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 

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Focus on techniques: Chalk daub

ImageDaub is made by crushing the chalk and then mixing it with chopped straw and water. This claggy mixture is then applied to the woven wall under the eaves. It takes a while and it’s quite messy!

The walls are daubed on the inside and out and externally the eaves of the roofs create a ‘rain shadow’ to protect the daub from the weather.

We asked one of the volunteers Guy Hagg to tell us a bit about his experience of daubing the houses.

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What is the most difficult part of daubing?

The most difficult part is getting the mix right. It’s a bit like the three bears porridge. Sometimes it’s too runny, sometimes it’s too dry and sometimes it’s just perfect.

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How do you get the daubing to stick to the walls?

If the mix has the right consistency it sticks to everything! The consistency you are looking for is a firm putty. This has the malleability for it to be worked into the weave of the walls so that it forms a solid structure, rather than just a thin skin of daub on the wall surface. Both the inside and outside of the wall are worked on at the same time so that the daub binds together and makes the wall stronger.

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What is the daub like to work with?

Very satisfying when the mix is right. It goes onto the wall well, fills the gaps and does not slump. Slumping occurs when the mix is too wet and the thickness of the daub in some areas causes the mixture to sag under its own weight. I like daubing as you can see a lot of progress very quickly compared with thatching which can take a considerable amount of time to complete a roof.

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 Is there a trick to successful daubing?

Start at the bottom and work up the wall, filling in the gaps in the hazel weave and ensuring that you apply a thick enough coating. If the daub is applied too thinly you can’t push the larger pieces of chalk into the wall and you end up with a rougher finish. Once the daub is applied the wall is then patted over to obtain a good finish. Again the consistency is important at this stage as if the mix is too wet the patting raises a series of small peaks, rather than creating a smooth finish.

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Guy happily daubing

What is the recipe/method for a successful mix of chalk, water and straw?

The recipe is approximately 15 shovels of crushed chalk, a handful of hay that has been teased apart and a small quantity of water. Mix until the daub develops a putty like consistency, similar to a bread dough mix.  It is more of an art than a science and a wetter mix may be useful for filling in areas where concavities arise once the first layer has been applied to the woven hazel. A drier mix is preferable when applying the initial layer as this is often applied quite thickly due to the irregularities of the hazel weave.

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Around 12 tonnes of chalk is needed to daub our five Neolithic Houses. Imagine how much would have been needed for the settlement at Durrington, which it has been suggested may have been the largest Neolithic settlement in Britain and Ireland.

 

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

It won’t be long before the houses are finished and we are looking for Neolithic House interpretation volunteers. If you are interested, 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, by lighting fires and assisting with the building maintenance.  You will bring the stories of Neolithic people to life in our external galleries, working with our replica artefacts currently being painstakingly made by experts, and provide a warm and friendly welcome for all visitors, helping us to deliver a world class visitor experience.

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.