Neolithic houses showed Stonehenge residents as talented builders, recreators say

By Ben Miller | 23 June 2014

Neolithic house builders spent years growing their materials before lengthy construction processes, a project to reopen them to the public has found

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Cleverly thought-out houses, built a mile from Stonehenge around 2,500 years ago, were “bright and airy” spaces with single rooms, white chalk walls and floors designed to reflect sunlight and capture fire heat, according to an army of archaeologists and craftspeople recreating the buildings at the Wiltshire landmark.

Based around the remains of Neolithic houses discovered in a large ceremonial earthwork enclosure to the north-east of Stonehenge around eight years ago, 60 volunteers have recreated five ancient abodes, thatching the roofs with three tons of wheat straw, covering the walls in a mass of chalk, hay and water daubing and using 5,000 rods of hazel.

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the buildings, found at Durrington Walls, a mile from Stonehenge, were built at the same time as the large sarsen stones of the central site in around 2,500 BC.

Each house contained a hearth, with the make-up of each roof decided according to the load-bearing capacity of the hazel-weaved walls.

“I think that they would have worked up healthy appetites dragging stones and digging henges, but they were apparently not subsistence farmers,” pondered Nick Jones, who was one of 60 craftspeople behind the developments.

“The archaeological evidence suggests that they feasted well and travelled great distances. They built houses, but they were not simple builders.

“They may have lived in fear of wild animals, but we know they were not naked, homeless, or hungry savages.

“They were modern humans who carried out one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering in the world.

“Our experiments suggest that each house takes about 1,000 hours to build. Gathering and preparing these materials required planning.

“Supplies of daub are not a problem, but supplies of thatching straw are governed by annual harvests, and supplies of wattle are governed by seven-year cycles of woodland management.”

The old inhabitants may have been involved in the construction and celebrations surrounding Stonehenge.

“I believe there must have been a highly educated elite that conceived Stonehenge, but house-building was more likely a ‘cultural institution’ – something everyone knew how to do, and everyone, young or old, took part in,” said Jones.

“Such a common task would also have embodied social ‘bonding power’, although not on the scale of henge-building.

“Perhaps the most poignant and pleasurable learning experience was coppicing, which lies at the very heart of Neolithic house-building.  It all seemed timeless. It was as if I had stepped back 5,000 years.”

Smoke from the fire would have filtered up through the thatched roof in front of wooden or woven beds, seating, storage and shelving.

“In one of the houses, just by the central hearth, two indentations were found,” said Susan Greaney, the Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage.

“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.

“These houses are the result of careful analysis of the archaeological evidence, educated guess work, and a lot of hard physical work.”

With the houses now open, the team will watch the impact of traffic and visitors on the chalk floors, lighting the fires, sweeping the floors as they go.

"One of the things we're trying to do at Stonehenge is to re-connect the ancient stones with the people that lived and worked in the surrounding landscape," said Greaney, calling the project an “incredible” learning experience and labour of love.

"Now visitors can step through the door of these houses and get a real sense of what everyday life might have been like when Stonehenge was built.”

Pics: Alistair Deane / English Heritage.

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Amazing. I wonder how they deduced all that.
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