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.

Wendy – from house builder to house interpreter!

Wendy grinding corn on the first day the Neolithic Houses opened

Wendy in one of the houses she built

After a few weeks holiday following the completion of the Neolithic build I find myself back at the houses eagerly attending some volunteer workshops. The workshops are aimed at giving us an understanding of the artefacts displayed within the houses, which in turn will arm us with the knowledge to interpret them to visitors.

My first workshop was with Sally and Gareth who gave a wonderful workshop about the organic clothing and other useful items within the buildings, for example, the cloak made out of goatskins, the tunic made out of nettles and the tools made from bone and antler.

Sally and Gareth teach the volunteers about natural fibres

Sally and Gareth teach the volunteers about natural materials

Not only did we find out about the origin of the materials both physically and within history, we were shown how to make the items ourselves. I chose to make a domestic needle out of bone, working away with flint to encourage an eye to appear, sharpening the needle and finishing it off with a  sanding” down using dried dogfish skin.  We were shown several different materials to use as thread including sinew and hemp fibre.

Making thread

Making thread

By handling all the materials required to make the artefacts and then actually using them to attempt to replicate our ancestors’ everyday Items is quite an experience.

To top it off we were sat in the houses themselves working in a small group and this really made the houses make sense. There’s nothing quite like the sound of flint scraping and general chitter chatter and laughter to complete the houses and really bring them to life.

Or that’s what I thought, until I attended a brilliant fire making and management workshop given by Guy Hagg. This was another really informative session with history, science and the practicalities of fire use thrown in.

So now I feel I am able to talk about making clothes using the natural materials that were available to the people who would have lived in the original Neolithic houses. I can discuss the various ways these people may have made fire, carried it with them and managed it in their homes.

 

Shirt made from nettles

Shirt made from linen

With all the ancient and modern methods demonstrated during these volunteer training sessions, I find myself in awe of Neolithic people and their determination to survive.

Next to the often desired time machine, I think this hands on experience of working within the houses themselves (which I helped build!)  affords us an unprecedented opportunity to get closer to and understand ancient people as contemporaries rather than distant relations.

Next up for me is flint knapping!  No one can say volunteering in the houses is going to be mundane!

Read about Wendy’s experience of building the Neolithic houses.

If you would like to find out about becoming a volunteer at Stonehenge, please visit the English Heritage website 

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 

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.

Kitting out the Neolithic Houses: Making cordage from Deer Sinew

We are in the process of commissioning lots of replica objects to go into the Neolithic Houses.  These objects include pottery, clothing, wooden artefacts and also flint tools.

We have enlisted the help of a number of specialists, each making their own particular types of replica objects.

Sally Pointer is making a number of items, specifically cordage and clothing and has managed to find a bit of time, when not scouring the countryside for quern stones and antlers for picks, to share some of her expertise here in a guest blog post. 

The new Neolithic houses and their contents at Stonehenge make use of a wide range of cords, fibres and bindings. One type of cordage that was widely used in prehistory is animal sinew, and today I’ve been making thin cord from deer sinew.

The sinew is the tendon that is found in the lower leg of the deer, and when dried, it looks rather like a stick, very tough and solid.

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Before it can be used, it needs to be gently pounded with a rounded rock against a piece of wood until the tough surface begins to break down. Here you can see the end of starting to turn pale and get larger as the fibres soften.

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After a few minutes steady pounding, the fibres split into a fluffy mass of strands. At this point they can be peeled off and separated into thin sections.

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Now it’s just a case of twisting them into a cord. Here I’m making a simple two ply cord that is very strong and useful for binding tool heads, sewing heavy garments or shoes, or making nets and snares.

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I’ll also be making cordage from nettles, flax, hemp and tree bast including the inner bark from willow. Each fibre source has different strengths and our Neolithic ancestors were very skilled at using the materials available to them.

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If you’re interested in historic and prehistoric materials and artefacts, we recommend having a look at Sally’s website 

www.sallypointer.com

Image@neolithichouses is on twitter and we’d love to answer any questions you have about the build or the replica objects going into the houses.  

 

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.

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.