From digging to education – a volunteers story

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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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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.


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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?

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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.

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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 

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.