Designing from Bones ~ Troglodyte Housing

Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.

This week continues a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. Today we look at the homes of the troglodytes. No, not the smelly lizard creatures from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather, actual cave dwellers or cavemen, right up to the modern age.


Even small shrubs can be seen for miles but a well-placed hole would be invisible.

If you live in a large flat area where above ground structures are easy to see and dangerous invaders criss-cross your lands, what is an effective way to stay out of site? The answer, at least for the inhabitants of the Matmata region of Tunisia, was to dig a hole and live in it.

No one is quite sure how or why the tradition started, but in prehistory, the villagers of Matmata began to dig large pits into the stony ground. Once the pit was dug, they would then carve caves into the sides of them in which to live. These low profile homes are difficult to see from the ground view, blending into the terrain until with incredible efficiency.

A Matmata troglodyte pit, complete with palm tree for noontime shade.

As a matter of fact, the troglodyte homes at Matmata remained virtually unnoticed until 1967 when a torrential rainstorm lasting 22 days flooded the pits, causing many of the man-made homes to collapse and drove the villagers to seek government assistance.

The structures at Matmata are comparable to a giant foxhole with benefits.

  • Difficult to detect from a distance, especially when the main pits are connected by trenches that allow villagers to move between them without rising above the level of the ground.
  • Allow for custom design. Want to add a new bedroom for the expanding family, just dig it out. Want to expand the living room, scrape an extra foot or two off a wall. Think a built in entertainment center would be cool, carve it right into an existing wall (although the wiring might be a bit tough to install).
  • Connectability. Complexes can easily be attached by digging tunnels between them, thus turning the village into an ant warren that allows for easy movement in case of invasion. Remember the ancients were more interested in survival from external threats then they were in maintaining privacy from their fellow villagers.
  • Fun Fact: At last count, 2116 people continue to live and thrive in the troglodyte homes at Matmata – their main occupation: tourism of their dwellings.

A Matmata troglodyte bedroom, nicely furnished.

The pits at Matmata are generally connected with the Berbers which is a cultural linguistic group more then a specific people. The Berbers enter history during the Roman Empire and are spread across the whole of North Africa, sharing a common language, innovative mindset and little else. Over time Berber groups have differed on religion, living environment, government and pretty much everything else, but the language keeps them tied together, even if loosely.

Imagine living in one of these troglodyte homes. How would you structure the warren of your living environment? How large would you make the rooms? Would you feel comfortable living underground like this?

One thought that came to mind for me was having a large woven grass mat to pull over the top of the main pit, making it into a “trap door spider” haven for humans. When considering this location for story, think about the reasons a people would want or be forced to live this way. Who are they defending against or hiding from? What would be interesting, entertaining, and novel methods of defense?

Aerial view of a troglodyte village at Matmata. What does this remind you of?

In a book I read a couple of months ago the author had an ant-like people living in warren homes around a bowl-shaped central pit. The ant people placed innocuous boulders around the rim to protect themselves from an over-sized anteater that would suck them right out of the ground. When the creature would enter the bowl the ants could roll the boulders into it, disable, kill and use it for food. How will your characters or people defend themselves against an invader that finds their pit homes?


The exterior of Rochemenier melds with the existing terrain.

One can find many dwellings cut into the walls of the Loire Valley in France, but Rochemenier is one of the more well-developed locations. At Rochemenier are farmhouses (with up to twenty rooms), farmyards, a chapel and various outbuildings carved into the cliff-side as a protection against invasions. After all, it is harder to knock down a mountain then it is to knock down a stand-alone house. Rochemenier even has a modernized cave home to show that the architectural form is still relevant in the modern era.

Rochemenier, the troglodyte interior with a skylight view.

The oldest structures date back to the 13th century and offer an excellent vision of using the natural terrain for housing and the necessities of life.

What kinds of things would you include if an entire village was built into a mountain? How would you vent the scents of an underground farmyard? If you had to flee to a place like this due to a nuclear winter what would you stock it with and how would you adapt it? Regardless of the place in time or genre, this type of complex offers excellent versatility.

Font de Gaume

The entry to Font de Gaume resembles the inner ear. What voices of the past can be heard here?

And, back to the roots, my friends. In 1901 a school teacher named Denis Peyrony discovered polychrome paintings while exploring a cave in the Dordogne Valley of south-west France. For the non-artists out there, polychrome is the use of multiple colors in a painting or object, accentuating each other for a greater overall impression.

What is interesting about the paintings that Peyrony found at Font de Gaume is that they were made by inhabitants of the cave sometime around 17000 BCE. And, there aren’t just one or two scribblings, but 230 images of buffalo, horse, mammoth and men. It is believed that this cave was inhabited on and off for at least 9000 years and the dwellers made sure to hang a few pictures on the walls while they were there.

A Polychrome cave painting at Font de Gaume. Everlasting beauty.

Imagine the flickering light of a fire playing across the polychrome paintings of animals in the silent darkness of the cave. Troglodyte children looking up in wonder would have seen them moving – a place of mystical wonder. Perhaps even the equivalent of a stone age television set.

What interesting things would be found in your troglodyte dwelling? Drawings that come to life? Carvings of mystic symbolism? A face? A handprint? A name?

Only you can decide.

Join me next week when we leave the earth behind and travel to homes among the heavens. For those that wonder, the book referenced above is Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. โ€œOnly the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,โ€ sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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14 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Troglodyte Housing

  1. Diane Tibert says:

    I heard about the Troglodyte villages a few years ago when someone reading my fantasy manuscript commented about the troglodyte in the story. I hadn’t mentioned a home for the trogs, but after reading about the villages and seeing the amazing pictures, I knew I had to use it in my story. Thanks for sharing more details about these incredible communities. The pictures are incredible.

  2. prudencemacleod says:

    Awesome as usual, gene. Man, where do you find all this fascinating stuff? You continue to amaze and entertain as well as inspire me. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  3. K.B. Owen says:

    Always cool stuff, Gene! Did you know that the hotel in Matmata was used as the set for Luke Skywalker’s uncle’s home on Tatooine?

  4. Incredible. I had NO idea! I can’t imagine living in any of those kinds of dwellings without feeling a bit claustrophobic or with fear of everything caving in but at the same time, they look solid. Amazing!

  5. Where do you find all of this really neat stuff, Gene? Cool pictures and interesting concepts. Humans are very adaptable and creative creatures aren’t they?

    I have visited several cliff dwellings in the southwest area and found them fascinating! Never seen the hole communities though.

    Good stuff!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. authormarieandrews says:

    Incredible! Love the homes. There’s a part of me that just craves a simplistic nature minded home, and this fits the bill. Thank you so much for another post full of creativity and inspiration. The pictures are fantastic ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Wow, Matmata is especially intriguing to me. My first thought was, what if it rains? Did they have drainage. And with it being so expansive, did they have to shore up the walls to prevent cave ins? Seems so impractical, but I could picture myself vacationing or maybe living in a place like that! I like your idea of the large woven grass mat to go across it and serve as a booby trap! Thanks for this cool post. I’m excited to see next week’s post with the skyward homes!

  8. Another amazing post. I had no idea homes like this existed. Now my mind is bustling with ideas, and I’d love to visit some of these homes.

  9. “Rochemenier, the troglodyte interior with a skylight view.” That one is awesome! I dream of having an earthship one day. Their back halves are built into the ground. I’m not sure that qualifies you as a troglodyte, but maybe a hobbit. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  11. Texanne says:

    Wonderful! Those dwellings are deeply (har) appealing. We read about the cave paintings in school. Maybe they were different ones, though. The ones in our book could only be accessed by swimming underwater or maybe climbing a seaside cliff. Long time ago.

    When my daughter was young, we took a road trip and wound up in Anadarko, Oklahoma. They have quite a good sample of native housing, including one that was built about halfway underground. I stepped into it–and whatever stress I had been having before–stress just melted, sighed and drifted up through the air hole. Maybe it was the smell. I love the smell of earth, and the pit houses and cave houses look very homy to me. Cozy.

    I’d dig deeper pits to use as cisterns, and I’d punch exhaust holes in the ceiling, maybe hide those with plants or faux boulders.
    Wonderful work you do here. Thanks bunches. :)TX

  12. Jenny Hansen says:

    I would love to see that housing in person. How cool are those photos. And why is it that the first thing I thought of were the Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings??!

  13. I am always surprised by the innovative ways humanity has made homes for itself. There is so much inspiration here for writers – thank you for highlighting some of the best.

    Your Matmata reference got me thinking; I have always thought it kind of ironic that ‘Star Wars’ was set on ‘Tatooine’. It’s a real place in Tunisia – actually where the film was shot – with those same dome houses and troglodyte pits. My countrymen rescued the place from the clutches of the Germans in 1943.

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