Volunteers are helping English Heritage to test build three Neolithic houses which, in their final form, will be the highlight of the outdoor gallery of the new Stonehenge visitor centre, offering an authentic glimpse of the lifestyle and technology of the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge
The archaeological experiment is taking place at Old Sarum near Salisbury, using extremely rare evidence of buildings from Neolithic England recently unearthed near Stonehenge. The lessons learned from the experiment will inform their reconstruction at the new visitor centre in January 2014.
When completed, they will form the focal point of the outdoor gallery that will complement the exhibition indoors featuring important objects on loan from the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
The three houses have been selected from about ten that were discovered in 2006 and 2007 by Professor Mike Parker Pearson at Durrington Walls, a large henge monument 3km north-east of Stonehenge which was believed to be the largest Neolithic settlement in north-west Europe.
Radiocarbon tests show that these buildings date from around the same time as the sarsen stones were being put up at Stonehenge, about 2,500 BC. From the vast amount of remains of animal bones and pottery near the houses, it seems as if late Neolithic people were gathering at Durrington on a seasonal basis, probably at midwinter. As well as the houses, there were several timber monuments and an avenue linking the complex to the River Avon.
Not Everyday Domestic Dwellings
It is thought that these houses were not typical everyday domestic dwellings but that people lived in them for certain periods in the year. The scale of the site and the evidence of feasting and a high-nutrition diet raise the distinct possibility that the occupiers were involved with the construction of and celebrations at Stonehenge.
The excavation uncovered the floors of the houses and the stake holes where the walls once stood. Above ground, the appearance of the houses is unknown. One of the aims of this project is to test different materials and structures to see which ones work best.
“An Immediate and Sensory Link to the Past”
Susan Greaney, Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage, said: “The reconstructed houses will be an immediate and sensory link to the distant past, and will bring visitors as close as they can to appreciate what life was like for the extraordinary individuals who built Stonehenge.
“We have lots of evidence to inform this reconstruction, but there is also a lot of educated guess work. Building the prototypes will enable us to test things such as the roofing structure, roofing materials and various construction techniques, and learn more about late Neolithic people, their tools and technology, ideas of comfort and privacy and social organisation, among other things.”
Volunteers started building the prototypes at Old Sarum in early March and are expected to finish the experiment in May. They have also helped in the collection of raw materials, in some cases using prehistoric tools such as flint axes. Materials include 12 tonnes of chalk, 2,500 rods of hazel or willow wattling, 10 oak logs, 600 bundles of sedge, 600 bundles of water reed and hundreds of timber stakes and rafters.
On 5th and 6th May and from 25th to 27th May, the public can take part in open days at Old Sarum, Wiltshire, to see the Neolithic house prototypes. Guided tours including hands-on activities are available. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For more information please contact 0800 333 1183.
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