Essays on the Marshallese Past

Traditional and modern house construction on the
Marshall Islands

Scholars classify the Marshallese house as a transitory form between a house built on level ground and a house built on stilts. The traditional house consists only of a roof structure which is set on four main posts, which protrude between 1.3 and 2m above the level ground. Walls are commonly absent and the area underneath the roof is utilized as the living area. It is covered with a coral gravel spread in a manner like the area outside the house. To make the area more comfortable, it is then covered with mats.

The roof has a loft, which can be accessed through a hatch from below. The loft was used as a sleeping area and to store the precious things such a good mats and the like. Since it was sat on posts with a very smooth surface it was almost rat proof (hence the name: im kidjerik -rat house).

As mentioned, traditionally there were no walls. With the arrival of the Europeans and the advent of Christianity, the houses were increasingly furnished with walls, either only on the wind (weather)-side or all around

The roof rests on a frame made from two roof plates and two cross-beams which have been tied to the plates. This frame forms both the base of the roof and the frame with the floor of the loft. In the middle of each of the crossbeams a king post is placed, which supports the ridge pole. The rafters are set out in pairs, and meet at the ridge in such a fashion that they pass underneath ridge pole, thus partially supporting the weight of the ridge pole. Across the rafters tile battens are tied horizontally onto which slats are attached to which the individual Pandanus thatch units are fastened. Then a central ridge batten is attached on top of the pole. The ends of the roof at the gables were completed with gable battens. In some cases the roof structure could be reinforced by diagonal battens.

Marshallese house. Construction details

The gable itself was also constructed by rafters running from the ridge pole to the cross beam, by batten attached perpendicular to them and by tile slats tied on top. The roof thatch units consists of brown, fallen Pandanus leaves which had been wrapped around a "backbone" of a wooden stick and tied with the central ribs of coconut leaves.

Traditional Marshallese house seen on Maloelap in 1910.

Traditional Marshallese house seen on Majuro in 1910.

Traditional Marshallese house seen on Majuro in 1910.

The thatching begins at the bottom and by tying successive layers of thatch units to the tile slats the ridge is reached. The ridge itself is covered with old mats or woven coconut fronds. Such a roof is said to be watertight for 1-2 years, but longer on the northern islands which have less rainfall. The attic or loft rests on the roof frame. Several cross beams have been tied onto the longitudinal beams (roof plate).

In the 1910s some houses had their posts not buried in the ground but sitting on large stones which had been partially buried in the ground. The living area underneath the roof was also bordered by stones. At the turn of the century more recent houses had bottom plates with a floor made of thin planks and round pieces of wood.

The descriptions as well as the pictures available for the traditional Marshallese houses clearly indicate that the entire area underneath the roof had been covered with the coral gravel spread.

There were a number of different house types at the turn of the century. The main houses were the living houses (iem). Apart from these we know of cooking houses, commonly covered with coconut thatch and without a loft, houses to scrape Pandanus and houses for menstruating women. Tattooing houses, meeting houses and boats houses were rare. To dry Pandanus preserves and protect them against rats small houses were built on four high posts which consisted of two open platforms and a saddle roof. Small houses were built for the spirits of the deceased, in which magicians and sorcerers kept some belongings.

Adze blades made of the shell of the giant clam (Tridacna) hafted in a knee-shaped handle and tied with coconut fibre (sennit); collected in the 1880s in Jaluit (Knappe Collection; photographs Courtesy of Museum f‘r Th‘ringer Volkskunde, Erfurt).

Marshallese terms for parts of the house

House Part Steinbach-Grõsser
KrÇmer & Nevermann
Abo et al
Coral spread - - edjeman
Cross battens for loft - - djÇdÇdje, ruwe -
Cross beam tur durr djÇ tur
Cross beams for loft - lon in iem ra -
Diagonal Battens aunwõlle aninw¼lÇ - a¾inwolˆ
Floor of Loft bwo bõo bo po
Frame - - - kˆdikdik
Gable djabbo kijmen, rÇman - -
Gable batten tortor dordor tortar, darag, tarak tortot
Kingpost ruling rullin druleng -
Loft - - im kidjerik -
Longitudinal battens for loft - - w•dÇdje -
Longitudinal beams for loft - - moe & moerik -
Open part below roof - - l¼au -
Post jur jor djur joor
Rafter - - katal (keerer [Rtk]) jekpad, kattal
Ridge batten - lajogemen lÇdj¼kemen -
Ridgepole burwoj borwaj borowadj bõrwaj
Roof - - - maltu, tõrak
Roof batten djekeber jekeber djokeber (kÇdilmak [Rtk]) jinniboor
Roof plate - - kaelep -
Saddle roof Çlik in im Çlig in iem - -
Stick in thatch unit - - keinadj -
Thatch unit - - adj, adj, ad aj
Tile slat - kÇrikrik kerikerik (kedillemak [Rtk]) -
Wall jojõ jojõ djÇdji -
Window flaps - rõnel bÇllok - -

Glossary of terms for different types of buildings

Type of building Steinbach-Grõsser Erdland KrÇmer & Nevermann Abo et al.
Boat house - - - -
Chief's house - - imalablab -
Church - - - mõn jar
Cook house bellak belak bellak, iman kem•t mõn kuk
Hospital - - - mõn taktõ
House for the demented - - - mõn bwebwe
Hut used to dry Pandanus preserves bui bui bui -
Latrine/Toilet building - - - mõn bwidej, mõn kõppojak
Light house - - - miade
Living house iem im iem em
Meeting house - - imalablab mõn kweilok
Men's House - - - ja
Menstruation house juken jugin djuken -
Pandanus scraping house - - iem an kilok -
Restaurant building - - - mõn mõnˆ
School house - - - mõn jikuul
Store House/Ware house - - - joko
Tattooing house - - imalablab -
Temporary House - - - imon kõppˆd
Town Council House - - - mõn kweilok
Trade store - - - mõn wia
Two Storey House - - - nikai
Whore House - - - mõn utlam

[Next Page]      [Back to Table of Contents]

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

select from the following...
World War II

Digital Micronesia-An Electronic Library & Archive is provided free of charge as an advertising-free information service for the world community. It is being maintained by Dirk HR Spennemann, Associate Professor in Cultural Heritage Management, Institute of Land, Water and Society and School of Environmental & Information Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. The server space and technical support are provided by Charles Sturt University as part of its commitment to regional engagement. Environmental SciencesInformation Sciences

© Dirk Spennemann 1999– 2005
Marshall Islands Kosrae CNMI Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Guam Wake Pohnpei FSM Federated States of Micronesia Yap Chuuk Marshall Islands politics public health environment culture WWII history literature XXX Cultural Heritage Management Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences CNMI German Colonial Sources Mariana Islands Historic Preservation Spennemann Dirk Spennemann Dirk HR Spennemann Murray Time Louis Becke Jane Downing Downing