Reflections on Learning through the Neolithic Houses by volunteer builder Nick Jones

In this blog post, Nick Jones one of the volunteers involved in the Neolithic House build project tells us how being involved has stimulated his thinking about how Neolithic people may have lived from day to day, and how he thinks they may have managed their environment.

What do you think the lives of these original builders may have been like?

I think that they would have worked up healthy appetites dragging stones and digging henges, but they were apparently not subsistence farmers. The archaeological evidence suggests that they feasted well and travelled great distances. They built houses, but they were not simple builders.

They may have lived in fear of wild animals, but we know they were not naked, homeless, or hungry savages. They were modern humans who carried out one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering in the world. 

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What level of effort and organisation do you think was required? 

Our experiments suggest that each house takes about 1,000 hours to build, using about 1,000 rods of Hazel, an acre or two of wheat straw, and nearly two tons of chalk daub. Gathering and preparing these materials required planning. Supplies of daub are not a problem, but supplies of thatching straw are governed by annual harvests, and supplies of wattle are governed by seven-year cycles of woodland management.

As the proverb says, “If you are thinking one year ahead, plant a seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking one hundred years ahead, educate the people.”

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And from a social or cultural point of view?

I believe there must have been a highly educated elite that conceived Stonehenge, but house-building was more likely a ‘cultural institution’ – something everyone knew how to do, and everyone, young or old, took part in – an early form of ‘building society’. Such a common task would also have embodied social ‘bonding power’, although not on the scale of henge-building.

Some aspects of the house-building process may have been more important than others (eg thatching the roof) and some would have required more strength than others (eg driving stakes into the ground). It seems likely that these special craft skills may have been recognised and rewarded, and that this may have also applied to the processes of acquiring materials.

Specialists in woodland management would have been needed, perhaps living on the job, in the woods, protecting the coppice from deer etc and extending the area of productive woodland. Perhaps they prepared bundles of rods for nearby settlements, and traded them for food or clothing?

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So how much do you know about these Neolithic people and Stonehenge now?

In trying to make sense of all this, two things sprang to my mind. The first was an English Heritage jigsaw of Stonehenge we bought for Audrey Grundy, who was recovering from an operation. Having completed the 1,000 piece puzzle, she told me, “Putting the pieces of the stones together was much easier than the background.”

A useful metaphor, I thought, but then I realised that the prospect of ever completing the whole Stonehenge ‘jigsaw’ is just an illusion. I remembered Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”  Thanks to the Neolithic houses project, I now realise how much I don’t know about far more than I did before, if you see what I mean!

Which part of the project has taught you the most? 

Learning springs from many directions: the practical house-building activities and skills, the insights these offer and the questions they raise; the knowledge, experiences, expertise and stories of other team members; and the countless questions asked over the fence by visitors.

English Heritage staff have also stimulated my thinking, notably Senior Properties Historian, Susan Greaney, and archaeo-astronomer, Simon Banton. I am now wrestling with Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic, Landscapes, monuments and memory (1) and Chalkland, an archaeology of Stonehenge and its region (2). Thanks, guys!

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What has been the best learning element of the experience for you?

Perhaps the most poignant and pleasurable learning experience was coppicing, which lies at the very heart of Neolithic house-building.  Kneeling by a Hazel stool, cutting out rods, the sound of nearby conversation, bundles being dragged through the woodland, a whiff of wood-smoke from the fire, and Coco the Spaniel demanding another thrown stick – it all seemed timeless. It was as if I had stepped back 5,000 years.  

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Refs:

1 Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic, Landscapes, monuments and memory, by Mark Edmonds, Routledge, 1999.

2 Chalkland, an archaeology of Stonehenge and its region, by Andrew J Lawson, Hobnob Press, 2007

 

Thanks so much Nick. If you are planning to visit Stonehenge in these the last few weeks of the Neolithic house build you may be lucky enough to catch Nick or one of the other volunteers who will be very happy to tell you more about the techniques they’ve been using to build the houses and what else they’ve learnt along the way.  

Additional Volunteering Opportunities

If you are interested in becoming a Stonehenge Neolithic House Interpretation Volunteer, you can find out more on the English Heritage website. In this role, you will be responsible for maintaining the houses, lighting fires and bringing the stories of the Neolithic people who originally lived in them to life for all our visitors.

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Kitting out the Neolithic Houses: knapping the axes

Here, one of our talented replica makers James Dilley, of Ancient Craft, explains how he has made the flint axes for the houses.

The replica axes for the Neolithic houses had to manufactured by a technique known as “flintknapping” which is made up of the name of the material (flint) and the Germanic word – “knopp” which means to strike, shape or work. The flint itself is around 100 million years old and is extracted in Suffolk in a sand and gravel quarry (hence the orange/yellow cortex or skin). This kind of flint is very glassy and dark in colour which means the finished axes generally have a pleasing appearance. You may have spotted the safety glasses I am wearing; these prevent the sharp flakes damaging my eyes. It is very rare they fly upwards but they are always worth wearing for flintknapping.

James 1

My knapping tools consist of beach pebbles, some very hard to take large, thick flakes off while others a slightly softer so that the flakes are thinner and more controlled. I also use a rough sandstone pebble to dull the razor sharp edges before striking them. This means the edge will not shatter when I hit it but will instead allow the energy from the strike to continue into the flint. I have to strike around the edges to take flakes off and constantly survey my options and angles around the flint as I work to try and make use of every opportunity to take off a good flake. Sometimes there are natural cracks or fossils in the flint that hinder my flaking as they cause a stop in energy or alter the energy’s path.

As I continue to work around the nodule, it starts to take shape as the cortex disappears. This stage is considered the “roughout” stage. Neolithic mining and extraction sites would have produced roughouts from raw nodules before transporting them around the UK for final flaking and polishing. As the roughout gets smaller with each flake I will consider down grading my hammer stone to a smaller size for greater precision and control, the main requirement for good knapping is strike accuracy.

James 2

At this stage before the final shaping I can decide the form and shape of the axe head so that I can create a strategy to follow. The roughout is also fairly thin at this stage so I need to be extra careful not to strike it too hard and break it. Archaeologists have found many broken axes which have been damaged during manufacture or use leaving distinctive break marks.

James 3

Here is the finished axe head. Next it could be polished but this one will remain flaked, the next thing it will need is a handle or haft.

James 4

 

 

 

Gallery part 5

 

 

The fifth Neolithic building

The last of the replica Neolithic buildings began to be built last week. This is a significant milestone in the project to reconstruct five dwellings or structures from the archaeological evidence found at Durrington walls.

5th house

 One of the aims of the project was to replicate and thereby try to understand some of the techniques, processes and requirements of the original Neolithic house builders. It is safe to say however that the whole project has, as well as helping to develop our understanding, raised a lot of new questions!

We are not calling this fifth structure a house as we are not sure that that is was it was. In fact, it is this building that raises the most questions.

As with the other structures, Building no.5/848 is based on the excavated evidence from Durrington but whereas the majority of the living floors investigated showed evidence of surrounding stake holes, this hut did not.

house 848
It simply showed a floor and a simple, small hearth which appear to have been used less frequently than those within the large obviously domestic dwellings. So the two first questions raised by this structure are:
1. What sort of building would show no evidence of uprights?
2. What sort of use would such a building have had, if as the hearth suggests it was used less frequently, and perhaps in a different way to the other buildings in the settlement?

There is a third question raised by extremely close proximity of this hut to one of the other houses
3. Did this structure date to before or after the other houses?

We has run with one of the possible interpretations of the building which is that it could have been ‘wigwam’ or ‘teepee’ shaped – and this is what they are building at Stonehenge.  If this were the case, then no evidence would have survived of the walls as they would effectively have sat on the ground rather than in it. Based on the remaining evidence, or lack of it, the original structure could also potential have been built as a ‘bender hut’ – again the uprights would not have needed to go far enough in to the ground to leave a lasting impression.

house 848 mpp

The next question is what material would the walls of this structure have been made of. At Stonehenge we have decided to use straw as this resource is relatively easy to come by – particularly as we have already thatched other houses with it. If the original builders also had straw to hand from their other buildings, it is possible they will have made the same decision. The people who lived at Durrington Walls may equally have chosen to use animal skins or even good quality tree bark – as evidenced in similar structures in Norway. Coming by each resource would have had its own logistic challenges.

This is what we do know about this building:
• Its floor space was smaller than that of the other buildings.
• It did not use upright stakes to form the main structure
• The hearth was smaller and less frequently used those in the other houses.

It has been suggested that this ‘ancillary’ structure may have functioned as a workshop or storage building. However, no evidence of flint or stone working was found within the building, so we continue to look for another explanation.

Could it have been a temporary building which left less trace than its neighbours? We think that the other buildings could have stood for about 20-25 years.

 

If you are interested in finding out more about the houses and the people who lived in them while also helping others to understand them too, you could volunteer as a Neolithic House interpreter.

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, 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.

 

One thatched roof finished.

Over the last two weeks there has been some amazing progress on the houses.

The progress so far.

The progress so far.

We have completed the knotted straw thatch on House 1 complete with a rush capping on the ridge. This effectively holds down all of the knots preventing them from being lifted by the wind.

House 1 with it's completed thatched roof.

House 1 with it’s completed thatched roof.

We have also finished daubing the walls on House 3. This has had the effect of making it feel like a finished building – even though the thatch hasn’t yet reached the top!

The completed daub walls on House 3.

The completed daub walls on House 3.

Both House 2 and House 4 have started to be thatched. These will be thatched in the same way as method 3 in our post about thatching here.

The thatch has been started on Houses 2 and 4.

The thatch has been started on Houses 2 and 4.

Meet the Neolithic House Builders: Wendy Pallesen

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

 I live in Durrington and  was invited by friends  to volunteer  for a couple of days  on the Riverside Project dig which uncovered the Neolithic houses,  when I heard about the English Heritage Neolithic House project  I couldn’t resist being a part of making the archaeology  come alive.

My partner’s Granddad  John was part of the Ministry of works, and was there  when the lintels were raised in the 1950s and now I will be able to tell my Grandchildren that Nanny helped build the houses on the Stonehenge landscape too.

 

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

Pretty much everything,  being taught  new skills by Paul and Luke from the Ancient Technology Centre , putting them into practice and being part of a team creating a village and living experience which will be on our local landscape for some time to come –  as well as being a part of our  history.

 

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

The first fire being lit in any of these  buildings, but particularly the one I have spent most time working on.  From  my experience at Old Sarum in the prototype build I know this will be  a very emotional and proud moment.

 

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

I have learned and thought about many things on the project, for example:

  • how incredibly resourceful our ancestors were
  • how they must have been physically fit and tenacious – working as they would have been through some most disagreeably cold and harsh weather
  • how their clothing must have needed to be fit for purpose – e.g materials gathering in the woods and building  
  • what did they eat to be able to maintain  the energy required to build these houses?  My diet has changed to include more protein and don’t mention the cake and biscuits being eaten daily (that’s my excuse)!

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

Sleeping mostly! Ha ha!  It is hard work,  and at the end of the day  a hot bath, hot meal and occasional hot toddy are the order of the evening.

When I found out about this project I had just been made redundant  and rather than going back to a full time desk job  or  office management I took a weekend night job in a local supermarket to make ends meet and enable me to commit four days a week to the project.   Fortunately I have an understanding partner Dave who has supported me in this. It  has been the most interesting project I have had the privilege to be  involved in.

 

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

Try it! If you are fit and healthy,  not afraid of hard work and would like the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people on this planet.

I have spoken to people from all around the world and from all walks of life and they all have a different story to tell but they all have one thing in common – a need to visit  Stonehenge and experience  a unique part of British history.

The houses  will bring Neolithic  history to life and give a more sensory experience to all and you will make life long friends to boot.

Would YOU like to help us bring the stories of the Neolithic people to life?

If you are interested in becoming 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, 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: Chalk daub

ImageDaub is made by crushing the chalk and then mixing it with chopped straw and water. This claggy mixture is then applied to the woven wall under the eaves. It takes a while and it’s quite messy!

The walls are daubed on the inside and out and externally the eaves of the roofs create a ‘rain shadow’ to protect the daub from the weather.

We asked one of the volunteers Guy Hagg to tell us a bit about his experience of daubing the houses.

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What is the most difficult part of daubing?

The most difficult part is getting the mix right. It’s a bit like the three bears porridge. Sometimes it’s too runny, sometimes it’s too dry and sometimes it’s just perfect.

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How do you get the daubing to stick to the walls?

If the mix has the right consistency it sticks to everything! The consistency you are looking for is a firm putty. This has the malleability for it to be worked into the weave of the walls so that it forms a solid structure, rather than just a thin skin of daub on the wall surface. Both the inside and outside of the wall are worked on at the same time so that the daub binds together and makes the wall stronger.

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What is the daub like to work with?

Very satisfying when the mix is right. It goes onto the wall well, fills the gaps and does not slump. Slumping occurs when the mix is too wet and the thickness of the daub in some areas causes the mixture to sag under its own weight. I like daubing as you can see a lot of progress very quickly compared with thatching which can take a considerable amount of time to complete a roof.

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 Is there a trick to successful daubing?

Start at the bottom and work up the wall, filling in the gaps in the hazel weave and ensuring that you apply a thick enough coating. If the daub is applied too thinly you can’t push the larger pieces of chalk into the wall and you end up with a rougher finish. Once the daub is applied the wall is then patted over to obtain a good finish. Again the consistency is important at this stage as if the mix is too wet the patting raises a series of small peaks, rather than creating a smooth finish.

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Guy happily daubing

What is the recipe/method for a successful mix of chalk, water and straw?

The recipe is approximately 15 shovels of crushed chalk, a handful of hay that has been teased apart and a small quantity of water. Mix until the daub develops a putty like consistency, similar to a bread dough mix.  It is more of an art than a science and a wetter mix may be useful for filling in areas where concavities arise once the first layer has been applied to the woven hazel. A drier mix is preferable when applying the initial layer as this is often applied quite thickly due to the irregularities of the hazel weave.

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Around 12 tonnes of chalk is needed to daub our five Neolithic Houses. Imagine how much would have been needed for the settlement at Durrington, which it has been suggested may have been the largest Neolithic settlement in Britain and Ireland.

 

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Would YOU like to help us bring the stories of the Neolithic people to life?

It won’t be long before the houses are finished and we are looking for Neolithic House interpretation volunteers. If you are interested, 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, by lighting fires and assisting with the building maintenance.  You will bring the stories of Neolithic people to life in our external galleries, working with our replica artefacts currently being painstakingly made by experts, and provide a warm and friendly welcome for all visitors, helping us to deliver a world class visitor experience.