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.

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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.

Focus on techniques: Roof Structures

Houses 1 and 2 are really taking shape. We have started weaving hundreds of hazel rods through the rafters to form strong curving roof profiles. Each rafter has to be carefully controlled to ensure they curve correctly and provide the strength required to take the weight of thatch. The buildings begin to look like huge loaves of bread!

The junction between walls and roof.

The junction between walls and roof.

Meanwhile, the epic task of knotting thousands of wheat straw bundles has begun. These knots will be squeezed between the woven fabric of the roof to provide a lightweight but weatherproof covering. The weather this week has enabled good progress by the volunteers and we seem to have missed the worst of the heavy rain!

The roof being woven.

The roof being woven.

The roof is taking shape.

The roof is taking shape.

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.

Final Day of Neolithic Activities

St. Edmund’s Church of England Girls’ School and Whiteparish All Saints Church of England Primary School had a lovely day taking part in the Neolithic Activities. Here are some pictures with pupils in action.

The children enjoying jumping on the hazel.

The children enjoying jumping on the hazel.

The children watching Paul blow on the embers.

The children watching Paul blow on the embers.

Carol, an English Heritage volunteer helping to collect flour.

Carol, an English Heritage volunteer helping to collect flour.

Bread being cook next to the fire.

Bread being cook next to the fire.

Whiteparish All Saints Church of England Primary School having a great afternoon.

Whiteparish All Saints Church of England Primary School having a great afternoon.

We would like to thank all the schools taking part this week in the different activities.

Thank you to:
• St Thomas a Becket Church of England Primary School
• Leehurst Swan
• Old Sarum Primary School
• Stonehenge School
• Osmund’s Catholic Primary School
• Wilton Primary Campus
• Downton Primary School
• St. Edmund’s Church of England Girls’ School
• Whiteparish All Saints Church of England Primary School

Also thank you to all the Ancient Technology Centre staff and volunteers in leading the sessions over the past 3 months.

Education workshops

We’ve been running several education workshops at the Neolithic Houses – you can read more about them on our page on Schools Workshops

Here, Katherine Snell, English Heritage education co-ordinator, describes the latest of these workshops:

Neolithic Activities

We had our first day of our Neolithic Activities session yesterday where five activities took place; these included plaiting with rush, fence building, bartering, fire making and cooking bread took place. The school groups had the opportunity to undertake 3 of the activities in an hour long session.

Plaiting with rush

The pupils learnt about bull rushes and how they were used in the Neolithic period at Durrington Walls and they undertook two tasks. The first task was to strengthen the rush by pairing up and holding the dampened rush at each end, twisting it in opposite directions. This twisted rush is then halved while maintaining the tension and allowed to twist around its self to form a braid.

The next task to perform was plaiting of bull rushes. Three of the dampened rush stems were tied at one end by a pupil using an overhand knot. Another pupil then starts plaiting the bull rush until reaching half way, where the children would then swap over.

Below are some of the children plaiting the bull rushes!

Two children finishing off plaiting their rush.

Two children finishing off plaiting their rush.

Working in pairs to plait rush.

Working in pairs to plait rush.

Hazel weaving

Hazel weaving which was undertaken in the house building session is a great opportunity to get hands on and practical in the art of weaving. Below are a group of pupils starting of the weaving process.

The children starting to hazel weave.

The children starting to hazel weave.

Bartering

This activity explores the usefulness of materials and possessions in the Neolithic period and seeks to give children a greater understanding of the true “value” of everyday objects.

The pupils were given a Neolithic object from a basket and in groups decided which would be the most important object when living in the Stone Age. These objects were:

• A bronze knife blade
• A flint axe
• A small bag of wheat
• A Cows model
• A sheep model
• A pair of Leather Shoes
• A piece of Salted Meat
• A figurine (Gods)

Though each child had a different opinion as to which was most important, but the most popular choice was wheat; being a good source of food and allowing the Neolithic settlers to grow food on land by cultivating crops.

Fire making

Paul showing the children how to light the kindling with flint and pyrite.

Paul showing the children how to light the kindling with flint and pyrite.

A pupil blowing on the embers to light the kindling.

A pupil blowing on the embers to light the kindling.

In this session Paul gave a demonstration of how to use flint and pyrite to start a fire. It was explained how hard it was to use these tools but the benefits were tremendous and essential to the survival of settlers in the Neolithic period. To get an idea of what materials are used to start a fire in this way the materials were passed out amongst the pupils such as flint, pyrite, fungus and charcloth.

The next stage was to light a fire; as time was short Paul explained that the tools he used were iron and pyrite but Neolithic people didn’t have such luxury. All the pupils had a go at blowing long steady breaths onto the embers to light the kindling.

A teacher explained “Sometimes being told something in the classroom means nothing, when they come and do it for themselves they learn how it’s done…”

Cooking bread

This activity explores the process of taking wheat from a field to the table. The pupils learnt the different stages of processing from the standing wheat stalk, through harvesting, threshing, winnowing, grinding, mixing and baking.

The children having a go at grinding the grains into flour.

The children having a go at grinding the grains into flour.

Children tasting some flat bread.

Children tasting some flat bread.

The pupils were given three tasks; firstly, separate the grain from the chaff, when this is done the next task in grinding. The grains are grinded into flour using two stone querns. The final task was to shape pre-prepared dough into flat bread. The dough was then baked on a flat heated stone, once done the children got to taste what they had made. With a pupil commenting “I’m eating Neolithic bread! It could have been made 4000 years ago!”

Pupils warming their hands up by the fire.

Pupils warming their hands up by the fire.

At the end of a rainy day, pupils are warming their hands up by the fire, while a teacher says “This is fantastic, they learnt so much in a short space of time”.