2013 Neolithic House Pilots

Old Sarum - prototype houses

Aim: To build three houses based on authentic ground plans recorded at Durrington Walls.

English Heritage secured around 60 volunteers for this nine week project which was led for them by the Ancient Technology Centre, based in Cranborne, Dorset. Around 20 people worked on site at any one time with around half of this number being individuals who dedicated themselves to the full nine weeks (working Tuesday-Saturday). Others with more limited time availability either did one or more full weeks ... or 2-3 days a week [as I did].

Volunteers came from all parts of England: Birmingham; Dorset; Essex; Hereford, Manchester, Yorkshire - as well as locally.

The three houses

The three houses to be built were based on excavations at Durrington Walls in 2006-07 (see references below) were "named" as:

  • 547: a roughly circular dwelling with floor/hearth > we would experiment with different build techniques on this house
  • 851: a rectangular dwelling with floor & hearth - we would fully complete this house
  • 848: a dwelling with floor/hearth though no post holes > we would reflect this by building in a "tepee" style building

The reports referenced below show that all that is really known about the houses is that a floor/hearth and (for some) several post holes of the dwellings remain. From these it is possible to extrapolate possible building methods eg from the the post spacing and the size/shape and depth of the holes. Hence there was a "prototype" and experimental nature to this project All three houses were laid out to the original survey plans and orientation of the Durrington buildings. These prototypes were built on English Heritage farm land at Old Sarum.

Photographs

A set of photographs of the construction phase will be found in the Gallery attached to this page.

First "stakes in the ground" - March 2013

Work stared on Tuesday 05 March with a briefing by Luke Winter of the ATC. At all stages practice building was undertaken (normally outside the compound). This was used to either to develop skills eg hazel weaving or to test theory eg roof construction and thatching.

The first stakes were in place by the end of the second day for houses 851 and 547 and hazel weaving started soon after.

Dwelling access points

Generally dwelling access points are usually found in the south east aspect of the dwelling - less extreme weather is usually experienced as well as morning sun. There was some debate regarding the door/opening of 851 given a more complex arrangement of post holes in the south east corner of the dwelling. The final agreement was on a gap that was within a short wall spur - which could have protected the "door" from south westerly winds. A second spur was not incorporated in the weave.

House 851

Once the wall had been established - tests were undertaken on approaches to roofing and adopted for 851 ie a hazel rod was sharpened and pushed down the gap in the weave adjacent to an upright post. These were then gently but firmly pulled to the dwelling centre and lashed to a main roof beam. Two attempts were required before everyone was happy with the structure. Weaving continued in bands up the roof and extension (eaves) added to take the roof out well beyond the walls. Thatching then started using knotted straw slowly moving from bottom to top over approximately two weeks.

During this time wall daubing was also started - using crushed chalk, water and some fine straw which was pressed well into the hazel weave from both sides. This proved slow and tough work - though several school parties enjoyed it! It set hard without cracking. On the east side of 851 we adopted a mud daub. This used mud that had been well mixed by the pigs in the field across the road. Again some straw and water was mixed in and the daub pushed into the hazel weave. Work rates improved four fold - though this finish suffered from some cracking when it dried out; it may have required another/thicker layer of mud to strengthen it?

As the roof thatching neared completion the floor of 851 was dug out and several worked logs laid in the positions found at Durrington. The chalk floor was then laid: firstly a dry bed and then a wet mix which was smoothed by hand. A hearth area was incorporated - a shallow rim and depression to hold the fire. "Furniture" consisted of two beds and a "dresser" at the north end of the room - the base timber from the larch cut at Further Daggons Wood (see "Materials Gathering" page). The fire was lit for the first time in 851 on the last day of work: 3rd May 2013.

Video of the first fire being lit in house 851:

House 547

This house was sectioned into quarters and variations of construction applied to each of these. This included post holes, which were noticeably narrower than 851, of different length were adopted. Different hazel weaves were applied: horizontal, angled eg 45 degree and some hazel on which the brash had been left (the small branches in the upper part of the tree). The roof was built from larch/sliver birch rafters tied at the center and rested in the walls. Some sections were thatched: a straw section, a red section and some hay. Given the relative weakness of the walls, ie compared with 851, and the heavier roof - two sections of wall were noticeably out of vertical due to the roof weight pushing them outwards at the top. This house was left partially complete, with only a short section of chalk daub applied. As there was an incomplete roof - no attempt was made to lay the chalk floor.

House 848

Given that no posts holes were found in the chalk base at Durrington the decision was made to go with a "tepee" style building which simply rests on the ground. Lengthy larch poles formed the main structure and then several different weave techniques applied to support alternative roof finishes: reed, straw, hay and a rush section. A covered - arched opening was incorporated. The chalk floor was laid in this dwelling with a deeper foundation then 851 - around 20-25 cm depth in this occasion, though this did not reach the underlying chalk.

Engagement

There was widespread public engagement from April onwards with local community weekends and numerous school visits. National and local press and tv ran articles and video. The site was fully open on the two May bank holiday weekends and received a constabt stream of visitors - many of whom demonstrated a genuine interest in both the history and construction methods. A seminar with interests parties which included the excavators of Durrington Walls took place on 07 May 2013.

From June onwards the outcomes of the project and supporting data will be assimilated and will then be fed into planning for the "real thing" ie the erection of a permanent dwellings at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre in spring 2014.

The dwellings at Old Sarum were dismantled later in 2013, however the house walls for building 851 were left to witness the process by which the walls (daub) deteriorates.

To date the chalk daub has remained intact unlike the mud daub. This is surprising given the very wet winter and livestock that are now free to enter the building (and do!).

Acknowledgements

For those who took part in the project it was an amazing, and probably unique, experience.This was assisted by the volunteer approach adopted English Heritage for this work and in particular by the leadership of Luke Winter and his team from the Ancient Technoligy Centre in Cranborne as well as a great bunch of volunteers - thank you all for a great experience!

Updated KJM 20 April 2014
v1.02-minor corrections


References: discover more here:

Two archeological reports no longer on the University of Sheffield site:

Durrington Walls Riverside Project (via Manchester University): Durrington Walls Riverside Project - Interim report incl the three houses built here
Durrington Walls Riverside Project (via Ljubljana University): Durrington Walls Riverside Project - report incl maps

Ancient Technology Centre Ancient Technology Centre website
BBC: BBC film from the media day on 16 April 2013
Bournemouth University: Stonehenge Landscape: 3D model [for use in Google Earth]
English Heritage: Our plans for Stonehenge.
English Heritage: Neolithic Houses Project
English Heritage: Neolithic Houses - construction blog.
English Heritage: Video: the prototype houses under construction
Keith Murray: Video: lighting the first hearth fire in house 851 on 03 May 2013
University of Sheffield: Durrington Walls Riverside Project - overview


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