Meet the team: Alyson Tanner, Neolithic House Builder

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

My son saw the advert and knowing that I am interested in archaeology, suggested I volunteer. I thought it was a great opportunity to be involved in an activity close to where I live near Old Sarum. I am doing a Certificate in Archaeology at Oxford Uni Continuing Education and I thought this would be a chance to be involved in a different aspect of archaeology.

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

Learning new skills – I have learnt to weave wattle, use a saw and have had extensive practice knotting wet straw (I am still under instruction with an axe!). But the most pleasurable part of the project has been working with the rest of the team. Everyone seems to have special skills and experience which they have been happy to share – I have learnt so much from them.

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

I love talking to people about the houses. We had open days at Old Sarum and it was great to chat to people about the houses – people seemed so interested.

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

We are not building Wendy houses – we are using the materials that we know from the archaeology were available to the Durrington Walls builders to build the very best houses that we can – which is presumably what happened 4,500 years ago. It creates a real link to those people, particularly sharing their experience of the cold, wind and rain on Salisbury Plain (although we have the benefit of wellies)!

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

I retired as a solicitor 18 months ago and apart from my Certificate in Archaeology course, I also volunteer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme at Salisbury Museum. The PAS is a great scheme with heaps of fascinating information on the database about objects dating from prehistory to 1700. We identify the finds brought in by metal detectorists and other members of the public and add the details to the database.

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

I was very nervous before we started the prototype build at Old Sarum. I hadn’t done any building work before and I was worried that I would be slow and hopeless. I also worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage being outside in the cold all day. I didn’t need to worry – I have been taught the skills I need on the way and I found I loved being outside all day. It has been a fabulous experience.

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.

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Friday visitors

Friday of last week saw a special visit by the Secretary of State Rt Hon Maria Miller. She was visiting the new visitor centre and took the land train down to see Stonehenge, but also stopped to speak to the project team and one of our volunteers about the Neolithic houses project. She was very interested and asked lots of good questions!

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Accompanying the minister was the English Heritage chairman, Sir Laurie Magnus.

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We also had a mini-celebrity visit, in the shape of Dr Mark Horton, an archaeology professor from the University of Bristol, best known for his presenting role in Coast.

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And our final visitor on Friday? Lots of spring sunshine! The dry weather is certainly helping progress, with one of the houses having a now entirely woven roof. We have started thatching this one with knotted thatch. We hope to finish the rest of the weaving on the other houses this week.

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Meet the Volunteer: Rob Rosenthal

Role.     BUILDER

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

Because of all the local history of the area, the project provided the opportunity to find out a lot more  about the comprehensive history of the area including the recreation of buildings    based on archaeological research of the Neolithic age.

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

Teamwork with a wide variation of other workers, understanding and learning about  life in the Neolithic  age, and learning new skills in the building of these houses.

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

 The most interesting part for me is how the Neolithic age fitted into the history of the area. The part that I am particularly looking forward to is when all the houses are nearing completion and you can get an  appreciation of how the ‘village’ will look and how it can be included in the whole Stonehenge experience.

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

The most striking aspect is learning how long it must have taken to harvest and build their houses and the fact that these activities obviously took up most of their time in their day to day life. And how this soon moved on to factory farming. 

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

My main activities are singing in one of the local Salisbury choirs, volunteering for other organisations including U3A and travel. Having lived in Africa for 10 years in the seventies, we have a close affiliation there and still visit friends and spend time in the bush. 

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

DO IT!  You meet such a diverse group of interesting people, both other volunteers and visitors, and  learn more about the extensive history of the area.

Gallery part 3

Focus on techniques: Roof Structures

Houses 1 and 2 are really taking shape. We have started weaving hundreds of hazel rods through the rafters to form strong curving roof profiles. Each rafter has to be carefully controlled to ensure they curve correctly and provide the strength required to take the weight of thatch. The buildings begin to look like huge loaves of bread!

The junction between walls and roof.

The junction between walls and roof.

Meanwhile, the epic task of knotting thousands of wheat straw bundles has begun. These knots will be squeezed between the woven fabric of the roof to provide a lightweight but weatherproof covering. The weather this week has enabled good progress by the volunteers and we seem to have missed the worst of the heavy rain!

The roof being woven.

The roof being woven.

The roof is taking shape.

The roof is taking shape.