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’).


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.


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.



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.



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. 




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.


4 thoughts on “Focus on techniques: thatching – different methods and different problems

  1. Pingback: One thatched roof finished. | Stonehenge Neolithic Houses

  2. Why have you used modern combed reed straw for thatching these Neolithic roofs, and Triticale (a modern hybrid cross of wheat x rye not used until the 1990s) when spelt and emmer wheat straw is available? The Triticale is visible on cover of EH Volunteer Focus magazine. And why have you used the the 3 methods described? What archaeo evidence is the thatching based on?

    • Hi John, sorry for the delay in replying, only just spotted your comment! The straw that we have used is the longest possible type of thatching straw that is available to us – we think that Neolithic species would have been much longer. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to get the spelt and emmer wheat straw in the quantities we required, and doesn’t usually have the length of growth we needed. We decided to use straw after testing several different materials at our prototype stage – including reed and grass. The wheat straw was the easiest to work with, and created a light, waterproof thatch. There is very little evidence for thatching in prehistory – we have based the methods on the size and spacing of the hazel wall stakes, which gives us an indication of the structure and weight that the walls could support.

      • There is straw available that is much longer than Triticale, and more authentic to the Neolithic. The two archaeobotanically accurate options would have been einkorn and emmer wheat (with spelt arriving a little later), and straw of both is now available in the UK – along with tons of tall spelt wheat straw. I’m not so sure that Neolithic cereals would actually have been terribly tall – they were ‘genetically’ programmed to grow tall, that’s for sure, but they need nitrogen to achieve this height, and Neolithic fields were probably not very high in nitrogen. I’ve been growing acres of all of these cereals in various soil conditions for over 10 years. Although there is a lot of info on the crops that were grown in prehistory, I agree about the lack of direct evidence re: the techniques of thatching that were used in the ancient past – but there’s a lot of compelling data from various sources (medieval roofs, traditional thatching methods and materials used in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, common sense) that allows for reconstructions to be created with a range of native materials without relying on modern methods and materials (such as Triticale combed wheat reed applied in a broadly modern West Country manner). For such an important reconstruction wouldn’t it have been good to try to recreate what might have been on the roof originally, rather than use a dubbed-down version of modern thatch?

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