As a volunteer inside these ‘houses’, they are a wonderful and inspiring exhibit within the Stonehenge landscape. Not just for me as a volunteer, but for the public of all ages. The ‘houses’ do not just say “Neolithic people lived like this”, they however, emphasise and explore the imagination of its visitors. The walls of the building are made with wattle and daub (crushed chalk, water, and straw). English heritage decided not to use animal dung within its walls (as expected through archaeological interpretation) as dung created a more yellowish hue, compared to the cleaner white finish provided in the current reconstructions. The daub is made into a putty like texture and is forced onto and into branch posts of hazel.
The roofs of the ‘houses’ are thatched grasses, archaeological pollen analysis showed which cereal pollens were being grown at the time of construction of the original structures. So we know what materials were used in the basic construction of these ‘houses’, however, we do not know how they were thatched. Therefore, each of the ‘houses’ has been constructed differently, using the same materials – to present a better representation of how these structures were original made.
The most common/ frequently asked question whilst volunteering at this exhibit – Why is there no hole in the roof for the smoke from the fire? The answer is simple, with a hole, the flames and ember rise up to high and catch the roof on fire. Bye bye ‘houses’. Thankfully, without a hole, the flames can be contained and fires can be lit in the ‘houses’ – indeed volunteers at the ‘houses’ have lit fires very frequently (usually daily) since the creation of the exhibit in May 2014.
Artefacts Inside the Houses
All of the items inside the ‘houses’ are replicas. However, all of these reconstructions have been made with mostly traditional techniques when possible (when they are known). Therefore, what they convey is a more realistic interior for the buildings – if something was not available in the Neolithic, then it is not provided inside the houses (other than health and safety equipment, and of course, us volunteers).
So, where to start… the most popular items for people to want to know about/ see/ handle would be the Axes/ Ades. In the Houses at Stonehenge there are (normally) two types. One is made from flint, and the other is from Bronze. At the dated range estimated for the structures excavated at Durrington Walls, the later Neolithic people would have likely been in contact with Bronze tools from trade/ contacts made with Europe (dominantly Scandinavia) – yet at this time in Britain, they were unable to construct these tools for themselves. Both axes were supposedly used to cut down trees, however, it is unlikely that the Bronze axe would have been used, generally in archaeological contexts these axes are much smaller, have highly decorative patterns on them and show little evidence of being used. In comparison with the more commonly found flint axes, which are more suited to cutting timbers. Experiments were tried – into which over 11,000 blows later, the tree was felled. If the weights of both axes are compared, the bronze is much lighter, and much better balanced – which is suggestive of why bronze was so much more widely preferred in technology to its predecessor.
Arrows are also shown in the houses, they are various lengths and have flint arrowheads on the ends. The excavations at Durrington Walls discovered hundred of arrowheads. The replica arrows have been hafted using a ‘pitch’, a sort of super glue of the Neolithic made from crushed charcoal, bees wax and pine resin which has been heated and applied as I paste. The shape of the flint arrowheads are designed for blood letting – as they go into the animal/ kill, they cut through flesh and move around the wound. The kill will die of blood loss shortly after impact, in the scenario that the shot didn’t kill instantly). The flint arrowheads and the feathers are connected with this pitch. The feathers used are goose feathers, and they are connected with the use of deer sinew (from the back tendon deer’s legs) – this is a resource which make a very strong string. Indeed – several resources from animals were required to make an arrow. The bows for these arrows are also located in the houses. there are two types of wood used for these bows, one bow is made from Yew (like Ötzi the Iceman’s bow, as well as being much like the bows constructed through to Medieval times) and the other is made from Ash.
Various hafted flint blades are also presented in the ‘houses’. Archaeologically these flints are found in a vast array of shapes and sizes, but due to the nature of flint being sharp, it could cut you hand when handling them. Therefore, the reconstructions shown have been hafted on wooden handles – just as they would have been intended when originally made in the Neolithic. Some of these flints are scrapers, backed knives, fabricators, others are sickles or piercers. Once again, the flints have been fixed to the wooden handles using a pitch, and in some cases a string has been used also.
A range of containers are also on display, two are made from birch bark, which are based on the Archaeological known examples from Ötzi the iceman, and from those excavated at Lower Horton, Oxfordshire. Others have been made using various techniques and materials from cereal grasses, river reeds, stinging nettles, barks (mainly lime bast, the inner bark of a lime tree). The baskets were made from hedgerow materials (e.g. willow, bramble) and the colours of them are all from naturally different colours of the materials. The fish trap/ basket is based on the archaeological examples from Must Farm, Cambridgeshire and the Somerset Levels.
Bones and horns shown are all genuine bones and horns (which a few people are surprised with), and have been modified to be musical instruments such as the rams horn trumpet, cow bone whistle, cow horn trumpet. Several reeds have also been cut into musical instruments. Bone fishing hooks are also shown, although none were found at the Durrington Walls excavations.
Cordage is another material which is not commonly associated with the technologies available to Neolithic people. In the ‘houses’ there is a variety of examples, showing what strings, cordage and ropes could have been constructed with – such as stinging nettles, willow, flax, hemp and deer sinew. There are even examples of clothing being made from these materials on display, several shirts made from stinging nettles and flax, and some shoes made from a composite of materials based on Ötzi the Iceman’s clothing.
(To be Continued…)