Bringing the past to life in the Neolithic Houses – a volunteers story

Name: Flo Brookes

How long have you been volunteering at stonehenge? I think I started in March which makes it 6 months

What do you do when you’re not volunteering at Stonehenge?  Being recently retired, I’m enjoying not being organized.  I garden a lot, catch up with friends, and spend time with my daughter and granddaughter.

What was the Neolithic Life training session about?  The Overview session was about how the houses came to be built as a part of the new gallery, and where the information for their construction came from.  We also looked at all the wonderful replica items that will help to bring the Neolithic Houses to life. It was great to have a chance to discuss the way in which we can help the visitors experience the houses in the best possible way.

A and R in the houses

What was the most interesting thing you learnt?  Information about the bone needles and other artifacts.  I was doing it as a refresher and it was good to have reminders about a lot of the other items.

What was the most fun thing about the session?  Being a part of such a great project.

What was the most surprising thing about the session or the expert?  I was very pleased to hear that there will be a diary so we can record the lovely things that the visitors say.

What aspect of what you learnt today are you most looking forward to talking to visitors about?  Responding to their questions, based on what we’ve learned

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What attracts you about volunteering in the Neolithic Houses?  I have always been fascinated by what it was like to live in earlier times, especially much simpler ones, where it is easier to see how things worked or were made.  I like the idea of bringing the houses to life with a fire, baking flatbread and making cords and baskets etc.Neolithic Tool Kit

What would you say to others who are thinking about volunteering?  It’s absolutely great to share these fabulous houses with people who’ve come from all over the world to see Stonehenge.  The visitors are pleased to know more about the houses and some spend a lot of time discussing them with us.  We can make a big difference to the way the visitors enjoy their time.

kids in the houses (old sarum)We are always looking for great people to join our team of fantastic volunteers at Stonehenge. If you are interested and would like to find out more about bringing the past to life for our visitors, please visit the English Heritage website 

From digging to education – a volunteers story

Stonehenge_Sonia Heywood_DP149841

Sonia is one of the Interpretation Volunteers in the Neolithic Houses and here she tells us about her experience. 

I’ve been volunteering since 2006 both for the National Trust and for English Heritage, for English Heritage I mainly do education visits.

I am retired, but as busy as I ever was when working. I am a keen botanist and do plant surveys as a volunteer. I am improving my French via local classes. I enjoy walking which includes taking people for walks in the Stonehenge landscape. I am also a voluntary henge guide at Avebury.

I recently attended a training session which was all about the evidence basis for the Neolithic houses and how to show visitors the houses.

One of the most interesting things I learnt at the training session was the fact that there is so little evidence about daily life in the Neolithic – so that evidence has to be drawn from a wide range of places. It also shows how important the discoveries at Durrington Walls are. As well as being interesting, the training sessions in the Neolithic houses were great fun.

I was part of the Durrington Walls excavation so have known about the discoveries from the beginning. I have taken people to see the site, but it is only at the reconstructions that they come alive 

Thanks Sonia, what would you say to others who are thinking about volunteering? 

Go ahead, it is a great team to be part of, there’s lots of training and support. You can fit the volunteering round other commitments. It’s really fun and you learn a lot.

If you would like to find out about becoming a volunteer at Stonehenge, please visit the English Heritage website. There are lots of different opportunities avaialable – from running school visits, interpreting the houses and working in the exhibitions.

Wendy – from house builder to house interpreter!

Wendy grinding corn on the first day the Neolithic Houses opened

Wendy in one of the houses she built

After a few weeks holiday following the completion of the Neolithic build I find myself back at the houses eagerly attending some volunteer workshops. The workshops are aimed at giving us an understanding of the artefacts displayed within the houses, which in turn will arm us with the knowledge to interpret them to visitors.

My first workshop was with Sally and Gareth who gave a wonderful workshop about the organic clothing and other useful items within the buildings, for example, the cloak made out of goatskins, the tunic made out of nettles and the tools made from bone and antler.

Sally and Gareth teach the volunteers about natural fibres

Sally and Gareth teach the volunteers about natural materials

Not only did we find out about the origin of the materials both physically and within history, we were shown how to make the items ourselves. I chose to make a domestic needle out of bone, working away with flint to encourage an eye to appear, sharpening the needle and finishing it off with a  sanding” down using dried dogfish skin.  We were shown several different materials to use as thread including sinew and hemp fibre.

Making thread

Making thread

By handling all the materials required to make the artefacts and then actually using them to attempt to replicate our ancestors’ everyday Items is quite an experience.

To top it off we were sat in the houses themselves working in a small group and this really made the houses make sense. There’s nothing quite like the sound of flint scraping and general chitter chatter and laughter to complete the houses and really bring them to life.

Or that’s what I thought, until I attended a brilliant fire making and management workshop given by Guy Hagg. This was another really informative session with history, science and the practicalities of fire use thrown in.

So now I feel I am able to talk about making clothes using the natural materials that were available to the people who would have lived in the original Neolithic houses. I can discuss the various ways these people may have made fire, carried it with them and managed it in their homes.

 

Shirt made from nettles

Shirt made from linen

With all the ancient and modern methods demonstrated during these volunteer training sessions, I find myself in awe of Neolithic people and their determination to survive.

Next to the often desired time machine, I think this hands on experience of working within the houses themselves (which I helped build!)  affords us an unprecedented opportunity to get closer to and understand ancient people as contemporaries rather than distant relations.

Next up for me is flint knapping!  No one can say volunteering in the houses is going to be mundane!

Read about Wendy’s experience of building the Neolithic houses.

If you would like to find out about becoming a volunteer at Stonehenge, please visit the English Heritage website 

The feel of ancient clay

The feel of ancient clay

In this post, Graham Taylor aka @pottedhistory on Twitter – a potter and Experimental Archaeologist tells us about recreating the pots that visitors can see, touch and learn about in the Neolithic Houses at Stonehenge.

solstice houses 2

The opportunity to handle a pot that was made four or five thousand years ago is something I get to do relatively often these days but it still give me a thrill. I don’t just feel the surface of ancient clay, I feel the movements of the potter’s hands, I understand the way clay behaves and it speaks to me.Stonehenge Group fullWhen English Heritage asked me to make the replica pottery for the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre and Neolithic Houses, I was given the opportunity to handle, interact with and then replicate some of the most iconic pots from prehistory.

The surface of a pot and particularly any decoration, records information about any tools that were used in its manufacture, their shape, the way they were used and sometimes the materials from which they were made. So my first task in replicating the pots, was to replicate the tools themselves. For example the beautiful little collared urn from Wilsford G7 is decorated with beautifully rounded incised lines probably using an antler tine, impressed twisted cord had been applied inside the rim and what archaeologists often refer to as “maggot marks”, actually impressed whipped cord, built up a chevron patten. All of these tools were made to emulate the size and regularity of the original decoration.

Neolithic Tool Kit

For the Wilsford G1 beaker, careful examination of the decoration revealed number of teeth per inch, and the width of the comb that applied it. This tool I made from bone and to finish the surface of the Carinated Neolithic bowl, I made a suitably shaped scraper from oyster shell.

Next comes the preparation of materials and again this comes from close scrutiny of the original pot. What type of clay has been used and what colour is it? What inclusions does it have; sand, grit, quartz, flint, shell? Was there any organic matter, such as animal dung added to it?

Armed with this information I gather the necessary materials together (yes there are some very strange things on the shelves of my workshop) and I begin mixing, wedging and kneading.

Working on Collared Urn sm

While all Neolithic and Bronze-Age pots in this country were hand formed, that is to say without the use of a wheel, I am at great pains to avoid the term “coil building” favoured by many archaeological journals. I feel it conjures up the method we were taught in primary school: rolling out long sausages of clay, then shaping them into a pot and then smearing them together. The actual process is far more robust, involving pinching, pulling and scraping the clay into its final form. In the case of the beaker I took great care to recreate the very refined form, then finish it with a layer of fine red slip (liquid clay), while the much less refined Neolithic bowl was roughly formed then burnished with a smooth pebble.

IMG_4232 Sm (800x533) Once the pot has been finished and decorated I must consider how I will fire it. Received wisdom is that all prehistoric pottery in Britain was fired in an open hearth rather than a kiln, although the finest beakers show signs that the hearth allowed for considerable control of the fuel and air supply, like a rudimentary kiln. This was also the case for the collared urn, although the carinated bowl was fired in close contact with the fuel in an open fire. Again in each case I try to emulate the original conditions as closely as possible. The resulting replicas do not look as they do after four or five thousand years in the ground, but rather as they did on the day they were made.   IMG_2603   You can find out more about Graham Taylor, the pots he makes and the workshops he runs on his website Potted History and you can learn more about Graham’s pots and the other artefacts on display in the Neolithic Houses at Stonehenge by volunteering as a house interpreter or an education volunteer. You can find out more about these opportunities on the English Heritage website. IMG_2601

Learning about the Neolithic

SerenaName:   Serena Avery

How long have you been volunteering at Stonehenge?

Since November 2013 in various roles, but mainly as an Education Discovery Visit Leader.

What do you do when you’re not volunteering at Stonehenge?

I am an ex-Deputy Head teacher who is waiting for the new academic year, when I’m going to be starting a Masters degree in Experimental Archaeology.

What was the training session about?

I’ve had countless training sessions through English Heritage, as I have more than 1 role at Stonehenge, but this particular training was on the background archaeology to the Neolithic houses, finds at Durrington Walls and evidence for Neolithic life.

What was the most interesting thing you learnt?

I was really impressed by the items of clothing in the houses (as a sewing fan myself) and loved the tunic made from nettle fibres. It was a work of art and now I am dying to find out more about the processing and if possible, try out the method myself.

What was the most fun thing about the session?

We got to handle all of the artefacts on display and talk about the various materials used. Everything in the house is so natural, and surprisingly comfortable, and it was brilliant to try out some items practically, like sitting on the rush mats and grinding wheat on the quern stone. Hopefully we can publicly demonstrate some of the activities in the future.

What was the most surprising thing about the session or the expert?

After not too much persuasion, Susan Greaney, the archaeologist leading the session, picked up an ancient instrument and had a go. Since she can play the flute, she used the same technique. It’s fascinating that not much has changed in some respects.

What aspect of what you learnt today are you most looking forward to talking to visitors about?

I’m really looking forward to engaging the public in the Neolithic way of life and for them to go away with an awareness that the people building and living in these houses were as sophisticated as you or I. I hope to help demonstrate a more complete picture than just the structure of the houses themselves, bring them to life and show domestic and leisure activities too.

What attracts you about volunteering in the Neolithic Houses?

I was on the build team for the house project and fell in love with the structures, so other than moving in I had no choice but to interpret them. I feel very passionate about how much insight they can provide.

What would you say to others who are thinking about volunteering? 

The houses are a fantastic place to work, you learn something new every day you are here, and get to train with experts in their field, passing on their skills. It is a real privilege to have such an opportunity and something I will never forget.

There are still opportunities to get involved with the Neolithic Houses – we are recruiting for interpretation and education volunteers! Click here to find out more 

 

 

We are open!

After several months of very hard work by our amazing team of volunteers, the houses at the Stonehenge visitor centre are now open to the public! We are thrilled and very proud to see visitors stepping inside the houses for the first time.

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The floors are still drying in two of the houses, but these will have their furniture and replica objects installed by the end of next week. After that we’ll be doing further training with our volunteers  – they’ll be learning flint-knapping, basket-making and pottery firing! We’ll also be finishing the landscaping works around the houses, taking delivery of some further replica objects and hopefully setting up an events programme for next winter. Oh and running education sessions for schools in the houses and opening them up to the public every day!

IMG_0585 IMG_0586 IMG_0588

English Heritage would like to thank the following amazing people who have helped with the project:

 

Heritage Lottery Fund

Ancient Technology Centre (Luke and Paul especially, but also Pascale, Martin and others!)

And all our simply wonderful 60+ volunteers! THANK YOU – we couldn’t have done it without you!

Also thank you to our replica makers and suppliers:

Graham Taylor, Potted History

Karl Lee, Primitive Technology

James Dilley, Ancient Craft

Sally Pointer and Gareth Risborough

Kim Creswell

Corwen Broch and Kate Fletcher, Ancient Music

Neil Burridge, Bronze Age Craft

Felicity Irons, Rush Matters

Robin Wood

Anne Reichert

Barrhead Leather

Here is some of the media coverage we had covering our opening on Monday:

ITV West Country, 2 June

BBC Radio Wiltshire, 8.30am and 9.30am, 2 June

BBC Radio Wiltshire, 1 June

Western Daily Press: online picture gallery, 2 June

 

Neolithic knee prints?

neolithic dresser

It is very exciting when archaeological evidence allows us to reconstruct or imagine small intimate details of the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago. The hard chalk floors of the Neolithic Houses excavated at Durrington Walls shed light on some of the domestic activities of the people who lived there – the people who may have built or used Stonehenge.


neo fire

In one of the houses, just by the central hearth, two indentations were found and it has been suggested that these could be knee prints – from somebody spending long hours, day after day kneeling by the fireplace, tending the fire and cooking.

It is unlikely we will ever be able to prove or disprove this theory but reconstructing these houses has allowed us to see how the building materials work and how they settle. When the houses open in June, we will begin to observe the impact that general use and traffic will have on the chalk floors. The fires will be lit, the floors will be swept, people will be walking through, and generally interacting with the houses on a daily basis.

What do you think? Are these knee prints or just naturally occurring indentations in the hard chalk floor?

knee prints 1knee prints 2

Thanks very much to Kate Welham of Bournemouth University and the Riverside Project for letting us use these two images of the floor of House 851 – which show the ‘knee-shaped’ indentations to the left of the circular hearth. Also visible are the beam-slot indentations where wooden furniture once stood around the edge of the floor.

nick jones twitter image finished

photo by volunteer house builder Nick Jones

There are still opportunities to get involved with the Neolithic Houses – we are recruiting for interpretation and education volunteers! Click here to find out more