More Houses being thatched.

The focus of the next few weeks will be on getting the roofs thatched on the buildings. We will be staggering the start of the thatching on each roof by one week.

Two buildings at different stages of thatching.

Two buildings at different stages of thatching.

The latest roof to be started is House 3 which will have it’s thatch applied in a more traditional method. The bundles of thatch are sandwiched between a sway on the outside and the main roof structure on the inside. The sways are kept in place by being tied on with willow, finished with a ‘rose knot’. We have managed to complete two layers in the first week.

A second layer of thatch being added, held on by hazel sways.

A second layer of thatch being added, held on by hazel sways.

A rose knot tied inside of House 3.

A rose knot tied inside of House 3.

We have also continued with the thatching on House 1, with it progressing nicely towards the top. The inside of this roof is looking very interesting with ears of the wheat visible.

The progress on House 1.

The progress on House 1.

The ears of the wheat visible on the inside of House 1.

The ears of the wheat visible on the inside of House 1.

A nice surprise this week was a stunning rainbow that appeared over the site!

A rainbow over the Houses.

A rainbow over the Houses.

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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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Thatching!

We have had a very productive two weeks since our last post. We have finished weaving the roofs on three of our buildings, with all of the eaves put in and the binding weave attached. We have also made good progress with the weaving of the roof on the fourth building.

All of the main buildings are taking shape.

All of the main buildings are taking shape.

The thatch in the sunshine.

The thatch in the sunshine.

Thatching has begun on building 1 using the wheat straw thatch that the volunteers have spent so long knotting. We are expecting this to take a few weeks to complete.

Carefully placing the knotted thatch into the roof weave.

Carefully placing the knotted thatch into the roof weave.

Rafters are on!

This week we have made much better progress, now that some reasonable weather is here.
By the end of Monday we had completed weaving the walls on three of our buildings

The completed walls on two of the buildings.

The completed walls on two of the buildings.

The next task was to insert the central four pairs of rafters into the walls, these are inverted so that the tip of the rod goes into the wall weave. This allows the rafters to be bent over, creating a curve.

The rafters are inserted into the woven hazel wall.

The rafters are inserted into the woven hazel wall.

After tying the rafters to the ridge pole we fitted more rafters to the ends of the building, bending them over to meet a cross brace that was tied to the central rafters.

The rafters are temporarily tied.

The rafters are temporarily tied.

These rafters are temporarily fixed to the cross brace supporting the roof structure over the weekend. We will return on Monday to adjust and fix them permanently.

One set of end rafters in.

One set of end rafters in.

The progress at the end of week 3.

The progress at the end of week 3.

Stakes in the ground

The start of the build is finally here and the volunteers have arrived on site raring to go. Our first job was to remove the top soil from where each building will be. The top soil is holding on to a lot of water making the site very muddy and so removing the soil will enable us to move around the buildings easier.

The topsoil removed from around where the buildings will sit.

The topsoil removed from around where the buildings will sit.

After setting out the buildings in the same alignment as they were from the archaeological evidence we began to drive stakes in. These will form the woven hazel walls that will eventually be daubed.

The first building's stakes go in.

The first building’s stakes go in.

Almost ready to go!

The preparations for the build have begun with the transportation of all the harvested materials collected by our volunteers. Over the past week all of the hazel rods, stakes and rafters have been collected from Garston Woods and delivered to site.

Hazel waiting to be used.

Hazel waiting to be used.

The site itself is situated behind the new Stonehenge Visitors Centre and with all of the rain that has fallen in the last few months, we were concerned that it would be too wet to start. Fortunately the underlying geology is chalk and so there is a firm base into which we can drive our stakes. The site may become a bit muddy but we are hoping that it shouldn’t slow down the build. The last bits of infrastructure (portacabin, toilets, fencing etc.) are being set up and then we will be ready to go.

The area ready to be built on.

The area ready to be built on.