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 

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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.

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.

Building 547

With the end of this phase of the project in sight, and the buildings almost finished, we thought it would be a good idea to dedicate the next few days blogs to each building.

Building 547

The north-west corner of the building.

The north-west corner of the building.

This building has been used to test a lot of our construction theories. A different method was employed in each quarter of the building. Two sections of wall were woven with a diagonal weave and two were woven horizontally.

The doorway in the south wall. Two different weaving styles can be seen.

The doorway in the south wall. Two different weaving styles can be seen.

The roof was also divided into sections which allowed us to experiment with rafter placement, ways of attaching the ringbeams and different thatching materials.

the different thatching methods that we tried.

the different thatching methods that we tried.

We also used this building to test our daub material before we used it on building 851.

The chalk daub test section.

The chalk daub test section.

The final week is here

We have reached the final week of construction!

With the buildings almost finished, this week sees the finishing touches being added. On building 851 we have finished daubing the last section of wall with the crushed chalk, this will hopefully dry out now that the sunny weather has arrived.

The completed north wall of building 851.

The completed north wall of building 851.

Around the eastern side of building 851 we are adding a woven hazel fence line, this features in the survey carried out when these buildings were excavated. This is a small section of fence approximately two metres away from the building.

The fence line on the eastern side of building 851.

The fence line on the eastern side of building 851.

On building 848 the floor has now been laid, this means that we no longer have to crush any chalk! Also we have started the last sections of roof that need covering. When these are finished we will be able to evaluate the different thatching methods used to see which are most suitable.

The last sections of roof on building 848 have been started.

The last sections of roof on building 848 have been started.

One floor is finished

After a day of grading, crushing and mixing chalk we have now finished laying the floor in building 851. We were quite amazed at the quantity of chalk that was needed in the floor.

Keith and Gareth mark out the hearth.

Keith and Gareth mark out the hearth. Photo by Briony Clifton

The finished floor complete with hearth.

The finished floor complete with hearth. Photo by Briony Clifton.

We also completed another section of thatch on the roof of building 848 today, this section also uses wheat straw but the method used is similar to that used yesterday on building 547.

Bob finishes another thatched section of building 848.

Bob finishes another thatched section of building 848.

Starting on the floor

Another section of roof has been finished. The water reed thatching on one of the roof sections building 547 was completed today and now has a neat stepped finish.

Janey and Guy tie on a sway on building 547.

Janey and Guy tie on a sway on building 547.

With the roof now complete we started to prepare the ground for the chalk floor in building 851. Our buildings are situated on a sloping site and so the first job today was to remove some of the turf from the upslope section. A layer of dry chalk was tamped into place to create a level surface then a wet mix of chalk is being laid on top, the smoothing of this with our hands is producing some lovely squelchy noises!

The dry chalk tamped into place.

The dry chalk tamped into place.

The chalk floor being laid in building 851.

The chalk floor being laid in building 851.