of playhouse, and you'll get a real sense of what life was like for ancient cultures. It can also be used as a clubhouse or second home or even a vacation home.

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