Preparing for kick-off

Next week, we start construction of our prototype houses at Old Sarum, near Salisbury. We’re just completing the final site set-up tasks this week, so the blog is a bit quiet as delivery of portacabins and toilets isn’t that interesting! In the meantime, we thought you’d like to hear the experience so far from one of our volunteers, Nick Jones.

Reflections on Neolithic Learning

“Neolithic life in a January woodland was cold, muddy and smoky. I learned to manage the cold and the mud, but wherever I stood around the fire the smoke always got me! At least we always had hot water and mugs of tea to warm our hands on. I wondered what kind of warming brew the Beaker folk put in their beakers.Neolithic tea time

I volunteered for the Neolithic Houses Project because I knew it would be a wonderful learning opportunity. I often take clients to Avebury and Stonehenge, and we walk through the landscapes sharing thoughts and questions. It is intriguing to think that the people who created these extraordinary places were just like us – just as intelligent, just as ingenious, just as ordinary – just living in a completely different context. It is easy to admire their monuments but hard to imagine the everydayness of life in the Neolithic.

I joined the project in January, and spent a week gathering building materials. In March and April I will be involved in the construction of prototypes at Old Sarum (I can’t wait!). Nobody knows what Neolithic houses looked like – archaeologists found post holes, floors, fire pits etc at Durrington Walls, but no trace remains of walls or roofs – so anything above ground level will educated guess-work. One educated guess is that the spacing between the post holes suggests that the walls were made of seven year old Hazel coppice.

Garston Wood, near Sixpenny Handley in Dorset, has been coppiced for hundreds of years, and it has a suitable crop of seven year old hazel. I learned that the growths are called ‘rods’ and the stumps they sprout from are ‘stools’. Woodland management objectives can also affect how they grow – eg management for biodiversity retains large trees, and the shade from their canopies forces the rods to bend towards the light. We needed rods as straight as possible. Another thing that affects the rods is deer rubbing their antlers against them. This strips the bark and makes the rods harder to bend and weave between the upright posts.

We began coppicing with modern tools – bowsaws and ‘loppers’ – cutting and trimming the rods and tying them into bundles of twenty. After three days we had gathered over 3,000 rods – sufficient to build the prototypes. In the context of my modern life, I found coppicing quite therapeutic. But then I wondered whether, by Neolithic standards, this meant I wasn’t working hard enough!

“I bet you won’t be using flint axes!” taunted one of my more skeptical friends. So it was very exciting to do just that. We worked with a variety of axe shapes, monitoring how they/we performed and trying to work out the best ways of using them.  We measured the circumference of each rod, recorded how long it took to cut, and how many blows of the axe were needed.

I soon learned that axe blades easily fall out of their wooden shafts. This was mostly to do with my incompetence, but the blades must have been tied, wedged or glued in some way. So we also began to record the number of ‘axe repairs’.  James, our resident ‘axe-repair-man’, put them back together and knapped the blades sharp again when they broke.Flint axe trials

James also gave a fascinating demonstration of axe-making. Knapping flint is difficult and dangerous, I learned. The Flint flakes are very sharp, so James wore safety goggles and the rest of us stood well back. I wondered whether Neolithic axe-makers managed to protect their eyes. If not, I reasoned, there must have been a lot of one-eyed Neolithic flint knappers. I came away with a box of razor-sharp flakes (c. late January, 2013AD) which have already been put to use. The teenage son of one of my clients used one to slice up a lunch menu in The Barge at Honeystreet!

I learned that the adze would have been useless for cutting rods, but it can be used for trimming twigs. And I learned that the effectiveness of flint axes generally depends on:

  • the sharpness, or apex, of the blade
  • the curvature of the blade (a flat blade does not slide off the rod)
  • the security of the blade in the handle
  • the length and weight of the handle
  • the angle of blade relative to the handle
  • the angle/accuracy/force/frequency of the blows
  • the use of an ‘anvil’ (a log placed behind the rod)

I also mused that, if there was such a thing a Neolithic National Curriculum, it probably included:

  • Traditional survival skills, including hunting and gathering
  • Modern farming and food-growing skills,
  • Herd-management and flock-watching
  • Fire-lighting/management, including tinder and kindling storage
  • Cooking and smoke evasion
  • Cold and mud management
  • Tool-making/using skills, including knapping/polishing/grinding/wielding
  • Shelter-building, including coppicing, wattling, daubing and thatching

And then I remembered that the Scouts, Woodcraft Folk, Forest Schools etc are still keeping these skills alive today!

The learning goes way beyond the specific activities of the project. The volunteers bring a wide range of expertise, insights and enthusiasms that are shared informally during the day. And since my week in the woods l have been able to tap into the expertise of some of the people I met by email – not very Neolithic, I know!

Finally, it must be said that the learning potential of this project is greatly enhanced by its leadership. Luke Winter was hewn out of English Oak just for the job, but more importantly, the Ancient Technology Centre at Cranborne, which Luke leads, has learning at its heart. This is the kind of centre for outdoor and environmental education that all young people should have access to. Dorset should be very proud of it, and those teachers and pupils lucky enough to use it will know how valuable it is in bringing history to life.”

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Felling a large tree

We have moved up in size with todays task.
Armed with ten volunteers and four flint axes we headed back to the woods to fell a thirty metre high pine tree.Today the volunteers chose the axe that they preferred rather than us insisting on them using a variety, as we felt it would be more productive for them to be comfortable with a particular tool. We felt that it was going to take a while and yesterday we had all estimated how long it would take to fell the tree and we had a range from thirty minutes to three hours.

The tree to be felled

The tree to be felled

It didn’t take long for the chips to start flying as we took turns chopping for two minutes each and by lunch time we had cut a large wedge out of the tree. We continued into the afternoon focusing now on the back cut to ensure that the tree fell where we wanted it, not where it wanted!
The first cut

The first cut

Starting the back cut

Starting the back cut

Ready to fall

Ready to fall

At 2.30pm, after a valiant effort by all involved, the tree started to creak and a few more blows later it fell. Cheers echoed round the wood, we had done it all with flint tools!

11,000 blows later

11,000 blows later

The successful team

The successful team

The total amount of blows struck was 11,477! We counted every one!
We have now reached the end of the harvesting phase and now all the materials will be delivered to Old Sarum for the construction phase to start at the beginning of March.

Return to the woods

After a week away we returned to the woods with flint axes in hand.
Many of the axes had been repaired or re hafted and their edges honed in preparation for the task ahead.

The mission today was to cut down twenty larch trees. These trees were far more substantial than the hazel coppice, being about twelve years old but, because they are a softwood, we wondered if they would be any easier.

Trees to be cut

Trees to be cut

The first signs were promising as the sound of flint axes striking trees echoed through the woods and large chippings littered the floor. It wasn’t long before the first tree crashed to the ground and from then on trees were harvested at a steady rate.

The first one down

The first one down

Larch poles ready to go

Larch poles ready to go

Tomorrow we move on to something larger!

 

Dealing with breakages

We had more tool breakages yesterday. This time rather than the flint axe heads breaking, it was the handles. All of the flint axes that we are currently using have some kind of handle damage and so we gave the volunteers the day off to allow us time to repair them.
We managed to make two new hafts, one for our large axe head and also one for our adze. The axe haft is made from oak and the adze is made from field maple cut out of the woods on Tuesday.
Replacement handle fitted

Replacement handle fitted

These will be used next week when we hope to fell some larger trees to use as rafters and so this will be the last post until then.
Before

Before

After

After

 

A Neolithic industrial landscape

Today we were back in our original coup to finish collecting the last of the small hazel rods.
Our volunteers didn’t look particularly surprised when the flint tools appeared again, we are wondering whether the excitement of using them is wearing off.

The effects of hazel coppice on a copper axe

The effects of hazel coppice on a copper axe

Over the last couple of days we have also been experimenting with copper and bronze axes, the buildings at Durrington Walls that we are reconstructing were built at the end of the Neolithic era. It soon became apparent that these axes with their sharp metal edges are more efficient at cutting wood and, given the chance, most of our volunteers preferred them.
This is our last day in this coup as we now have enough hazel rods to build with and it is amazing to think that a week ago you couldn’t see across the coup!

A Neolithic industrial landscape - coppiced hazel waiting to be taken to Old Sarum

A Neolithic industrial landscape – coppiced hazel waiting to be taken to Old Sarum

Start of the second week

It is the start of our second week of coppicing and the enthusiasm was still evident when our volunteers arrived this morning, maybe the sunshine helped.
We continued where we left off last week, looking for larger rods to use in the main structure of the buildings.
Today, however, we intended to harvest the majority of the hazel with the flint axes and adzes that we have, which meant that we only used the bow saws and lopers to remove the shoots and branches on each rod (brash). This allowed us to gain a huge amount of practical experience using flint tools and also find their limitations, they don’t cut through wood quite as easily as steel tools! They tend to peel the wood along its fibres rather than cutting through which means that it takes considerably more blows to remove a hazel rod.

Hafted axes ready for use

Hafted axes ready for use

When you have spent a day of using these tools you certainly don’t need to visit the gym!

End of the first week

Its the end of the first week of the project and we are amazed at how much has been achieved. We are on track with our harvesting schedule and are confident that we will have all of the hazel that we need coppiced by the end of this phase of the project.
For the final day of this week we moved to another coup in the woods, unfortunately farther away from the car park. This did mean though that there was a longer, but very pleasant walk in. The hazel in this coup has been left for longer and therefore the rods that we were coppicing today were larger than we had all week. The straightest ones that we cut will probably be used as either wall stakes or rafters in the buildings.
An excellent week and everyone seems to have enjoyed their time in the woods.

An area of the woods after coppicing

An area of the woods after coppicing