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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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: Weaving the Walls

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We have mentioned previously that the the 1-2 foot spacing of the stake holes found at Durrington Walls indicates that the original Neolithic builders were using 7 year hazel for the wands or rods that are woven to form the basic frame of the walls. Hazel of this size would provide the right thickness and strength for forming a wall between  the uprights and we experimented with this technique at Old Sarum in 2013. It was found to work well and is being replicated now at the Stonehenge visitor and exhibition centre.

Coppiced hazel (mostly 7 year growth) ready for wattling

Coppiced hazel (mostly 7 year growth) ready for wattling

Paul Grigsby from the Ancient Technology Centre walked me round the Neolithic houses and described how the walls were woven using younger and more flexible hazel rods.

1. Take a rod and choose where to begin (in this case the left hand stake in the door frame as you’re facing the hut)

2. Start from the first stake  and begin weaving 10 layers of hazel rods in front of and behind each consecutive stake. Doing this first group of 10 rods allows the top edge to remain roughly parallel throughout – and thereby provides a strong foundation.

3. Once you’ve completed your ten woven rods, take one rod and begin to weave from the second stake

IMG_2325 FEB_4880 Repeat around the house until you reach the eaves2

4. Repeat starting at stake 3 and so on until you have been all the way around the house and ended up at the right hand stake in the door frame (as you’re facing the hut)

5. At the end, twist the hazel rod around the upright stake so that the stake is strongly locked in place.

twist the hazel rod around the upright stake so that the stake is locked in place2 twist the hazel rod around the upright stake so that the stake is locked in place

6. Repeat around the house until you reach the eaves.

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Generally, thick hazel will be paired with thick on either side of the stakes and thin with thin.

thick hazel paired with thick and thin with thin

The hazel in the roofs replicates the pattern in the walls but the rods are woven more loosely. More about roofs next time!

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