From digging to education – a volunteers story

Stonehenge_Sonia Heywood_DP149841

Sonia is one of the Interpretation Volunteers in the Neolithic Houses and here she tells us about her experience. 

I’ve been volunteering since 2006 both for the National Trust and for English Heritage, for English Heritage I mainly do education visits.

I am retired, but as busy as I ever was when working. I am a keen botanist and do plant surveys as a volunteer. I am improving my French via local classes. I enjoy walking which includes taking people for walks in the Stonehenge landscape. I am also a voluntary henge guide at Avebury.

I recently attended a training session which was all about the evidence basis for the Neolithic houses and how to show visitors the houses.

One of the most interesting things I learnt at the training session was the fact that there is so little evidence about daily life in the Neolithic – so that evidence has to be drawn from a wide range of places. It also shows how important the discoveries at Durrington Walls are. As well as being interesting, the training sessions in the Neolithic houses were great fun.

I was part of the Durrington Walls excavation so have known about the discoveries from the beginning. I have taken people to see the site, but it is only at the reconstructions that they come alive 

Thanks Sonia, what would you say to others who are thinking about volunteering? 

Go ahead, it is a great team to be part of, there’s lots of training and support. You can fit the volunteering round other commitments. It’s really fun and you learn a lot.

If you would like to find out about becoming a volunteer at Stonehenge, please visit the English Heritage website. There are lots of different opportunities avaialable – from running school visits, interpreting the houses and working in the exhibitions.

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Wendy – from house builder to house interpreter!

Wendy grinding corn on the first day the Neolithic Houses opened

Wendy in one of the houses she built

After a few weeks holiday following the completion of the Neolithic build I find myself back at the houses eagerly attending some volunteer workshops. The workshops are aimed at giving us an understanding of the artefacts displayed within the houses, which in turn will arm us with the knowledge to interpret them to visitors.

My first workshop was with Sally and Gareth who gave a wonderful workshop about the organic clothing and other useful items within the buildings, for example, the cloak made out of goatskins, the tunic made out of nettles and the tools made from bone and antler.

Sally and Gareth teach the volunteers about natural fibres

Sally and Gareth teach the volunteers about natural materials

Not only did we find out about the origin of the materials both physically and within history, we were shown how to make the items ourselves. I chose to make a domestic needle out of bone, working away with flint to encourage an eye to appear, sharpening the needle and finishing it off with a  sanding” down using dried dogfish skin.  We were shown several different materials to use as thread including sinew and hemp fibre.

Making thread

Making thread

By handling all the materials required to make the artefacts and then actually using them to attempt to replicate our ancestors’ everyday Items is quite an experience.

To top it off we were sat in the houses themselves working in a small group and this really made the houses make sense. There’s nothing quite like the sound of flint scraping and general chitter chatter and laughter to complete the houses and really bring them to life.

Or that’s what I thought, until I attended a brilliant fire making and management workshop given by Guy Hagg. This was another really informative session with history, science and the practicalities of fire use thrown in.

So now I feel I am able to talk about making clothes using the natural materials that were available to the people who would have lived in the original Neolithic houses. I can discuss the various ways these people may have made fire, carried it with them and managed it in their homes.

 

Shirt made from nettles

Shirt made from linen

With all the ancient and modern methods demonstrated during these volunteer training sessions, I find myself in awe of Neolithic people and their determination to survive.

Next to the often desired time machine, I think this hands on experience of working within the houses themselves (which I helped build!)  affords us an unprecedented opportunity to get closer to and understand ancient people as contemporaries rather than distant relations.

Next up for me is flint knapping!  No one can say volunteering in the houses is going to be mundane!

Read about Wendy’s experience of building the Neolithic houses.

If you would like to find out about becoming a volunteer at Stonehenge, please visit the English Heritage website 

Neolithic knee prints?

neolithic dresser

It is very exciting when archaeological evidence allows us to reconstruct or imagine small intimate details of the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago. The hard chalk floors of the Neolithic Houses excavated at Durrington Walls shed light on some of the domestic activities of the people who lived there – the people who may have built or used Stonehenge.


neo fire

In one of the houses, just by the central hearth, two indentations were found and it has been suggested that these could be knee prints – from somebody spending long hours, day after day kneeling by the fireplace, tending the fire and cooking.

It is unlikely we will ever be able to prove or disprove this theory but reconstructing these houses has allowed us to see how the building materials work and how they settle. When the houses open in June, we will begin to observe the impact that general use and traffic will have on the chalk floors. The fires will be lit, the floors will be swept, people will be walking through, and generally interacting with the houses on a daily basis.

What do you think? Are these knee prints or just naturally occurring indentations in the hard chalk floor?

knee prints 1knee prints 2

Thanks very much to Kate Welham of Bournemouth University and the Riverside Project for letting us use these two images of the floor of House 851 – which show the ‘knee-shaped’ indentations to the left of the circular hearth. Also visible are the beam-slot indentations where wooden furniture once stood around the edge of the floor.

nick jones twitter image finished

photo by volunteer house builder Nick Jones

There are still opportunities to get involved with the Neolithic Houses – we are recruiting for interpretation and education volunteers! Click here to find out more 

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: Putting in the stakes

We thought it would be interesting to focus on some of the different building techniques we are using on site.

The first stage after determining where to put the house and setting out the shape of it, is to put in the stakes – which will form the uprights for the walls.

The walls when complete will be around 2 metres high and it would be very difficult to drive in a stake of that length. A shorter stake (around 70-80 cm)  is therefore trimmed to a point and driven into the ground.

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This then provides the support for a much taller stake (approx. 2 metres) which is tied to it using flexible willow ‘withies’ – a Neolithic version of the cable tie!   

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 The upright  stakes are then set approximately 70-80cm apart – to allow for the hazel to be woven in between them. The distance between the stakes is based on the archaeological evidence of stake holes found at the Durrington Walls houses  – which indicate that the builders of the original structures were using coppiced hazel of about 7 year growth.

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Meet the Team: Guy Hagg – Neolithic House Volunteer

guy daubing

Name: Guy Hagg

Role: Neolithic House Builder

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

My work involves making shelters from locally sourced woodland materials and I wanted to be involved with a project that makes more permanent buildings using craft skills such as coppicing, wattle and daub, thatching etc.

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

Great camaradarie amongst the team. Really good to see buildings taking shape

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

Showing people around the completed, furnished, buildings and explaining how people were able to live and flourish in the area 4500 years ago.

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

How organised the communities must have been to be able to arrange the harvesting and collection of the materials required to build the number of houses discovered at Durrington Walls. Being involved with this project makes you continually ask questions along the lines of “Just how did they do that?”

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

Bushcraft Instructor and model maker

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

Do it.

 

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Thanks Guy!

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.

Meet the Team: Nick Jones, Neolithic House Volunteer

Meet the team: Nick Jones

Meet the team: Nick Jones

The project is coming on a pace, despite the awful weather we have been having, which has meant that we’ve had to cancel one or two days builds.

Each week of the build we will be meeting one of the team of hardy volunteers who are braving the rain, wind and mud! This week we meet Nick Jones.

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

I saw it as a wonderful learning opportunity – something that would improve my understanding of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, and hopefully make me a better tour guide. I like working out of doors (my background is in architecture and environmental education), and I thought, ‘How extraordinary to be able to influence the Stonehenge landscape!’

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

It is giving me all I hoped for, and more. I enjoy the practical construction process, and the interesting questions continually being raised, but I also enjoy the growing bond between the volunteers. Although we came with diverse interests, motivations and expectations, we now have a strong sense of common purpose and pride in doing something special. I suspect it will last beyond the project, and I hope it will bring us back together to do other things.

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

Not really. I enjoy it all, although I am looking forward to Mother Nature actually letting us get on with the job! I am interested in finding out more about climate changes since the end of the last Ice Age, and how these may have influenced how people lived and the monuments they built.

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

I have always wondered how the monument came about. ‘OK lads, I’ve got an idea. Trust me, it will look great when it’s finished! All we have to do is walk 180 miles to Preseli and…”  Who was in charge, who was navigating, and who made the sandwiches? The project has made me think about all the other people and processes that supported everyday life: the woodland managers, who produced coppice for building; the flint knappers, who made and repaired all the axes; the chalk-pounders, who made daub for the walls and laid the floors; the thatchers, who collected and fixed the various materials to keep the rain out; and so on. House building was probably a cultural institution – ie everyone joined in, and everyone knew what needed to be done – fun for all the family!

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

In the summer I am a driver guide, which means I drive mostly well-off, and mostly American, tourists around England and Wales. They stay in 5* hotels, and I get a B&B down the road. I specialise in World Heritage Sites – places like Bath (where I live), Blenheim Palace, the Jurassic Coast etc – but I also do a lot of the Cotswolds, Oxford, Stratford upon Avon, and so on. I love exploring new places! I also do a bit of consultancy in world heritage matters. Apart from that, I do a lot of ironing and hoovering because my partner has a proper job.

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

I might say remember Oscar Wilde, who said, ‘I can resist anything except temptation’. But he also said, ”It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating’. So, I would say, ‘Ignore Oscar Wilde!’ What you want to find at Stonehenge, you probably will.

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Thanks Nick!

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.