At Butser Ancient Farm we have been building archaeological constructions and conducting experiments for almost 50 years. However no two structures are the same, each presenting different challenges, questions and insights as we translate postholes and plans into buildings representing home life from the Stone Age to the Saxons.
The Horton house continues this theme of thinking experimentally about architecture and construction techniques, in the immediate term exploring materials, consumption of resources, time and technique. In the long term, we can study the wear and tear on the building, and therefore its lifespan.
Working in close collaboration with Wessex Archaeology has added immeasurably to what we have been able to achieve, understand and document in the Horton house project as we aim to fulfil two important aims. One is that we must be faithful to the original excavated footprint of the building, as excavated by the team at Wessex Archaeology. The second is that we should use only the tools and knowledge available to Neolithic people!
Until recently, there was very little compelling artefactual evidence for carpentry in the Neolithic. However, thanks to the recent discovery of four waterlogged wells in Eastern Germany, we know more about what can be achieved using only stone or bone tools. Excavations of these wells have revealed tusked mortice and tenon joints holding the oak frame of the wells together. Using dendrochronology, these timbers have been dated to between 5099 and 5206BC!
Fortunately our build has not required such complex carpentry. The construction is formed from timbers in the round but we decided to use lap joints as this creates a nice flat surface where timbers meet each other, producing a more robust building (we hope!). We have conducted tests to demonstrate that all the joints and features could have been created using a Neolithic tool kit.
Using a flint axe to create these joints was relatively straightforward and surprisingly quick. We used a wide range of flints of different sizes and shapes, with the mediocre quality of some of the flint being a great opportunity for the workmen (and women) to blame their tools! If we’re being honest, it is our skillset that is primitive, rather than the tools themselves!
We’ve subsequently installed the main purlins and the ridge poles which has given us a real sense of the shape of the house. In line with all things Neolithic, we’ve kept it low tech. That means installing these poles without the use of mechanical crane. By jacking it up on a simple scaffold frame and lots of hauling on ropes, we levered our ridge poles into place through a huge communal effort of staff and volunteers from both Butser and Wessex.
Although we have already tackled some simple carpentry in this project, we are still very reliant on cordage to provide the lashings holding rafters, purlins and batons securely in place. In the Neolithic landscape we’d have been able to source the necessary materials to make cordage by stripping the bark of the Lime tree (Tilia cordata). Soaking or ‘retting’ these stripped fibres in water over a period of weeks, dissolves the pectin and cellular tissues that surround the bast fibre bundles, leaving you with slightly smelly (!) but very useful, flexible fibres. For a range of practical reasons, we have opted mostly for sisal. It’s still a natural, plant fibre but critically it can be obtained in the large quantities required in the middle of winter.
In the absence of archaeological evidence for the roofing material, we have turned to the landscape in which the house was found, and chosen water reed. We’ve got the expertise to work with it, and it provides a reliable, warm, watertight space which is so critical to our school education and events programme. In truth, a house can be thatched with all sorts of things, from straw and reed, to the more unusual heather, sedge grass, turf and even seaweed.
Through wind, rain, hail and, occasionally, even some sunshine, we are now undertaking this marathon task of thatching the structure whilst both the wattle and oak plank walls are also constructed. As the roof takes shape, and the building becomes more and more enclosed, it is feeling ever-more home like and we can’t wait to see the final house take shape in the coming weeks.
By Claire Walton, Archaeologist at Butser Ancient Farm