@Neolithichouses day three or riddling chalk and learning to fitch #neobuild

As I am still fairly puce coloured and as it may be sunny again and I don’t want to keep scrounging sun cream we dodge rush hour traffic on a mercy dash to T***o’s. I haven’t bought sun cream for thirty years, although I do confess to having had some that was free with something or other in the interim. Time is short and to avoid a Supermarket Sweep scenario I ask where the sun cream is located; that was the easy bit. There are advantages to the rubbish-up-to-now weather – sun cream is all half price, although there is a bewildering choice. Needless to say I opt for the cheapest. I really shouldn’t be let out alone – I don’t normally supermarket shop and I decide, with only one item, to try the self service thingy. Scanning is simple – I do this on my shifts in the community shop. The machine keeps asking me if I have my own bag – I don’t. Then it says ‘insert your money’. I try shoving a crumpled £5 note in to every available orifice to no avail. Why is there not a handy arrow pointing to where it should go? I finally locate the correct slot, a considerable distance to the right of the instruction screen and I even manage to retrieve my change. Sun cream purchased, so that’s the kiss of death for ‘summer’ then.

Our team on 547 (I think we are 547 – the three houses have numbers) have finished hay thatching so are at a bit of a loose end. We set to work clearing up the site – not the most interesting task but necessary none the less. I hope for something that is a bit more experimental. With that in mind, I try chalk crushing – we are aiming for coarser grained lumps for flooring and a dust like consistency for paint. Both are fairly time consuming and we wonder if Neolithic people would have gone to so much trouble. It took half an hour to produce a small bucket full of paint chalk dust. The stereotypical round (or in our case not really round at all) house is white but why? Is this putting medieval ideas into Neolithic people’s heads? Of course when you get to lime wash that was considered to be protection from infection but that seems unlikely in Neolithic times. Chalk washing inside the pig mud house seems sensible as this makes a significant difference to the light but outside? A mud house is cool and doesn’t need to reflect the sun in our climate – I should know I live in one. Would a white outside not just reveal your whereabouts to your enemies? Why not mix the chalk wash with pigs’ blood as is traditional for walls in Medieval Essex? Would red have been seen as protection from evil spirits so long ago?

This is all about trying things in order to assess their practicality so we tamper and sieve chalk with gusto. We are using modern shovels, metals tampers and what looks like a wire basket from a freezer to sieve our chalk. I am determined that we should at least work out how these tasks could be done using Neolithic materials. Added to this, there is only so much chalk crushing a person can stand before seeking respite. I enlist an accomplice and we justify our skiving by deciding that we must create a Neolithic sieve. Neither of us have much idea how we are going to do this but it is a welcome diversion from crushing. Fortunately, amongst our number is Liz the former basket maker, so we seek advice. We are weaving a hurdle-like panel from willow, leaving suitable sized gaps for the chalk to come through – the technical term is fitching – like I knew that before! The inexperienced among us would have tried this with our hazel panel frame lying flat but no, Liz says stick your uprights in the ground and it soon becomes clear that it would have been next to impossible with it flat. I am quite pleased that, unlike bow drilling, my girl guide acquired square lashing skills have not deserted me. We only use this for the hazel corners as Neolithic string making apparently takes ages so it would have been used sparingly. After two of us (and it did need two to stop the panel getting thinner at the top – rather as woollen weaving tends to) working for a couple of hours we have a panel. We debate whether it needs sides to stop the chalk rolling off but decide to take it for a test drive first and add sides if they prove necessary.

25 April 2013 Me with the chalk sieve 2

Making the Chalk Sieve

25 April 2013 Chalk sieve ready for action

Ready for Use

25 April 2013 Chalk sieving 1 25 April 2013 Chalk sieving 2

25 April 2013 Chalk sieving 3

25 April 2013 Tamping chalk

Tamping Chalk

No one was more surprised than us to find that it actually worked quite well. Given our time again we might have allowed extra pieces of hazel for the frame to act as handles. Providing you didn’t put much chalk on at a time, there wasn’t a lot of difference between our sieved chalk and that done with modern tools. We have been trying a three man method – two to shake the panel (up and down works better than side to side) and one to load with not too much chalk. I proudly show our achievements off to Chris and he points out that you could wedge our panel up at an angle and one person could throw chalk at it, resulting in a pile of fine chalk one side of the panel and a pile of larger pieces the other. This works, although, ideally the panel needs to be larger for this method, or the person wielding the spade needs a good aim. We also tried tamping with the end of a small log. This was more successful than the metals tampers. It seems this was tried by other volunteers earlier in the project (although the logs soon split) but we are all newbies so didn’t know this. So now all we need is a Neolithic spade – that’s on tomorrow’s to do list.

Good news on the safety boots front. They have only managed to acquire one pair of the size 4s that 3 of us asked for (well I asked for size 3 but that was too much to hope for). Would I mind going without as I am unlikely to do much damage to myself dropping a wisp of hay or a willow twig on my foot? I was hoping to get out of the safety boot wearing so I am greatly relieved and I promise not to sue anyone. I am wearing quite sturdy boots of my own and it would actually be more dangerous going up a ladder in boots that were too big anyway.

I admire some more rush weaving a lend a bit of a hand. Weaving in 5 rush bands seems to create a suitably dense weave. We discuss using a needle of some kind and decide we perhaps need a shuttle. Guy, who just happens to have a handy deer bone about his person – well about his land rover anyway – kindly offers to produce one. Incidentally his land rover also contains 4 red deer skins and a wild boar skin complete with nose and feet – definitely best not to ask.

The interesting thing about trying to work out how things might have been in the Neolithic era is that the thought processes are the same as those for trying to understand the C17th or indeed any other era. Tomorrow it is all hands on floor creation. I can’t believe that more than half our house building time is gone – just as we are getting to know people.

There is a Harvester yards from our site. We have been saving a 2 Harvester take aways for £10 for an occasion such as this. We do feel a bit conspicuous as we look as if we have spent the day crushing chalk and reed thatching – that would be because we have spent the day crushing chalk and reed thatching but we aren’t thrown out. We’ve never had Harvester take away before and it comes with its own free salad. I try to work out the optimum order in which to load my salad punnet in order to fill every available space within it and thus maximise my salad quantity – worked pretty well!

2 comments on “@Neolithichouses day three or riddling chalk and learning to fitch #neobuild

  1. Laura says:

    Hi Janet, I love your blog! My pictures from the build are here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/115655290749884377170/albums/5870097696468144033
    I particularly like the ones at the end with the hurricane-destroyed tent!

  2. Caro - Claire Wiles says:

    Another good read! You sure are moving along with the project

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