From digging to education – a volunteers story

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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.


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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?

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.

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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 

Your chance to get involved with the Neolithic Houses

'Dougal' : finished house no.1

‘Dougal’ : finished house no.1

You will have been reading for months about the amazing experiences that the wonderful team of volunteers have been having building the Neolithic Houses.

neolithic dresser

It is now your chance to get involved as we are looking for friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic volunteers to help visitors to Stonehenge understand and experience the Neolithic houses.

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As an Interpretation Volunteer you will be responsible for maintaining the houses, lighting fires, explaining the replica objects and assisting with the building maintenance. You will be bringing the stories of the Neolithic people to life and providing a warm and friendly welcome for all visitors.

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There are a variety of tasks you can get involved with and the role is flexible, so whatever your skills, knowledge or experience there is something for everyone.

House 5 thatched with the wattle and daub doorway.

Ideally, we would like you to commit to a minimum of one four hour shift per week, in either the morning or afternoon. However, we are flexible and can accommodate other requests.

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The role would suit people who are friendly and welcoming, flexible and keen to learn, excellent communicators, keen to share their passion for Stonehenge and interested in new learning opportunities and gaining new skills and experiences.

Houses 1 and 3 almost finished.

Houses 1 and 3 almost finished.

What our Neolithic Houses builders say about volunteering: 

“DO IT!  You meet such a diverse group of interesting people, both other volunteers and visitors, and  learn more about the extensive history of the area.” Rob

Volunteering is great fun and gives you chances in life that you would otherwise never experience.” Rosemary and Nick

“Try it! If you …would like the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people on this planet. I have spoken to people from all around the world and from all walks of life and they all have a different story to tell but they all have one thing in common – a need to visit  Stonehenge and experience  a unique part of British history. The houses  will bring Neolithic  history to life and give a more sensory experience to all and you will make life long friends to boot.” Wendy

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

“I was very nervous before we started the prototype build at Old Sarum. I hadn’t done any building work before and I was worried that I would be slow and hopeless. I also worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage being outside in the cold all day. I didn’t need to worry – I have been taught the skills I need on the way and I found I loved being outside all day. It has been a fabulous experience.” Alyson

There is much more information on the English Heritage website about volunteering at Stonehenge. 

 

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.

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.