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 

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.

Meet the team of Neolithic House Builders: Kathy Garland

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What made you want to get involved with the Neolithic Houses project?

The unique experience and learning a lot of new woodworking skills.  Also, meeting like minded people.

What are you enjoying about the project so far?

Everything! Watching the buildings grow from the plan to what we have achieved so far.

Is there any part of the project that you’re particularly looking forward to or that you are particularly interested in?

Working with the reproduction axes – just part of the building process and weaving the hazel as a backbone for the houses

In what ways has being involved in this project made you think differently about the people of Stonehenge and their lives?

I think that the people of Stonehenge were very skillful and adapted to their lifestyle.

What do you do when you’re not building Neolithic houses?

I enjoy all aspects of archaeology and local history.  I am a member of Bulford Conservation Group archaeology and volunteer at my local library. I also occasionally volunteer at Old Sarum Castle.

What would you say to people who are tempted to volunteer at Stonehenge?

Volunteering at Stonehenge is very rewarding especially when working with groups of children who always respond with enthusiasm

 

Would YOU like to help us bring the stories of the Neolithic people to life?

If you are interested in becoming 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: thatching – different methods and different problems

The Neolithic House team are using three different thatching techniques on the different buildings.

The first method is called knotted straw thatching. Using knotted straw means that rope, string or ‘withys’ would not be needed. Not having to make rope would save on time as well as precious resources for the people building the original houses at Durrington Walls in the Neolithic period.Image

The team have found however, that the knotted straw method does have its drawbacks.

The first problem they have negotiated is the fact that the knots are not consistent in size or knot ‘method’ – so some are larger, fatter, shorter or longer than others, and some have their ends pulled through (the team refer to these knots as having ‘beaks’) while others don’t (and therefore don’t have a ‘beak’).

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The first task therefore is to go through a ‘grading’ process and then to choose specifically which knotted bunch of thatch is the best for each (also inconsistent) woven area of the roof. Each weave presents different angles and planes, and in some areas of the roof the weave is tight and elsewhere it is loose.

Once the right bunch of straw is selected for the right area of weave, the knot is tucked underneath the hazel rods.

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The team are learning solutions to each issue as it arises for example, the distance in the weave at the eaves means smaller pieces of thatch are needed.

ImageThe second and third methods of thatching are very similar to each other and were discussed in our previous post. Instead of tucking knots under the weave, unknotted bunches of straw are laid flat against the woven hazel rafters and held in place with a hazel rod or ‘sway’. They are then secured with a willow ‘withy’ and tied with a rose knot on the inside of the roof, by someone working inside the house. If you were to look up in the roof space of the houses where this technique has been used, you would notice a pattern of these pretty rose knots at relatively even intervals.

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In method 2, the sheafs or bunches of straw are laid in an alternating pattern of grain up and grain down. In method 3, the heads of the grain are all kept at the top.

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The volunteers are becoming experts. They are all speaking with great knowledge and pride about the techniques they are mastering. They have developed their own lexicon, their own solutions and were pointing out areas of the roof where they could tell they’d done a better job (e.g. the thatch lay flatter) than in others.

It’s been pretty cold and miserable on site this week but the team are making great progress. There are more photos on thatching in the gallery. 

 

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Additional Volunteering Opportunities

If you are interested in becoming an Interpretation Volunteer at the Neolithic Houses, you can find out about the opportunities 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.

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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Focus on Techniques: Putting in the stakes

We thought it would be interesting to focus on some of the different building techniques we are using on site.

The first stage after determining where to put the house and setting out the shape of it, is to put in the stakes – which will form the uprights for the walls.

The walls when complete will be around 2 metres high and it would be very difficult to drive in a stake of that length. A shorter stake (around 70-80 cm)  is therefore trimmed to a point and driven into the ground.

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This then provides the support for a much taller stake (approx. 2 metres) which is tied to it using flexible willow ‘withies’ – a Neolithic version of the cable tie!   

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 The upright  stakes are then set approximately 70-80cm apart – to allow for the hazel to be woven in between them. The distance between the stakes is based on the archaeological evidence of stake holes found at the Durrington Walls houses  – which indicate that the builders of the original structures were using coppiced hazel of about 7 year growth.

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