Wessex Archaeology has teamed up with Butser Ancient Farm to help design and build a new Stone Age house on the site. In this blog series, we’re offering insights and updates about the build. 

In this week’s blog, Butser Projects Coordinator, Trevor Creighton, continues from our last blog to explain the experimental structure and questions raised during the build of the Neolithic house.

Once the A frames were up, these needed to be secured in place. In the last blog, we covered the fact that the A frame design gives the structure a great deal of strength, and this is increased by having further components added. Lateral timbers have been used at each end, a ridge pole lies along the top of the roof, timbers called purlins run along the sides of the house for stability, and on top of these are lots of lighter rafters which carry the roof.

Now that the structure is really taking shape, we can see some unexpected elements which demonstrate the beauty of experimental archaeology. We’ve been using this build to try and answer some questions and see if we can offer plausible interpretations for the what was found in the ground. However, what this project also does – importantly – is to generate more questions about Neolithic communities, rituals, settlements and landscapes. 

 

One of these questions was with the shape of the roof. The building has the classic trapezoid shape of Neolithic houses; wider at one end than the other (approx. 5.2m at one end and 4.5m at the other), and in this case is wider in the middle so tapers. As we’ve seen in the last blog, thatched rooves need to be pitched at 40-45° and to maintain this pitch across a tapered trapezoid building, we discovered that one end needs to be lower than the other.

This floorplan that we see across the European Neolithic translating into a sloping roof shape (commonly called a ‘hogback’) was unexpected. It is seen particularly in Scandinavian buildings in the middle-ages and still used in some areas of Norway today, and has the advantage of adding strength to the structure. So, could we be looking at a design feature that is thousands of years old or possibly even created by Neolithic builders?

Another example of this is in the building materials. The roof is a strong feature of the structure – thatched and very heavy. As well as needing a specific pitch, thatch needs to be a certain thickness to be effective. This has meant that the thatch alone weighs approximately 6 to 6.5 tonnes, on top of the wooden roof structure which weighs an extra 3 to 3.5 tonnes. A rough estimate of the total tonnage for the whole house is around 18 tonnes. To lash these all together, we have used roughly 6.5km of twine and rope.

Structure of the roof seen from within

We can definitely speculate that in our experimental build, we have vastly overcompensated on the amount of twine, for example. However, we know from archaeological evidence that twine and rope was in common use at this time. In terms of a reasonable assumption on average amounts, we are also not creating this house the largest Neolithic example found in the UK or Europe – there are some with much larger blueprints.

So, how did Neolithic communities get these huge quantities of supplies? How do they convert them into useable items and who is putting in the significant labour needed to do this?

As an exercise, we plotted roughly how much natural resource it would take in a single area to produce our Butser house. We estimate that several acres of reed bed would be needed for a single roof and around 100-200 trees needed for the rest of the structure.

This raises questions about landscape exploitation and alterations, population and skills of Neolithic communities. With such a considerable amount of material needed for just one house, how much of an effect would one community have had on their surrounding landscape?

We can speculate that Neolithic builders must have had a high level of sophistication and co-ordination to have been able to have the ambition, and the planning and delivery skills, to produce these structures.

The other hugely rewarding discovery during this experimental build is the acoustics. Using the flint tools likely to have been used by early Neolithic people on pine produces a very distinctive noise as a group is working, which seems to echo down the millennia from the forests of the early Neolithic and give a strong sense of connection to those early builders.