Kitting out the Neolithic Houses: Making cordage from Deer Sinew

We are in the process of commissioning lots of replica objects to go into the Neolithic Houses.  These objects include pottery, clothing, wooden artefacts and also flint tools.

We have enlisted the help of a number of specialists, each making their own particular types of replica objects.

Sally Pointer is making a number of items, specifically cordage and clothing and has managed to find a bit of time, when not scouring the countryside for quern stones and antlers for picks, to share some of her expertise here in a guest blog post. 

The new Neolithic houses and their contents at Stonehenge make use of a wide range of cords, fibres and bindings. One type of cordage that was widely used in prehistory is animal sinew, and today I’ve been making thin cord from deer sinew.

The sinew is the tendon that is found in the lower leg of the deer, and when dried, it looks rather like a stick, very tough and solid.

Image

Before it can be used, it needs to be gently pounded with a rounded rock against a piece of wood until the tough surface begins to break down. Here you can see the end of starting to turn pale and get larger as the fibres soften.

Image

After a few minutes steady pounding, the fibres split into a fluffy mass of strands. At this point they can be peeled off and separated into thin sections.

Image

Now it’s just a case of twisting them into a cord. Here I’m making a simple two ply cord that is very strong and useful for binding tool heads, sewing heavy garments or shoes, or making nets and snares.

Image

I’ll also be making cordage from nettles, flax, hemp and tree bast including the inner bark from willow. Each fibre source has different strengths and our Neolithic ancestors were very skilled at using the materials available to them.

Image

If you’re interested in historic and prehistoric materials and artefacts, we recommend having a look at Sally’s website 

www.sallypointer.com

Image@neolithichouses is on twitter and we’d love to answer any questions you have about the build or the replica objects going into the houses.  

 

Advertisements

Focus on techniques: thatching – different methods and different problems

The Neolithic House team are using three different thatching techniques on the different buildings.

The first method is called knotted straw thatching. Using knotted straw means that rope, string or ‘withys’ would not be needed. Not having to make rope would save on time as well as precious resources for the people building the original houses at Durrington Walls in the Neolithic period.Image

The team have found however, that the knotted straw method does have its drawbacks.

The first problem they have negotiated is the fact that the knots are not consistent in size or knot ‘method’ – so some are larger, fatter, shorter or longer than others, and some have their ends pulled through (the team refer to these knots as having ‘beaks’) while others don’t (and therefore don’t have a ‘beak’).

Image

The first task therefore is to go through a ‘grading’ process and then to choose specifically which knotted bunch of thatch is the best for each (also inconsistent) woven area of the roof. Each weave presents different angles and planes, and in some areas of the roof the weave is tight and elsewhere it is loose.

Once the right bunch of straw is selected for the right area of weave, the knot is tucked underneath the hazel rods.

Image

The team are learning solutions to each issue as it arises for example, the distance in the weave at the eaves means smaller pieces of thatch are needed.

ImageThe second and third methods of thatching are very similar to each other and were discussed in our previous post. Instead of tucking knots under the weave, unknotted bunches of straw are laid flat against the woven hazel rafters and held in place with a hazel rod or ‘sway’. They are then secured with a willow ‘withy’ and tied with a rose knot on the inside of the roof, by someone working inside the house. If you were to look up in the roof space of the houses where this technique has been used, you would notice a pattern of these pretty rose knots at relatively even intervals.

Image

 

In method 2, the sheafs or bunches of straw are laid in an alternating pattern of grain up and grain down. In method 3, the heads of the grain are all kept at the top.

Image

 

The volunteers are becoming experts. They are all speaking with great knowledge and pride about the techniques they are mastering. They have developed their own lexicon, their own solutions and were pointing out areas of the roof where they could tell they’d done a better job (e.g. the thatch lay flatter) than in others.

It’s been pretty cold and miserable on site this week but the team are making great progress. There are more photos on thatching in the gallery. 

 

Image

 

Additional Volunteering Opportunities

If you are interested in becoming an Interpretation Volunteer at the Neolithic Houses, you can find out about the opportunities on the English Heritage website. As a Neolithic House Interpretation Volunteer you will be responsible for maintaining the Neolithic houses once they are built (which weather permitting will be by the end of April), by lighting fires and assisting with the building maintenance.  You will bring the stories of the Neolithic people to life in our external galleries and provide a warm and friendly welcome for all visitors, helping us to deliver a world class visitor experience.

More Houses being thatched.

The focus of the next few weeks will be on getting the roofs thatched on the buildings. We will be staggering the start of the thatching on each roof by one week.

Two buildings at different stages of thatching.

Two buildings at different stages of thatching.

The latest roof to be started is House 3 which will have it’s thatch applied in a more traditional method. The bundles of thatch are sandwiched between a sway on the outside and the main roof structure on the inside. The sways are kept in place by being tied on with willow, finished with a ‘rose knot’. We have managed to complete two layers in the first week.

A second layer of thatch being added, held on by hazel sways.

A second layer of thatch being added, held on by hazel sways.

A rose knot tied inside of House 3.

A rose knot tied inside of House 3.

We have also continued with the thatching on House 1, with it progressing nicely towards the top. The inside of this roof is looking very interesting with ears of the wheat visible.

The progress on House 1.

The progress on House 1.

The ears of the wheat visible on the inside of House 1.

The ears of the wheat visible on the inside of House 1.

A nice surprise this week was a stunning rainbow that appeared over the site!

A rainbow over the Houses.

A rainbow over the Houses.

Gallery Part 3

Here’s our latest selection of photographs documenting the project, taken by our volunteer Nick Davies. Thanks Nick!

Meet the team of Neolithic House Builders! Nick Beeton

nick beeton 

What made you want to get involved with the Neolithic Houses project?

A desire to learn something practical about how our ancestors lived and fitted into the local landscape and to attempt to replicate some of the skills necessary to survive in that period.

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

The comradeship of fellow travellers uniting to learn new skills and to put them into practice.

Is there any part of the project that you’re particularly looking forward to or that you are particularly interested in?

Having done the “dry run” at Old Sarum, it is fascinating seeing all our newly acquired skills coming together in the finished article. I find all aspects of the build intrinsically interesting.

In what ways has being involved in this project made you think differently about the people of Stonehenge and their lives?

How efficient and durable were their “temporary” domestic structures.  I am sure that they were erected in less time than we took (bearing in mind that our group of volunteers were perhaps at least double the age and perhaps not so physically able as the original builders). I also find it amazing that so much skill and experience could be transmitted from one generation to the next under what we would consider arduous (and brutish) conditions especially when at the same time they had to forage/hunt for food. The building of Stonehenge indicates a high level of organisation with the ability to generate the requisite amount of time required to plan and execute the original concept and for generations following to expand that into the final form we have today.

What do you do when you’re not building Neolithic houses?

Being one of the many retired OAP’s I do nothing else – except being a Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour Guide (since it was built…), play badminton, engage in other local activities, sail our sloop (tide and wind permitting), travel through France for up to six weeks a year (in search of ancient ruins and wines), very amateur local historian, keen visitor of historic sites that were once in the care of the Ministry of Public Buildings & Works (but are now split up into EH, CADW and Historic Scotland amongst others), etymology -with a keen interest in place names in England especially those indicating the routes taken by successive economic/social/military incursions throughout our history,  making and playing music of most persuasions (fumbling bass player of various stringed instruments ), film maker extraordinaire, keeper of useless facts and figures.

 What would you say to people who are tempted to volunteer at Stonehenge?

With my recent experience dress up warmly with waterproof clothing!  Stonehenge is a unique structure which is gradually unveiling more of it’s past so therefore it’s story is continuously unfolding.  It has a wealth of information already in the public domain, and it requires people with the skills and enthusiasm to convey this information in a simple and easily digestible form for the general public.  I do not believe in “experts” (disassembling the word gives you a has-been and a drip…) Simply put, an unlettered person with a love of the subject who can convey this effectively to a general audience is the ideal person.  Having said that, there are also many other aspects of the whole visitor experience where a volunteer does not come into direct contact with the general public, but whose worth is as valued.

Additional Volunteering Opportunities

If you are interested in beoming a Stonehenge Neolithic House Interpretation Volunteer, you can find out more on the English Heritage website. As a Neolithic House Interpretation Volunteer you will be responsible for maintaining the Neolithic houses once they are built (which weather permitting will be by the end of April), by lighting fires and assisting with the building maintenance.  You will bring the stories of the Neolithic people to life in our external galleries and provide a warm and friendly welcome for all visitors, helping us to deliver a world class visitor experience.

Focus on Techniques: Weaving the Walls

Image

We have mentioned previously that the the 1-2 foot spacing of the stake holes found at Durrington Walls indicates that the original Neolithic builders were using 7 year hazel for the wands or rods that are woven to form the basic frame of the walls. Hazel of this size would provide the right thickness and strength for forming a wall between  the uprights and we experimented with this technique at Old Sarum in 2013. It was found to work well and is being replicated now at the Stonehenge visitor and exhibition centre.

Coppiced hazel (mostly 7 year growth) ready for wattling

Coppiced hazel (mostly 7 year growth) ready for wattling

Paul Grigsby from the Ancient Technology Centre walked me round the Neolithic houses and described how the walls were woven using younger and more flexible hazel rods.

1. Take a rod and choose where to begin (in this case the left hand stake in the door frame as you’re facing the hut)

2. Start from the first stake  and begin weaving 10 layers of hazel rods in front of and behind each consecutive stake. Doing this first group of 10 rods allows the top edge to remain roughly parallel throughout – and thereby provides a strong foundation.

3. Once you’ve completed your ten woven rods, take one rod and begin to weave from the second stake

IMG_2325 FEB_4880 Repeat around the house until you reach the eaves2

4. Repeat starting at stake 3 and so on until you have been all the way around the house and ended up at the right hand stake in the door frame (as you’re facing the hut)

5. At the end, twist the hazel rod around the upright stake so that the stake is strongly locked in place.

twist the hazel rod around the upright stake so that the stake is locked in place2 twist the hazel rod around the upright stake so that the stake is locked in place

6. Repeat around the house until you reach the eaves.

FEB_4132 IMG_2309

Generally, thick hazel will be paired with thick on either side of the stakes and thin with thin.

thick hazel paired with thick and thin with thin

The hazel in the roofs replicates the pattern in the walls but the rods are woven more loosely. More about roofs next time!

Image

Thatching!

We have had a very productive two weeks since our last post. We have finished weaving the roofs on three of our buildings, with all of the eaves put in and the binding weave attached. We have also made good progress with the weaving of the roof on the fourth building.

All of the main buildings are taking shape.

All of the main buildings are taking shape.

The thatch in the sunshine.

The thatch in the sunshine.

Thatching has begun on building 1 using the wheat straw thatch that the volunteers have spent so long knotting. We are expecting this to take a few weeks to complete.

Carefully placing the knotted thatch into the roof weave.

Carefully placing the knotted thatch into the roof weave.