Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 11

15th – 19th July 2019

Phase 3 Construction Week 11

This week will be our last official week before the summer break.  Our focus remains on the thatching task and the construction of furniture for the building interior.

The first task this week is to “solve” the issue of the thatch overlying the projecting purlins of the roof structure.  From the very beginning of this project (18 months before we started building!) the impact of the structure on our ability to thatch it was of concern.  The issue stems from the transition of roughly circular walls (constrained by the posthole evidence from House 6) to a definitely tetrahedron roof apex (in this case constrained by the model making solutions to the internal post hole evidence – and my structural solutions to those patterns).  I have stated many times during this project, that the look of this building is based on my interpretations of the evidence. Different builders may have found solutions that I did not, but, given by extensive trial and error model phase, the triangular purlins just below the roof apex presented a sound and interesting solution to the available posthole evidence.  The question was always “how do we transition a conical roof base to a pyramidal roof top without creating weaknesses or issues in the thatch roof covering. More specifically, how do we overcome the slightly projecting purlin ends without creating holes in our thatch?

The first part of this process was to cunningly avoid the formation of corners at these points by carefully positioning the rafters either side of the purlin ends.  We also chose specific rafters with bends – or knuckles, to change the angle of the roof pitch ant these points – and to maintain the overall roof line. Remember, 25 rafters had to meet at the top of the roof – despite their roof angles ranging from 45 degrees to over 50 degrees in places (not an easy task).  The result is a roof frame that has a circular circumference, that blends into three discrete flat sides with rounded corners, and finishes at a regular tetrahedron top. In terms of thatching, the issues all centre on the angle of thatch running past these projecting purlins. Reed is not a very flexible material and will break if over stressed.  The temptation to run over the purlin ends with the thatch had the potential to create issues of broken thatch and leaks. The rafters above the purlin corners changed angles through their natural shapes to reach the imaginary centre of the roof apex. So what we needed was to change the angle of the thatched roof at these three discrete points – to allow the thatch to run smoothly beyond them and so avoid broken or disrupted thatch.

This was achieved (after debate and agreement) by the creation of three thatch blocks (one at each projecting purlin corner) that would adjust the angle of the thatch at those points, thus allowing the next ring of thatch to run beyond the purlins without mishap.

This was done by building up thatch bundles and locking them in position with a short sway.  The thatch was cut short to prevent it riding up and over the purlins.  

Once in position, these three “bolsters” were then covered with the next layer of thatch – allowing the reed to adjust to the angle of the roof as it changed from the flatter areas to the purlin corners.

Furniture production is in full swing this week.  A team is concentrating on splitting and shaping planks for the first interpretation of a bed. 

Edwin has produced two trestles using appropriate techniques to aid the manufacture of the door frames and doors.  It is this aspect of projects like this that interest me.  Edwin saw a need to make the carpentry tasks more efficient, and using suitable techniques and materials, produced the equipment to enable it.  There is of course, no direct evidence of timber working trestles from the Bronze Age in the UK, but, given the complexity of carpentry from elsewhere in the Bronze Age world, I have no doubt they existed.  Edwin saw a need, and used the tools he had at hand to produce them, and in line with currently available carpentry evidence- a valid interpretation of the past in my opinion.

The top portion of the roof is definitely reflecting the triangular structure beneath and the roof is taking on a unique appearance that reflects the complexity of the ground evidence.


Some of the finishing touches of the building have begun.  Window frames hewn from ash and fitted into the exiting woven hazel walls.

  Carefully hewn door jambs for the main doors have been jointed into the wall plate and threshold.

The final projecting rafter has also been removed to allow the thatch to ride over the apex of the roof.

And beautiful planks are being split and hewn in preparation for bed frames and furniture.

Over the last few weeks we have watched the interior of the building becoming gloomier and gloomier as the hole diminished.  Now the roof is closed and we await the next visit to complete the thatch cap and make it truly weatherproof.

After a huge effort, the roof is nearly complete.  Its beauty is remarkable, and to those who know what they’re looking for, subtly reflects the unique structural solutions we have had to employ to make sense of the archaeological evidence.

Well done team!

Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Week 10

8th – 12th July 2019

Phase 3 Construction Week 10

After a three week break, the volunteers reunited this morning on the roundhouse project.  The weather is forecast as mostly dry this week, which will be a pleasant change from our somewhat torrential last visit.

The focus remains thatching, there are still many layers to apply, but the bulk of the roof area has already been covered.  Each higher ring of thatch shortens by a few bundles and so the task will begin to visually speed up before long. 


We are rapidly approaching the final stages of this project and there are several tasks we have to get to grips with in the next few visits.  One of these tasks is daubing. The earth based covering that will adhere to the wattle walls and make the building weather tight raises several interesting thoughts on this project.  The classic notion of daub centres on clay, mixed with fibre (usually cited as dung) to prevent excessive shrinkage and cracking. This is certainly the case in areas where clay is readily available, but in other areas, daub has always been the local ground material mixed with anything organic to prevent shrinkage.  Our project will need to test various types of materials and mixes to discover what works best in this environment.   We currently have 12 tests, using a variety of materials and proportions.  Time will tell which (if any!) of these will be most suitable for the task.

A volunteer team has also begun the task of thinking about – and building some of the interior furnishings for the building.  Once again we face the issue of evidence regarding furniture for this period in the British Isles. We have some evidence from the earlier Neolithic period, and we have a range of evidence from drier climates in the Bronze Age, but we lack the definitive “what was in a Bronze Age roundhouse” evidence from the UK.

My solution to this is based on my own individual approach to reconstructions over the years and is open to debate.  Some archaeologists would say that a good reconstruction should only showcase the evidence, or suite of evidence we have from that specific site – that we cannot and should not take evidence from other locations and apply it to a specific site based in a specific cultural and geological setting.  Although I understand the detail of this argument, for me, this approach is also flawed, and can only ever present the visiting public with a tiny and unrepresentative sample of what life may have looked like in the past.  Differences in preservation would result in some reconstructions having nothing in them, while others (in more desiccated parts of the world) would have an abundance of artefacts and furniture.  This would inevitably affect the visitor experience and fundamentally their assessment of specific cultures.  A lack of internal artefacts would be seen as a lack of sophisticated culture – rather than a lack of evidence.

My approach has always been one of drawing together technology and artefact evidence and combining it with local material evidence to present a fuller picture of how life could have looked in the past.  In this way we push the comprehension of visitors into unexpected places and avenues while presenting a far more realistic view of human achievement in the past.  It must be done carefully of course, and the key is to fully inform any visitor of the evidence and where it is from.

A bronze adze loses the battle with a hidden iron nail in a piece of timber

I have heard it time and time again over the years from members of the public, the (understandable) underestimation of the abilities and technological sophistication of our recent Bronze Age ancestors, let alone our more distant Palaeolithic cousins.  The general view of many visitors is that our ancestors were unsophisticated humans who just “got by” in a harsh world they couldn’t really handle. The evidence, wherever we find it (and for any period), shows the contrary. The issue we have here, is the marked lack of organic evidence in the majority of our archaeological record.  The Bronze Age in drier environments is full of amazing, detailed and beautifully made objects such as chairs, tables, shelves, colourful visual depictions, nets, baskets, containers, utensils.  From nearer at home, a few water logged discoveries from earlier dates give us sophisticated carpentry evidence.  The challenge for volunteers on this project is to use that evidence, and their technological know how to produce furniture and fittings for the building. It has to be appropriate, and fulfil the need of a working building.

The volunteers have begun work on a storage unit for the house.  This is using some of the remaining larger hazel rods from the build as a framework and will support shelves. 

The main door thresholds are also being positioned. A simple water level was employed by Edwin to ensure they sit in the right position, and our final piece of good oak was split to produce a matching pair.

The thatch is beginning to race towards the top of the house.  Each thatching team has found a comfortable rhythm makes for a deceptively easy progress.  The task is still gruelling though, and in this weeks high humidity levels, particularly draining.

Wow, what an incredible week it’s been again.  The building progresses and becomes more beautiful each day.  The quarry lip gives us a unique perspective on a build like this – our very own drone view.  I have never really appreciated the form of these buildings from a higher viewpoint, it really illustrates the size of the roof and the epic nature of thatching it!

Well done All!


Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 9

10th – 14th June 2019

Phase 3 Construction Week 9

Well, our amazing track record with weather so far on this project has well and truly changed!  This week we are forecast torrential rain for three days, and we have certainly had our share of it at Beeston.  The aim of this week was to consolidate the thatching methodology with the volunteers and to form those teams that will end up thatching the majority of the roof.

Wet, wet, wet

On Monday, we took advantage of the dry morning (under the threat of looming dark clouds) to get done what we could.  The rain then set in as we finished for the day. Tuesday saw torrential rain and our valiant volunteers turning up to see what they could do.  We agreed to work until we were soaked and set about thatching and alleviating a serious flood on site. The quarry collects water in conditions like this, so the volunteers dug a drain from the flood to the dead hedge perimeter and we drained the site successfully.

More pine logs are being split to produce timber for furniture making.  From next visit onward, while the thatching continues, other volunteers will begin to make furniture and fittings for the house using the split and hewn timbers produced over the last few visits.

Wednesday’s threatened downpour didn’t materialise, and the volunteers took advantage of the drier weather to complete some good thatching.  In the first 5 days of thatching, our teams have managed to thatch around 85 horizontal metres of thatch – despite poor weather, difficult access issues at the eave of the building, and the inevitably steep learning curve of mastering something entirely new!  This bodes well for the rest of the summer!

Opinions are changing regarding the “Stepped vs Smooth” thatching debate.  Culturally, there are numerous ways of thatching a roof – and the volunteers seem to have been almost equally split between the two camps.  As the thatch grows, opinions are changing both ways – it remains to be seen what the final decision will be.

Despite the weather this week, the volunteers have pressed on with the tasks at hand, and the thatch grows day by day – gradually blocking out light from the interior.  And for the first time, and despite the wet weather, parts of the structural frame remain dry! The roof is beginning to take effect.

The immense pile of thatch bales is already diminishing; a testament to the growing thatch roof.


So far, Our health and safety record has been very good, but the mud this week led to an unfortunate incident with Dave.  His continuous work in heavy mud finally got the better of him and he was lost without trace.  We shall miss him and his efforts!

Next time, while the thatch continues, we begin the skilful task of making furniture for the building interior.  It will be interesting to see how the volunteers approach this task and what ideas they have!


Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 8

3rd – 7th June 2019

Phase 3 Construction Week 8

We have returned this week to start the epic task of thatching.  Before we start however, we have the final battens to lash into position on the roof.  Our two weeks away have given the sisal lashings time to move and it is interesting (if a little frustrating) to see that despite our efforts to stretch the rope (using levers) as we lashed them into position, some of the lashings are once again loose.  These will have to be re-tightened before we proceed with the thatching. The conical roof shape allows for a little bit of slippage between the battens and the rafters. They can only slip a small distance before the lashings re-tighten against the rafter, but I would certainly prefer them all to be immobile before we proceed to the next stage.

The thatch arrived on Monday.  1100 bundles of water reed that will make this building weatherproof.  It was delivered to the base of the site, and on Tuesday, Denis Rowlandson and the volunteers moved the bundles closer to the construction site.

Other jobs this week include the construction of wall frames.  The volunteers have been working on fitting the sill beams between the posts over the last couple of visits.  These timbers form the foundation of our wattle walls. Each sill has been augured at roughly 360 mm intervals to provide holes into which the zales (uprights) are then driven.  Our hazel weavers are then pushed into place to build a solid wall of woven material. As with all jobs on this project, it sounds deceptively simple – and it is deceptive. The construction of a solid woven wall (hurdle) is an art and requires an understanding of materials, and care and attention to use those materials in the best way.  It is crucial that the weavers are bent around the zales – rather than allowing the zales to be displaced by the weavers. If this is done carefully in the first few rows of weaving, the zales effectively become “set” in position and prevent the many issues that can result from misaligned zales higher up.

The wall building stage has also raised questions of things like windows.  The vast majority of roundhouse reconstructions do not utilise windows. This has always been a bit of a puzzle to me.  I am not voicing a preference for windows in any way, but experimentally they must be an option? As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for or against them in the archaeological record (in western Europe at this time), and yet they never seem to crop up in reconstructions.  My logic concerning windows centres on evidence from the Neolithic Period that clearly demonstrates the ability of ancient builders to block holes in buildings (doorways) using well carpentered doors. The surviving Neolithic door from Zurich clearly demonstrates this, but is a stand alone artefact from a waterlogged environment.  My logic then, is that if the capability and sophistication in techniques existed to block large openings such as doorways, why do we assume that smaller opening in walls (windows) were not a “thing”? The ability to open an close an opening in a wall immediately allows access to free light, and extends the use of a building interior.  Even with long overhanging eaves, the reflected light from a window offers free light into a building. Obviously, there are unknown cultural factors at play here too. But in principle, the technology existed, and the potential need existed for some kind of wall openings in bronze age buildings.

Volunteer Dave is working on developing an “annex” that sits beneath three rafters that touch the floor at the back of the building.  Dave’s thought process is entirely valid – and centres on the use of a space that is created by some of the rafters extending beyond their “designed” eave length.  I have certainly utilised this space in other buildings in the past. In one Iron Age building, we turned this space into a wood store and a pen for housing our Soay sheep.  What makes this experiment interesting is the that access to this space is via the main building – effectively bringing it into the main floor plan rather than as an covered outside space.  It will be interesting to see how it performs in use over the next few years. Again this raises the ongoing issues of what we think these buildings look like, and again, it reiterates the issue of trends, fashions and accepted norms in experimental reconstructions like this.  We have all seen many roundhouses in our time, and they all follow a very similar format, despite the fact that their original evidence reflects potentially very different cultural traditions, specific local needs, and the nature of locally available raw materials. I am very happy that the volunteers on this project are brave enough to try things out, in the spirit of discovery that projects like these should embrace.  At the end of the day, only through use will these modifications show themselves to be potentially valid or potentially flawed. They can be adjusted, improved or scrapped altogether, and as long as we are not directly contradicting available evidence, they are worthwhile.

Thatching has begun this week.  This task – like so many before, is superficially straightforward, but is an art in its own right.  The volunteers understand the theory and the practicalities of thatching, they now have to quickly find their own rhythm and refinements to tackle the massive task ahead of them.  The decision has been made by general consensus to start the roof in visible layers (to keep a close eye on the thickness of each layer), but with a view to possibly grading the roof to a smooth finish later on.  The task is awkward, working in difficult positions, managing bundles of thatch that want to follow the rules of gravity, and ensuring the tension of each tie is good.

The bottom layers of thatch are the most awkward to do.  Not only is the process alien to the volunteers, but it is difficult to apply enough pressure to the sway with awkward access solutions.

There are many ways to thatch a roof, depending on the materials and cultural traditions of the area.  Our roof uses hazel sways (thin hazel rods) to clamp each layer of thatch in place with hemp or jute ties.  The layers are put on according to the battens beneath – the aim being to produce a relatively thin roof (certainly in modern thatching terms) that will be weather proof, but crucially, will allow smoke to escape through the thatch efficiently.

The layers are built up in concentric layers to keep a close eye on this thickness.  Once it is finished the visible steps can be left in position or graded into each other to form a more recognisable finish.

The next few project weeks will focus on this epic task – and see the frame become a building!

Well done all!


Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 7

13th – 17th May 2019

Phase 2 Construction Week 7

We have returned to a week of glorious sunshine and calm.  The building looks beautiful and some of our core volunteers have returned from well earned trips away – the team is whole again.

This week sees the installation of batten rings that are lashed to the rafters, forming a conical ladder up the roof.  There are three priorities this week, Lashings, Lashings, and Lashings!

Batten 1 lashed in position

There are 25 rafters, and 17 rows of battens, which means we have in the region of 425 lashings to complete!  The use of lashings in this building raises an interesting question. Over the years, I have constructed many buildings, using experimental and “known” methods of construction.  The method used to attach the smaller roof elements to the rafters is still open to debate. Firstly, we mustn’t assume any single method for this across geographical, ecological and cultural zones.  Local materials, cultural practice and concerns of longevity will all have a part to play in the material selection and development of technique for any process in the past.

Test lashings, soaked and dry

If we had access to unlimited coppiced materials, it would be just as easy to weave the roof (bending the coppiced rods between the rafters themselves) to form a large basket.  I have used this method on several occasions to great effect, but it is very hungry for coppiced materials. If we had access to large quantities of freshly harvested willow wands, we could use them as ties.  Access to a lime grove, or fields of nettles, or brambles would allow us to produce large volumes of fibres that could be transformed into rope. An area of thick gorse would allow us to form a thick blanket of densely packed material that we thatch directly into.  The landscape setting, its geology, and therefore, the species that grow there, make for any number of solutions to the roofing stage of a building.

The conical ladder grows!

All of these solutions require time and effort to achieve, whether it be in the growing and harvesting of coppice materials, the harvesting and preparation of natural fibres, and the making of rope.  Our project is not a full scale experimental project, – in other words, we are not doing every stage of construction using authentic bronze tools, and we are not harvesting all of our materials authentically.  We have a deadline and a need to produce a fully functioning building that will last for many years, so our experimental potential is understandably limited by these factors (it should be remembered that most experiments fail!). This project is utilising pre-made natural fibre (in this case, sisal) string as its main lashing material.  It is a material that I am generally unfamiliar with in a construction setting, and we have had to learn as we go regarding its properties and best use. Sisal seems to expand significantly when exposed to atmospheric moisture or rain, so we are pre soaking the lashings to ensure a tight fit over time, and stretching them as much as possible as we go with the use of oak pegs to apply direct leverage to the rope.  As a fibre, it is also brutal on the hands (similar to willow bark rope) and so gloves are the order of the day!

Using an oak peg to lever the lashings tight

The batten rows are spaced at 16 inch intervals up the rafters to give the right spacing for tying on thatching bundles later on.

As with all tasks on this project, finding a rhythm is critical.  By that I mean that each member of a team finds their own role, or sequence of roles, and fulfils them efficiently, without the need to stop and think “what next?”  It takes time to reach this stage, but then the process flows at its optimum.

As the battens progress up the roof, the volunteers have to be aware of “corners”, where a rafter sits awkwardly beyond the natural roof line.  These corners are best negotiated by ensuring two battens don’t meet there – forming two ends that stick out a bit like cow horns. These projecting battens will only cause us issues later when we come to thatch the roof.  Although each batten ring shortens in length by around 2 metres on each level, the number of lashings doesn’t change – so once again, the task is labour intensive!

While teams have been lashing the battens, other teams have been producing thatching needles in preparation for the next phase of construction.  These shaved wooden “swords” will take the thatching strings through the roof to physically stitch the thatch into position on the battens.

Edwin and team have also pushed hard this week to complete the stunning oak gate that will be the official entrance to the roundhouse compound.  What an achievement!  so much work, hewing planks, cutting joints, making and fitting pegs, but what a result! Well done gate team!



The central rafter that marks the middle of the doorway has also been refined and stabilised with the addition of a shaped timber corbel.  This neat solution enables the rafter to be securely pegged into solid timber on a post that is already complicated with the meeting of 4 timber elements.

And while all this was going on, more volunteers have been working hard to install sill beams between each pair of wall posts to provide a solid base for our woven hazel walls to sit on.  Each timber is augured to provide location holes for the wall uprights (or Zales), and need to fit securely to prevent movement.

The issues of sisal stretch have dogged us somewhat this week, and required the re-tightening of many lashings as we have gone along.  Despite our best efforts, there seems to be no real pattern of loosening, regardless of soaked or dry rope. As a result, and despite huge effort, we have not achieved what we hoped we would at the beginning of the week.  But perseverance and sweat have saved the day, along with the continual development and refinement of lashing method and we now stand poised to finish the battens and begin thatching in the next visit.

Neolithic Longhouse: Project Finale!

Tuesday 29th January 2019

The final official project week has begun!  After a break for Christmas, The team has reassembled for a final push on the longhouse doors.  Work has continued while I was away and the building is looking amazing! Most of the daub is completed and some internal painting has started making a real difference to the panels and their finish.


Today we have discussed how the project can move on in terms of experiments….. …. The volunteers have a great approach to future work and are thinking of the many things they would like to achieve over the next few months and years.  Any project needs this enthusiasm to really consolidate and improve what’s there. The discussion centred on how to record experiments and what to focus on.

What has become clear over the last two years is that, while I have been recording data such as measurements, timings and structural considerations, we have all been noticing experiential evidence that is difficult to quantify.  In other words, we know how the building is made but we have recorded very little of how it FELT to make it, or the multitude of ideas and thoughts that various tasks and construction stages produced.

This is an area of interest for me after many projects over the years.  We can look at the mechanical processes of construction, the efficiency of tools, the volume of materials used, the preferred method of construction compared to others, the effect on landscape, but our anecdotal evidence of how it felt, and looked, the aesthetics and personal stories and thoughts of our experience is still trapped in our heads!  

There are many examples of this way of thinking.  Last year, during a project at Stonehenge, I organised a bluestone sized piece of rock to be pulled and erected into place by the public over the course of a weekend.  The stone weighed around 4 tonnes and we used between 70 and 140 people to move and lifted it into a hole in the chalk. What surprised me during that project were some aspects of the real world engineering required in wet and muddy conditions, but importantly, the number of people who came up to me afterwards to say how incredible it felt to be part of a large team all working successfully towards a common goal.  It is this “evidence” we lack when considering the archaeological record, and yet it is exactly this personal story that is responsible for the construction of our past. The physical remains of buildings and monuments are only fingerprints of our emotional experiences, and although impossible to know exactly what ancient people felt, or the reasons why they did things, our modern perspective of similar tasks can only be helpful in trying to reach some understanding.

Another example comes from the many buildings I have designed and helped to build.  Typically, when members of the public visit finished buildings, they have a range of reactions and emotions.  A common one is they feel some kind of “vibe” or a feeling they cannot explain.  For me, and I presume, many other builders of those same structures, I feel no “vibe” at all, but the building does represent a group of memories based mainly on people.  I have technical memories yes, but the majority of what I experience are the memories of the conversations I had with hard working people. the humour, the ideas, the hardships and the relationships. The building is a monument to a certain group of people and their associated memories.  A tie beam in a Viking Longhouse is actually a physical reflection of the 5 people who hewed it and the 30 that lifted it into position, and their names and personalities are etched into the timber through the marks their tools left behind and in its manhandled position in the building.

Wednesday 30th January 2019

The weather has finally caught up with us on this project!  Yesterday we all got soaked and cold with the persistent heavy and cold rain.  Today we have had prolonged bouts of hail which fell to such a degree that it looked like snow!

Still, we can’t complain after our incredible luck over the last two years!

Today work has continued (despite the freezing weather) on the willow doors.  From the beginning, these doors have been seen as midterm constructions until more substantial doors can be made from planks.  That said, there is certainly nothing wrong with willow doors. They can be covered with leather to make weatherproof closures and are light and quick to build.

Danny has finished the weaving on door one and is now working on fitting it to its opening.

Teams are rapidly progressing with the remaining doors and it looks like they will all be in place this week.  

Thursday 31st January 2019

The mud is slightly less today and the weather is dry, for the moment!

The building has changed again, with working doors appearing in doorways and re-adjusting our consideration of the building yet again.

The nearly completed structure is crying out for some internal warmth and light from a regular and well managed fire.   A real wood fire is an essential and integral part of any traditional structure and serves a range of purposes (obviously heat and light for daily life) including the less obvious task of maintaining and preserving the organic raw materials used in its construction.  

Firstly, a fire obviously produces regular levels of heat that dries any accumulated dampness in the thatched roof, walls and floors.  This regular drying discourages the development of fungal spores and prevents organic materials from rotting.

Secondly, the smoke that is produced by a well maintained fire percolates the structure, its smaller wooden elements such as battens an organic ties and especially the thatch.  This regular smoking prohibits the infestation of the building by rodents and boring insects and significantly increases the longevity of the building’s life and crucially, reducing the need for serious structural repair.  

Fires in traditional buildings can be safely managed with simple rules and procedures, and their educational value cannot be underestimated when considering how schools and the public interact with a building designed to interpret the lives of people in the past.  

My experience of building and using traditional structures for educational and experimental purposes has confirmed the need for small but regular fires to get the best out of a structure on every level.

 Friday 1st February 2019

The changeable weather heralds the official end of my involvement in this project.  

What a fantastic experience its been!  The building has taken on a life of its own due to the incredible volunteers who have not only built it, but who are working towards refining and improving it in the future.  

This team, few of whom had met each other before this project began, have gone from very little or no experience with buildings and projects like these, to being a well rounded, experienced, skilful, confident and passionate bunch of experts!  My regular involvement stops at this point, but I have every confidence in their abilities to use evidence, material knowledge and experimental questions to really bring the house alive for visitors.

Looking back over the last 28 months, it is incredible to see how far this project has come.  The building, a beautiful thing in its own right, is nevertheless, a physical reminder to us all of the people who built it.  It is an impressive example of people coming together for a common goal.

Today, Iris hit the nail on the head when she said “Without “Tribe”, this couldn’t have happened”, and the point is well made.  It has taken that communal spirit and enthusiasm to make it a success. The learning curves involved in this project have been equally impressive and very steep!  Each volunteer has learnt a multitude of skills and understood material properties, and they have practised those skills as the building progressed until they are now expert.  Importantly, and this should not be forgotten, although each new learning phase has been exciting and engaging, what has actually finished each phase and the building as a whole is sheer effort and thousands of hours of sweat and toil.  

We have learned many things about the building and its construction and over the next few months I will compile all of my data and thoughts and let you all know what those things are.  Have we learned what it was like to build in the Neolithic? Well, obviously we are no longer neolithic people, without their inherited construction traditions, or their innate tool efficiency based on a life that only knew stone and bone tool technologies.  But all of us have learnt something of the camaraderie and physical requirements, not to mention motivations and problem solving that a project like this requires. We have made friendships that were unexpected and above all, we have a fuller understanding of the capabilities of our Neolithic ancestors.  It has been a privilege for me to witness a group of people come together and work their socks off while genuinely appreciating the sophistication and knowledge of those Neolithic builders.

I am excited to see what this remarkable group of people bring to the building over the next few years and to see how their skills and enthusiasm will flourish in the house they have built.

I must give huge thanks to the staff at Jersey Heritage who have been nothing but supportive throughout this project.  They have really understood the relevance and importance of a project like this in a modern world that increasingly undervalues traditional skills and ancient practice.  I know they are equally proud of their fantastic volunteers and their amazing achievements during this project and are supporting their future work and goals in the building.  Future plans include exciting developments such as furniture building, a Neolithic garden, some beautiful plank doors, Neolithic pottery, fishing equipment, and bow making. An exciting continuation of an awesome project!


Beeston Bronze Age Structure; Week 6

29th April – 3rd May 2019

Phase 2 Construction Week 6

This week sees the installation of the rafters to form the main roof structure.  The volunteers have spent many days stripping the bark from 24 Ash poles in preparation.  The process of fitting rafters involves the hauling up of the poles onto the timber frame of the building, marking each rafter where it touches the wall plate and purlin, cutting curved notches that match the profile of the wall plate and purlin, then positioning and lashing the rafter in both locations with natural fibre rope.  The process is completed by augering a hole through the rafter and wall plate, and tapping in a perfectly fitting peg to prevent the rafter from twisting.

Initial positioning of principle rafters

Day one saw the construction of the tower scaffold and the installation of the first three rafters that sit in the middle of each purlin.  The volunteers did well, having to learn a new process and method while working at heights.

Looking toward the main doorways

Day two saw another 7 rafters installed and the roof really begins to take shape now!  

Raising and pegging teams finding a good work rhythm

One of the main issues with this roof is the transition in shape, from a roughly circular wall plan to a triangular apex.  The corners of the triangular purlins project beyond the natural 45 degree roof line. We are attempting to solve this using the natural irregularities found in our available rafters, placing those with a natural dogleg on the corners to ride over the purlins.  When these are positioned, we may well have to trim the projecting purlin ends to bring them closer to the roof line.

Intermediate rafters being positioned

While all this has been going on, the unseen heroes of this process have been shaping and refining the pegs that hold the rafters in position.  It sounds easy doesn’t it – peg making? But the making of a finely tuned peg that will drive into a hole, gripping the timber tightly without splitting it out, is a difficult and lengthy job that requires precision, an eye for detail and patience!

Pegged rafter with square lashing
Life at height, the hauling and lashing team taking a break

Away from the roof, Edwin has designed a split oak gate to to form a more fitting to the enclosure.  Along with others, they are shaping oak elements that will come together to complete the project. The first phase involves the making of a pivot block in sandstone to house the hinge member of the gate.  Once again, Edwin is showing his skill and talent in the most remarkable way!

The gate pivot fits like a glove!
The gate taking shape
The gate frame nearly there!
The gate frame hanging and looking beautiful

The volunteers are also learning new lashings (Square lashings) that lock the rafters together with the purlins and wall plates.  Once learned this neat and strong lashing will be employed hundreds of times in the roof to secure the rafters and ring beams (circular battens that form a conical “ladder” on the roof).  A square lashing requires good techniques to do its job…..


Wednesday saw another 7 rafters pegged into position and it looks fantastic!

Suddenly we have a roundhouse!

The interesting central three post structure that has caused such intense thought in the design and construction of this building continues to throw up suggestions in my mind.  Today, while watching the volunteer teams fitting the rafters from the modern access solution of a scaffold tower (fitted awkwardly within the confines of the inner triangle), I wondered if this triangular structure would have served exactly the same purpose in the past.  It would make a very stable tiered working platform – or staging for the installation of rafters during the construction phase. Post construction, the internal staging could be removed, leaving the post and purlin configuration we have built, to serve a range of structural and other purposes.  I know this is a very functional explanation, and I have no doubt that the triangle may have represented some kind of lost meaning, but it would solve the issue of lifting and managing timbers at height.

Rafter positions – the theory
Rafter positions, reality

Thursday saw the last straightforward rafters positioned and work starting on the final three.  These three rafters run from the wall plate to the very points of the triangular purlins. The temptation here would be to simply drop a rafter into the natural cruck formed by the crossing purlins, however, this would cause serious problems in the pitch of the roof at these positions and cause a real headache during the thatching stage.

The triangular purlins, and short secondary purlin just to the right of the post

In order to prevent this, there are many possible solutions, but the volunteers have suggested a neat and practical method.  The aim is to run the final rafters up to the tops of the inner posts without disrupting the roof line by lashing in short purlins that join the two rafters at either side of the proposed location.  This forms a platform for the tricky rafters to rest, and be lashed onto. However, it is important structurally that these rafters don’t just float and rely on the suspended lashings for strength, so the ends of the last rafters will be cut at 45 degrees in order for them to butt up against the inner posts so the roof weight is transferred directly to the main structure of the building.  

Final fitting and lashing of a rafter

The result is quite neat and relatively straightforward to achieve.

Friday saw the completion of the rafters, and the removal of the very modern tower scaffold to reveal the glory of this fine building!  

The roundhouse grows from its environment – hugging the ground like a timber limpet!

The main structural timbers are now positioned, and we head inevitably toward the lighter framework that will support the thatched roof!

Well done everyone – a great week!

There’s a roof over our heads!

Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 5

1st – 5th April 2019

Phase 1 Construction Week 5

This week, we return to late winter once more, with rain and cold.  

The tasks before us remain the shaping and fitting of the wall plates and purlins that form the horizontal elements of the main structure.  

Our two day delay from high winds is still with us, so we are due to finish Phase 1 building (the structural frame) by the end of Tuesday and then we can move on to Phase 3 (the roof frame) from Wednesday onward.

Creating and fitting the mortises, tenons, and half joints that make the interlocking framework of wall plates (a bit like a giant timber bicycle chain that sits on the post tops) is a technical process that can’t be rushed.  Each timber requires various shapes to be cut into it, and then to be matched with both of its adjoining timbers to ensure they act as a single unit. This involves an initial fitting at ground level to get the basic fit correct.  The aim is to them put them in place at the post tops, interlocking them as we go to form a chain.

The worst possible outcome at this stage is to undercut the joints – thus creating a situation where they don’t fit first time, have to be removed, re-cut, and fitted again, so we are taking time to try and ensure a “First Time Fit”.

Tuesday afternoon saw the first wall plates being lifted into position – most of them fitting beautifully.  It was great to see the volunteers work so well as a team to lift the timbers into place, and the obvious pride they felt (as do I!) at their achievements so far.  Wednesday saw the completion of the wall plates – the continuous and sinuous shapes of the circular timbers now mark the outline of the building and its scale and beauty are impressive!

The weather has certainly not helped us this week.  Cold and wet are not the best conditions to be attempting detailed joinery in large timbers, but despite this, the volunteers have soldiered on to produce good work.

The installation of the purlins (the horizontal timbers that link the three tall central posts) has been understandably delayed slightly as the height of the construction increases and the weather has deteriorated.

A drainage gully, filled with loose stone has been started on the quarry side of the structure, with a view to taking some of the rain water away from the eventual building interior.  

The square tenons have also been pegged using freshly made oak pegs.  These will not hold the building up, but simply prevent movement in the mortise and tenon joints.

Work has also begun on the construction of a more fitting gateway to the compound, with volunteers hewing oak posts and a lintel to form a frame.  The dead hedge that mostly surrounds the site can then be run up to the gateway and allow us to remove the slightly incongruous paling fence.

The week ended on a high with the completion of the main timber frame and the pegging of all the square tenons – and doesn’t it look fantastic!

Next time we begin the process of installing the 24 Ash rafters to form the basic roof shape!

Well done All!  


Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 4

25th – 29th March 2019

Phase 1 Construction Week 4

We have a calm and dry week forecast for this construction week – which will be in contrast to the high winds and rain of last visit.

We are picking up where we left off with the erection of the final posts – and the preparation, shaping and installation of the wall plates that will link the post tops to form a strong support for the roof frame to sit on.

The placement of the first 8 wall posts last week raised a couple of issues that we will need to solve.  The first is the issue of materials versus archaeological evidence. We are unable in 2019, to understand precisely some of the construction decisions made by those Bronze Age builders, simply because we no longer have access to the specific timber that was available to them.  In consequence, we are faced with post holes that require very particular shapes of wood to join them together, and although we might understand what those specific pieces of timber would look like, and what dimensions they would have been, we do not have the luxury of hunting through the local forests to find them.  Such an issue faces us between Posts 8 and 9 (the proposed door location), where the span of the gap between posts would require a very particular shape of timber to maintain a doorway, span the posts, and keep the roof pitch at a feasible pitch. This is not available to us, and so I have looked again at the evidence to see if any solutions offer themselves to us.

As it happens, the evidence shows a posthole (F28) that sits at the very centre of this span – and would support two wall plates in exactly the right place – but which has a later infill.  The arguments surrounding the use of this post hole are many and endless, but at this stage, and given our constraints in material selection – imposed by our modern landscape – I am happy to go ahead and place F28 as a structural post.

We now face the challenge of selecting wall plates to span the gaps between posts, and to mortise and tenon them so them overlap each other,  fit well, and provide the correct support height for the rafters to achieve their pitch of around 45 degrees.

This work has been carried out with bronze tools in places, to test the time and effort required to produce accurate circular mortises in both Ash and Oak timbers.  Each mortise effectively cuts through one half of each log, allowing two timbers to overlap and the mortises to match. Measuring and marking out is critical at this stage to limit any errors to a minimum.  That said, even the most carefully measured joints will inevitably require adjustment once we begin to fit them into position. This is done approximately on the ground first, overlapping the timbers at somewhere near their correct angles and matching the mortise holes.

We have also solved a remaining issue with the post positioning.  The gap between posts 10 and 1 is wide (over 4 metres) and relies on the installation of a long and very bent wall plate to maintain the imaginary circular line of the walls.  Our available materials do not give us the freedom to achieve this, so we have to solve this problem in another way. My solution is to place a Prop at mid point between the posts, but on the imagined carving line of the walls that will maintain the roof pitch at around 45 degrees.  This prop will sit on a pad stone and be linked to posts 10 and 1 with two mortised wall plates. I suspect this issue is one of available materials, and at least our solution will not change the available archaeological evidence – in terms of post holes that weren’t there!

The sound of mauls hitting chisels, axes, bronze tools and wooden wedges fills the air as teams of volunteers split larch Larch logs in preparation for furniture and interior fittings, trim the tenon pegs to size on the post tops, cut deep circular mortises into our remaining wall plates, and hew the tricky half joints that will allow the wall plates to meet as pairs over each post.

Our aim is to prepare and match the wall plates on the ground first, and then to have a couple of lifting days when the building will lurch forward again in visible progress!


Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 3

11th – 15th March 2019

Phase 1 Construction Week 3

Our false spring last visit has given way to far more seasonable weather this week.  High winds and heavy rain are forecast for the middle of the week.

Our aim (weather allowing!) is to put in as many of the structural posts as we can – starting with the three tall central ones.  As always when lifting heavy things vertically, we need to take things steady, with safety being paramount on site.

Monday saw the team prepare the site.  Holes were widened, small “A” frames were constructed to support the posts at the correct angle on their prepared ramps, and the directions of pull were finally chosen and rigged to enable the most efficient raising possible.  A Large “A” frame was also constructed to provide a better pulling angle to each post. The issues with raising 6 metre timbers vertically focus around the acute angle of pull from the pulling team to the top end of the post. The more acute this angle is, the more effort is required to make the post move.  To alleviate this, we have ramped the post holes in order to take the lying posts from a horizontal position to around 10 degrees off the ground. The second step is to increase the angle of pull further (to around 45 degrees) by running the pulling rope from the post top – through the apex of a large “A” frame and then down to the pulling teams.  This should (theoretically) make the pull as efficient as possible. However, this operation is not only theoretical. It requires many things to come together in one glorious moment, including volunteer strength, weather and ground conditions, and some would believe a nod from the Gods!

Tuesday saw the gathering of around 30 volunteers to assist with the raising of the three central posts.  By far the most complex stage of construction, these three post (previously jointed with tenon pegs and mortises) needed to be positioned in their prepared holes at exactly the right angles to make their joints work.

Our first lift failed due to several factors.  The sides of the prepared post hole were too soft to hold the post upright without continued support, the movement of the post from its central axis of lift as it came up to vertical, and the weight of the ash pole “A” frame, once it was past vertical, was enough to drag the post out of its footing.

We put the failed post to one side and thought again.  This time with a main pulling team (pulling the white rope – through the “A” frame and to the post top), two lateral teams (pulling blue ropes from each side of the post to keep it in line with its main axis), and a backstop team – holding a red rope (to stop the post moving too far forward under the load of the main “A” frame.

This time, with small movements and continual checking and adjustment, the post inched its way to a vertical position where it was held by the 4 teams while soil was tamped in around its base in thing, well compacted layers.

The process was repeated perfectly for the remaining two posts, and as the thin crescent moon appeared overhead at 4.30pm, all three posts stood magnificently at the centre of the building footprint.

What a team! – great effort, patience and ideas to make the task work.

Wednesday and Thursday saw the forecast arrival of storms across the UK and high winds at Beeston Castle, so, as expected, the site was closed to construction.

Friday saw the team pressing on with the placing of wall posts in their prepared holes.  Compared to the tall central posts, this proved to be less of a challenge, although care and patience was required to lift properly and tamp the soil around their bases firmly.

The wall outline takes shape…

While this was happening, I was assessing the overall shape of the building, and the pitch of its potential roof at various points.  From the outset, this project and its evidence has raised difficult questions in terms of reconstruction.

The apparently sporadic spacing of wall posts in a rough circular arrangement, combined with what appears to be a triangular central post arrangement, has always raised issues of creating some kind of uniform roof pitch.  During the drawing and model building stage of the concept, I solved these issues in various ways, but (as is always the case), the difference between a model and the real timbers is always a further step along the chain of complexity that results in a building that works. My job next week will be to work out how to solve some of the full scale issues that are becoming visible to us on the ground.

Despite the two day weather setback, we have had another great week.


Well done team!