We are locked in the caravan site until 9.00am – well, that’s a slight exaggeration, it would have been possible to arrange for an early departure but we didn’t. Other site users are looking at us as if setting off at 9.00am is certifiable. This trip the services are chosen for their free wi-fi. Free is a relative term. I’m sure you are expected to purchase a beverage in order to sit at a table to use the wi-fi. We aren’t daft, we check to see if there is actually a connection first. Initially it seems there isn’t. I pointedly stand under the ‘free wi-fi’ sign, balancing the computer precariously and manage to get my free connection. I find a table and we contrive to avoid having to procure any grossly overpriced food or drink. I have however had to agree to receive a bucket load of spam (a.k.a. marketing materials) in return for my ‘free’ access.
We are in a nice secluded campsite right on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. We go for a recee so we can locate our Neolithic houses tomorrow. We have a quick whisk round Old Sarum Castle – very impressive but on a site that is best described as bracing. Good job I have brought my C17th spun and knitted hat. We are hoping to spot the houses that our predecessors on the project have nearly completed. Chris points out some cylindrical structures with conical roofs in a field. There seem to be rather a lot of them. It turns out that these are pig arcs. We ask and are directed to where we need to be tomorrow.
Neobuild day 1 dawns. It actually dawns warm and sunny, maybe I won‘t need the hat, gloves and three fleecy layers. We head off to the Neolithic era. No one at any point asks to see the vital piece of paper that Chris has forgotten anyway. Needless to say none of the essential safety boots are small enough for my feet – some will be ordered. Having checked with HQ it appears they probably don’t make them in my size – how may pairs of socks will I need? Incredibly however there are gloves large enough for Chris’ hands. Most of the 30 or so volunteers have been before, many are here for the whole project. The half a dozen newbies feel very much just that. First the health and safety induction – billed as ‘the most boring hour of your life’. All the essential stuff like where to run to if the bull in the adjoining field breaks down the fence and be sure to wash your hands after wallowing in pig poo. The project so far is then explained. Anyone hoping for easy jobs like making curtains or rag rolling walls may be disappointed! Lovely to see the first swallows of the year flying round our site.
We are relieved to find that we are not the only people of more mature years on site and our co-workers have some interesting and varied life stories. We are set to work thumbing over cracks that have appeared in the ‘pig mud’ daub. We are awaiting a delivery of more pig mud. Pig mud is not actually poo but the mud that the pigs have been churning up, usefully mixed with straw. Previous days’ work on site have discovered that pig mud is much less labour intensive than crushed chalk and water daub. We have a go at daubing with crushed chalk too and the pig mud method certainly seems the more effective.
I was expecting to have problems keeping up with a full day’s manual labour but life in the C17th is obviously harder than I realised as I have no difficulty at all – primarily because there are plenty of breaks and discussions about how things might have been achieved in Neolithic houses. One of the houses (or possibly not a house but an ancillary building) is tepee shaped. I spend the afternoon assisting with the thatching of a third of this. Three different methods are being attempted to help decide which is the most efficient/likely. I think I’m safe in saying not our way – on so many levels. It is important to try this in order to come to that conclusion though. Our section is closely woven with hazel at the bottom and willow at the top. This would be close enough for wattle and daub so has taken a great deal of materials and person hours to achieve. We are then yealming (possibly spelt wrong), which involves straightening out a bundle of hay. This is then doubled over and the uncut ends are shoved in a gap in the woven hazel wands. We are having trouble as our hay is much shorter than Neolithic hay would have been. Contrary to expectations, this doesn’t blow away instantly and is more efficient than you might think. We all decide that this is an unlikely method however – bearing in mind that this thatch reaches ground level, any passing sheep would eat your house. In addition hay would be too valuable as feed to use in this way as it takes an awful lot of hay. The counter argument to this is that the archaeological evidence suggests that the predominant animal in the lives of the former inhabitants of our houses was the pig and pigs would not need winter feeding but would forage for themselves.
By the time I arrive on the yealming/hay thatching team they have just about stuffed all the woven hazel that can be reached from the ground. We try several ways of reaching the higher parts. It seems we should perhaps have left a section in the middle to climb up and done that last. Bit late for that now and anyway the weaving is too tight to get steel capped safety boots in – Neolithic bare toes perhaps – or would they have had footwear – another debate. We try creating a ladder from hazel wands and securing it to the weaving – this works fairly well. I think shoving single pieces of wood through the hay to stand on is the best method although these do of course leave gaps when removed. Would they have been left in for repairs? We decide probably not as they would let water in. Experience suggests that there would have been some sort of conveyor belt system for passing up bundles of hay, although some of our team have created a sort of platform to rest a bundle of hay on, by inserting smallish sticks through the weave.
As always, experimental archaeology is an interesting challenge – roll on day 2.