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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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.

Experiments in Building 851

Briony Storm Clifton, an archaeology student, explains her experimental work with the houses

As part of my archaeology dissertation with the University of Southampton I have been conducting experiments, scientific and subjective, inside 851 in order to answer such questions as how frequent fires might have affected the health of persons living within the building, how thermally effective the reconstruction is, and how the space might be used by varying numbers of people.
This project is in its early phase and analysis of the results is yet to take place, however the methods used to obtain these results are outlined below:

Thermal efficiency

Heat loss within Building 851 was recorded using thermal imaging. Preliminary results suggest that the central part of the thatched roof was the most thermally efficient, but that air-flow through the eaves and gaps in the doorway has affected the efficiency of the walls. The majority of heat loss in Building 851 is through the top of the structure.

The East exterior wall of Building 851 – © John Reynolds, FLIR

The East exterior wall of Building 851 – © John Reynolds, FLIR

Air Quality

Samples of air particulates have been collected using stubs dressed with carbon paper and arranged around 851. The tests were conducted under controlled conditions with the fire lit for one hour. The samples were arranged at sleeping, sitting, standing and door heights in order to see if there is any noticeable and significant change in particulate size within these different heights. The samples will be analysed using scanning electron microscopy and the results will reveal if particulate size is small enough (less than 10 microns) to be inhaled into the lungs causing serious damage to health over a period of time. Carbon monoxide (CO) reader/alarms were set up and yielded no activity.

Living Experiments

With an increasing number of people (from 1 to 4) staying and sleeping in Building 851 over 4 days and discussing their practical experiences, I hope to achieve an idea of the use of the building itself, the space the volunteers occupy and how that changes when more people are introduced into the building.

The Living Volunteers – Mark, Alyson, Lisa and Barry. Many thanks to Alyson for the photo.

The Living Volunteers – Mark, Alyson, Lisa and Barry. Many thanks to Alyson for the photo.

The analysis of the results will take place over the next year and the project will conclude in May 2014.

Many thanks to English Heritage and Susan Greaney; Luke Winter and Paul Grigsby from the Ancient Technology Centre; Josh Pollard (supervisor), Fraser Sturt, David Wheatley, Alistair Pike, and Ian Williams from University of Southampton; John Reynolds from FLIR; Mary Ellen Crothers from West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village; Jannie Christensen from Aarhus University; Richard Pearce from NOC in Southampton; the Living experiment volunteers and all the people involved in the building project who have made this dissertation possible.