Neolithic Longhouse; 10th – 14th December 2018

Monday 10th December 2018

The final project week for 2018 has begun!  This week sees the continuation of daubing (what an epic task!) to see the building weather and wind proof.  There is final dressing of the ridge to be done – making sure the butted reed is tight and dressed to the correct angle to shed the rain.  

Carpentry continues internally with the shaping and installing of three thresholds for the main doors.  These will be half split timbers that fit at ground level between the door posts. The thresholds will enable the doors to pivot in a solid base and provide a hard wearing surface for the main points of footfall.

This week also sees the attempted splitting of a large Sweet Chestnut log which was recently felled at La Hougue Bie.  This log – large and knotty in places will be the final challenge for our skilled and experience volunteers. The aim is to split out some broad planks that will become the main doors of the house.

Tuesday 11th December 2018

The log splitting continues today.  Unfortunately, after all our hard work, we have discovered substantial rot in the heart of the timber.  This will inevitably change the way we use the timber, and is already modifying our original hope of three plank Zurich doors to two plank doors instead.  This is another example of some of our contingent thinking and problem solving based on our lack of “Neolithic Forest”. If we had access to those climax woodlands of long ago, we would have chosen a tree for its straight grain and splitting qualities, and if we had discovered rot within, we would have wandered a relatively short distance from home to find and fell another suitable candidate.  Some of our decisions on this project have been based on our limited and finite timber resources.

Today, another session of daubing took place.  We are, slowly but surely, making our way towards the end of this epic phase.  The building becomes darker inside day by day. We await the first lighting of a fire!

Wednesday 12th December 2018

Today saw a serious organisation of the longhouse and site. Daubing continued with good work and progress from several volunteers.  The shutters are now becoming the only openings in finished walls!

We also organised the remaining thatch and stored it inside the house so it can dry off a bit over the wettest months.  Tim has also been working on a special finale to the roof. Using his skills and imagination – he has created something on the gable end to give the building character! All will be revealed tomorrow at the topping out ceremony.  

Derek has been slogging through the enormous log – cutting out the dead wood and starting to split the second half into quarters.  We have decided there will only be enough good timber to create one of the large doors! A bit disappointing – but we can only work with what we have!

We have also been cutting out any straight lengths from our remaining willow.  These will form the “Zales” of our hurdles in the New Year. We are hoping, with good stacking, to survive until fresh willow is harvested.

Thursday 13th December 2018

A bitterly cold continental wind is with us today.  Volunteers are wearing multiple layers and working hard (as always) to keep warm.  Today heralds the official finishing of the roof! Volunteers and Jersey heritage staff have come to daub for the morning and to celebrate the completion of the roof with a BBQ and drinks.  

Tim’s finale was revealed at lunchtime – the head of a wild boar – with crest, tusks and personality – made with reed and wheat straw – what a great effort and fantastic way of finishing the roof!

I have to say, its reaching that very emotional part of the project where we look ahead to the next few years without my direct input.  The volunteers are such a fantastic team of individuals with real skills and knowledge and motivation to carry on with tasks and experiments.  It will be a real wrench to say goodbye.

Over lunch we made a toast to Sweat!  This project has been born of research, material knowledge, practical skills, countless debates and theories  – but all of those aspects would have amounted to nothing without the key ingredient of Sweat! This precious commodity, the sap of endurance and dogged determination, runs like a stream, through every aspect of this building.  It is a physical glue that holds together the friendships, knowledge and skills that this project has required, and in the appropriate words of Hesiod,

 

“Before the gates of excellence, the High Gods have placed sweat!

Hard is the road thereto, and steep at first,

Though when the heights are reached, then there is ease,

Though grievously hard is the winning.”

 

Friday 14th December 2018

 

A clear day heralds the end of another year on the project!  The site is looking tidier, the building is looking beautiful and we have consumed many mince pies and sausages!  

Astra has finished shutter 4 in the main hall – and the final elements of daubing can now go ahead.

When I return in January for the last official visit, we will focus on building doors, laying floors and getting the building ready for the wonderful volunteers to take over and populate with the projects, experiments and artefacts they intend to make.

A momentous week indeed!

Well done All!

 

 

Neolithic Longhouse; 26th – 30th November 2018

Monday 26th November 2018

The forecast this week is for heavy rain at times – but this morning is relatively bright – if a little chilly!

We have set aside this week to hopefully finish the roof.  The thatched ridge will form the water tight cap that keeps the weather out of the building.  There are any number of ways of thatching a ridge, and a variety of materials suited to the task (depending on the method chosen).  This roof will employ the simplest version of all. In the modern world we are familiar with the sight of beautifully ornate thatched ridges on roofs.  Historically this seems to be a very recent phenomenon – illustrated by paintings and early photographs where early butted ridges become ornately decorated in the Victorian period.  What is clear is that any number of thatching methods exist that are founded on local tradition that often stems from the use of particular local materials and their specific properties.  Our roof is employing a simple ridge that utilises our most abundant material (in this case reed). It may well be the case that as this ridge version degrades, other materials may be tested that are also on the island such as sedge and bracken.

As with all of our new construction stages, the initial learning curve is very steep!  Today we tested the process of forming a ridge using teams on both sides of the roof. We found quickly that it is a task that requires fewer people to do well (one on each side and one tying beneath).  The process involves securing an inverted (thick end at the top of the roof) bundle on the leeward side of the roof and dressing its butt end to the same slope as the previous layer on the windward side.  This is then covered by a bundle on the windward side and both sways lashed through the roof – beneath the internal timber ridge. This effectively squeezes the two sways together and – with the thatch acting as a wedge, prevents the ridge from slipping off.

Tuesday 27th November 2018

Our first real day of rain on the project for months and months!  The site is wet and the building interior is extremely dim. We still have most of the north side daubing to complete too, so we need to be careful to allow in as much light as possible on days like these.  

One positive is that we can now see the advantage of the daub “robber trenches” as drains.  The water from the roof is dripping into these perfectly and taking the water away from the interior floor level and post holes.

Inevitably work progresses more slowly in foul weather, but this morning we are trying to pass on our lessons from yesterdays ridge thatching to new teams of volunteers.  The aim is to have this knowledge in more than three brains so work can continue when we have three people on site.

The ridge is progressing and our intention is to finish the ridge this week if the weather allows!

Daubing is in full swing with teams working on the south side of the building.  We are also clearing around the building to make way for schools who are hoping to come and daub the building tomorrow.

 

Wednesday 28th November 2018

After heavy rain last night and high winds forecast for today, the pressure is on to complete the ridge this week.  We have settled into something like a routine with the method. Three people working closely from both sides of the roof and beneath.  

Today also saw the arrival of 4 schools to help with our daubing mission.  It was great to see so many enthusiastic and excited faces getting stuck into the job.  It is always interesting to see how quickly children adapt to new situations and this was no different.  After an initial briefing, the teams of year 3 and year 6 children set about their work with gusto. We roped off the ladder areas inside and out and from my position in the heavens I could see how much they all really enjoyed the experience of contributing to something that is permanent.  There is no better way of learning about the past than actually doing it!

 

Thursday 29th November 2018

After a night of gales and heavy rain, work continues on the final six metre section of ridge.  Nothing was moved on the roof by the wind last night which conforms the quality of our volunteer thatching.  Today we have more schools visiting to push on with the daubing of the remaining walls.

Daubing is another one of those jobs that on the face of it seems easy and straight forward.  Its just a case of throwing some mud onto the walls right? The reality is very different and once again teaches us the difference between understanding the process of doing something and the skills and refinement required to do that thing well and beautifully.  Daub making is a skill. It requires an understanding of the local raw material (earth or clay) and it properties. It requires the understanding of how much or little fibre needs to be added to reduce its shrinkage when it dries on a wall. The amount of water added to the dry daub is a critical factor to success – too much and it becomes impossible to use and will shrink, too little and its is impossible to use, won’t bind with daub through the wattle panel and simply won’t stick to the wall.  The application of the daub also requires skill. Working it in the right way, blending and merging it, applying at the right thickness, and of course the standard of finish, are all elements where the artisan has the capability of making a beautiful and functional wall.

All of this skill and knowledge only comes with the act of actually doing it of course.  The more of this “simple” task we do, the more we realise it is anything but simple to achieve fine results!

 

 

 

Friday 18th November 2018

Yesterday – with minutes to spare before the light failed, we managed to place the final bundles of thatch on the ridge!  What a great achievement by the whole team. Looking back at the sheer hours and effort that have gone into this roof, its slightly strange to think its finished!

 

 

Today, we are making some final touches and dressing the ridge to shape.  The smoke hole area of the roof has been defined and lashed using various methods to keep the thatch in place and to allow the hole to be kept open if we decide.  

The roof has taken 1200 bundles of reed and many metres of cordage to complete.  It is only one possible method of thatching a roof and has raised various issues during its construction that should be considered.

What is clear is the amount of experience and skill our volunteers have learnt on this project.  They are now more than capable of problem solving with thatching materials and repairing when the roof begins to age.  It has been the most epic phase of the construction so far – requiring hundreds of hours on ladders by dedicated and weather resistant people.

 

I take my hat off to you all for such a wonderful achievement – and doesn’t it look stunning!!

 

Neolithic Longhouse; November 12th – 16th 2018

Monday 12th November 2018

The Neolithic Gods are clearly with us on this project!  Somehow, the weather seems to have favoured us over the last year in an extraordinary way and yet again, despite the atrocious weather at the weekend, we are welcomed back to the project with bright and mild days this week!

Today the volunteer teams are quickly back into the swing of it after a three week break.  Inside we have the final wattle sections being constructed in the livestock end of the building.  Work on this continued while I was away and this end of the building is nearly complete. Outside, more volunteers are starting on the daubing of these sections and the race is now on to complete the walls so we can lay the floor!.  It will be fascinating to see the effect on Derek and Edward’s shutters when the walls are complete. Will they provide enough light in the darkest end of the building? If not, the potential and knowledge is now there to replace other daubed panels with more shutters.  This building will (as hoped) undoubtedly change and evolve as time goes by and as its functionality raises more and more questions.

The end is also in sight for the roof.  Thatch layer 8 continues on the south side of the roof – half of this layer remains before we move onto layer 9.  Then we tackle the final layer – the ridge!

 

Tuesday 13th November 2018

Fine weather greets us again, although a chilly wind reminds us it is November!

Wattle panels are proceeding at a pace in the livestock end of the building.  Only 2 large panels remain before this end of the building is enclosed.

Daubing also continues at this end of the building.

Tim has trimmed part of the overlapping reed at the ridge line to allow layers 8 and 9 to overlap from the south side.  These last two layers should block out any residual light from the roof and we will begin to get a feel for the final interior space.  

What is clear – even at this stage, is the difference in light levels between the south eastern end of the building (the main entrance) and the livestock end of the building.  The winter sun tracks through the doorways from early morning until around midday. This offers a surprising level of light within the first 6 metre bay of the building by which to work during the winter months. This is then enhanced in the afternoon from around 1.30pm until sunset when the light is given unimpeded access to the end of the building through the open door on the southern wall.  It has been amazing to see the effect of direct low winter sunshine on this area until the sun dipped below the level of the nearby hedge (around 4.30pm). This can’t be accidental can it?

 

Wednesday 14th November 2018

The weather continues to be unseasonably fine and mild.  Today the volunteers are still pressing on with the main tasks of finishing any remaining wattle panels and the final layers of thatch on the south side.  We would like to finish the remaining section of layer 8 and the whole of layer 9 before the end of the week so we can focus on the ridge during the next visit.

We are also installing some horizontal timbers at the front of the building to support the upper wattle work that will eventually seal the gable end.  These lintels sit above the main door lintels and also effectively for m a box frame for a shutter (this may be a simple leather flap or wattle panel or a more elaborate carpentered shutter) that can be opened on days when more light or ventilation is required in the building.

Astra has been working on her shutter this week.  Today she had completed the first stage of matching and joining the two individual ¼ split timbers that will form the shutter.

 

Thursday 15th November 2018

Our first mirky morning of the week.  The mist is hanging over the longhouse and wrapping the site in its quiet blanket.

Thatching team 1 is finishing layer 8 on the south side of the roof.  Their intention is to immediately press on with layer 9. Thatching team two have started layer 9 from the other end of the building.  Our mission is still to try and complete layer 9 by the end of tomorrow!

Astra is forging ahead with the final shutter of the project (for now!) which will fit the frame already in position in the living space.  

Patsy and Edward are working on the last wattle panel in the livestock end of the building!  This end of the building is becoming darker as the days go by and each panel is filled. By the time the daubing is finished it will be the darkest part of the building.  It may be that two shutters and reflected light from the north doorway isn’t enough to illuminate this space, but the volunteers now have all of the skills and know-how to replace wattle panels with more shutters if required.

Today we have also had a site tidy – gathering all of our split and prepared pieces of timber and sorting them into sizes.  This timber will form the framework of furniture, beds, platforms, work benches, and anything else the interior may require.

The final bundles of reed are also being organised into piles for layer 9 and the ridge.  Layer 9 requires 60 bundles (one side) and the ridge will need around 100 bundles.

 

Friday 18th October 2018

 

The work week is ending with another foggy morning!

Two thatching teams are busy working on layer 9 with the hope of finishing today.  We also have a team of volunteers on daubing – working on the newly installed livestock wattle panels.

Derek has finished one of the tricky wattle panels at the gable end and is moving onto the other one.

What a great end to the week! It is so fantastic to see the completion of all the thatch layers.  We have a weeks rest now and then we push on with the completion of the roof with the ridge.

 

Well done All!

 

Neolithic Longhouse; October 15th – 19th 2018

Monday 15th October 2018

Work begins amid the leaf fall of autumn!  The roof is looking a little shaggy at the moment as the short reed from each bundle are blown and weathered out of the roof.  This is a natural part of the thatching process if reed is not thoroughly processes when harvested. Traditionally, harvested reed was shaken to remove short lengths and other plants.  Modern mechanised harvesting processes cut and bundle the reed without great care. The shaggy appearance at this stage is NOT indicative of a poorly thatched roof though. Only the reed that is too short to be gripped by its sway will make its way out of the roof and so won’t affect the overall tightness of the ties.

Today, in damp autumnal conditions, we are continuing with layer 7 around the livestock end of the building.  This will be the last layer that covers this end of the building, the remaining two will stop short and form a “hood” or “cowl” that gives any potential smoke hole shelter from the weather.

Daubing also continues with the continuation of walls on the northern side.

We have conducted a small experiment to see what volume of milk will be required to complete the floor.  A 50cm x 50cm x 15cm section of floor was removed by spade and loosened to produce a fine lump-free soil.  This was mixed with water in stages until the required consistency was achieved. We found that 8 litres of liquid produced a stiff mix while 10 litres produced a wet mix.  To complete the floor (66 square metres) we are looking at around 2500 litres of milk. The test also looked at bonding the floor mix with the levelled soil beneath. An area was chosen and half of it thoroughly wetted, leaving the other half dry.  The wet mix was then dumped on the area and levelled by hand to a depth of around 8cm (its natural slump) When this section of floor is “cheese” hard, we will burnish the surface with smooth stones to compress the damp particles and form a hard wearing surface.  

By the end of this week we should know more about the best way to approach this kind of floor using the local soil.  

 

Tuesday 16th October 2018

 

Another damp and misty morning covers the Longhouse.  

Thatching teams have now finished layer 7 on the north side and are working on layer 8.  This will be the first layer to form the hood of a potential smoke hole. Making this reed sweep over the downward curving thatch roll on the ridge will be reasonably tricky, but if we can pull it off it should look great!  

Daubing is pressing on today.  Remaining panels on the north wall are being filled to produce a solid barrier against the weather.  Many months ago, our ideas included leaving gaps at the top of each woven panel to act as openings. The idea was to allow “free” light to enter the building rather than to have to burn materials to create light.  Our thinking has changed in part. The north wall will now be solid (those gaps are being filled in with extensions to the wattle frameworks) because there will be little reflected light under the eaves on the north side.  

Another consideration is the issue of creating too much moving air in the area of the fire place. Our thinking now is that the north wall is closest to the fire (it is off set towards the north in the original evidence of some buildings) and that ventilation should be minimal to encourage the smoke to rise with the heat of the fire and push through the thatch between the purlin and the ridge beams.  Once again, this project illustrates the strength of not having a rigid design at the outset and taking advantage and notice of the options that open themselves as construction continues. The downside of course, is the possibility of forever changing things and frustrating the workforce!

 

Wednesday 17th October 2018

Glorious weather has greeted us today on site.  The sun is out and the weather is calm.

Today, Our willing volunteers are pressing on with thatch layer 9 on the north side of the roof.  Our mission is to finish these final layers of thatch this week so we can then move on to the south side next visit.

Inside, we are testing the use of wattle to finish the planked walls in the livestock end of the building.  The results are reasonably speedy and very sturdy. Three uprights are enough to provide tension in our somewhat “dry” hazel and willow on site.  Ideally we would probably harvest fresh materials for this task, but we have so much material left over from last winter it seemed a waste to not try and use it.

 

Thursday 18th October 2018

This morning we have two thatching teams on the roof.  Team 1 (Astra, Iris and Christopher) are working on layer 7 on the south side of the roof, while Team 2 (Danny, Tim and Mike) are working on layer 9 on the north side of the roof.

Other jobs continue inside the building including the fitting of Edwards finished Shutter and frame into the livestock end of the building, the construction of wattle panels around Derek’s finished window and the filling of other gaps.

Daubing also continues on the north side of the house to complete the walls.

 

Friday 18th October 2018

 

The work week is ending with another fine and bright day.  Overall we have been incredibly lucky with the weather over the last two years!  This week marks the projects two year anniversary – and its amazing to see where we’ve come from.  Our visitors this week have included schools who came to us a year ago and it is encouraging to see their reactions to what has been achieved.  The volunteers have turned from a group of random individuals to a team of friends who are skilled and comfortable with any new challenge the building demands.  Along with this, the standard of work has improved dramatically, from the early days when the materials and methods were so new and alien, to the levels of skill that can only come from a deep familiarity with materials, tools and techniques.  Overall, the journey has been impressive for all of those involved.

Today the sun is bathing the stunning longhouse in its autumnal light and, after many weeks of thatching, the roof is nearing completion.  An even more dramatic impact of this, and the daubing of walls, is the dramatic drop of light levels inside the house. We all have to let our eyes adjust to the new dimness of an interior upon entering.  Once again, it raises the question of openings (windows especially) in houses such as these.

Our decision to incorporate a few shutters in the living space and livestock section is already having a visible effect on light levels.  I personally have no doubt that windows would have been included in these structures. For me the availability of “free” light combined with their known ability to fill holes with well carpentered solutions (like the Zurich door) suggests the use of shutters or similar openings in the buildings.

The livestock end of the building is really coming together with the installation of strong wattle panels.  This part of the building now feels like a room with the walls nearing completion and the joists of the mezzanine floor creating the feel of a ceiling.  

Daryl and Edward have finished shutters 2 and 3.  It is fascinating to see how different brains work with a similar starting point of evidence and materials.  Edward has followed Derek’s lead and produced a lovely miniature version of the Zurich door using two narrow planks to fill his frame.  Daryl was interested in pursuing a different method and used a broad plank with a central pivot to do the same task. The differences are obvious and interesting, both use known technology from the period (hinge pegs and box frames) but the shape of the starting raw material suggested different solutions.  Again, this highlights the issue of limited evidence. As archaeologists we tend to fixate on specific artefacts rather than the broad technology they represent. This can result in specific methods being used across broad geographical areas – in which there are often very different material sets. From the beginning, we have looked at the broad models of technology based on the archaeological evidence and applied then to solving the problems we have encountered using the local materials we have available.

Another good week from the volunteers.  Our next visit should see the roof completed!

 

Neolithic Longhouse; October 1st – 5th 2018

Monday 1st October 2018

The mornings are darker and the evenings are drawing in.  Winter is coming! The project enters its final stage with a dual focus this week.  

Daubing is now a race against time.  It it important to get the walls covered in order to protect the building from the inevitable wind and rain that will come with the onset of winter.  Today our trusty volunteers are carrying on with this task. Daubing is a labour intensive job that involves the digging, mixing, and applying daub of just the right consistency to the willow and hazel wattle panels.  Issues and questions of colour can come later; but for now we have to push on with covering the walls.

The roof also enters a final stage.  Thatching layers 1-6 are complete and we now turn our attention to the ridge.  Volunteers are creating thatch rolls to fit between the crucks of the rafters. This roll will support the final ridge and create a mass of reed that will stop any wayward drips from entering the hall itself.  It will also give us a mass of material to peg or tie the final ridge covering to.

 

Tuesday 2nd October 2018

The first section of 6 metre thatch roll has been placed at the top of the ridge.  This forms a depth of thatch to stop any wayward drips, but crucially creates a high point that increases the pitch if the thatch that overlies it.  The ridge of the rood must shed water as quickly as possible to minimise its ingress into the building. Thatch layer seven has begun, This is the first of two layers that will rest on the thatch roll.  The ridge is now being worked in 6 metre sections to allow us to problem solve as we go. There are any number of ways to create a weather proof ridge, but each one requires skill and care to do properly.

Elsewhere on the building, Derek is working on fitting a latch to his beautiful shutter.  Edward is working on fitting window frame 2 in the livestock end of the building while Franco is doing the same with frame 4 in the main hall.  The last “tie beam” is in place in the building and the livestock mezzanine floor can now be extended over the passageway.

 

Wednesday 3rd October 2018

Today sees the thatching of layer 8 on the first section of roof.  The reed is now shooting beyond the thatch roll at the top and creating good coverage at the peak.  

We have extra volunteers today to help with our daubing challenge!  We still have many panels left to do – but even two panels a day (which is a good amount of work for 6 people) adds up to an important contribution to the project.

Window frame 4 is being fitted and Edward is nearing the completion of his shutter.

We are also taking the opportunity in this fine weather, to have a good site tidy.  The thatching process tends to leave a fair bit of waste material around the building, but a carefully controlled fire deals with it pretty rapidly.

We have decided to proceed with thatch layer 9 on the north side of the building.  The idea is to create a thickness of reed at the ridge on the lee side of the prevailing weather.  This can then be trimmed close to the thatch roll and over lapped by three layers of thatch on the south side of the roof.

Thursday 4th October 2018

This morning we have two thatching teams on the roof.  Team 1 (Astra, Iris and Tim) are working on layer 9, while Team 2 (Pippa, Mike and Bill) are working on layer 7 in the middle section of the roof.

The last thatch roll is made and ready for positioning at the top of the roof.  The rolls are made by estimating the thickness required (in this case, thick enough to fill the cruck between the overlapping rafters at the top of the roof), and then measuring out the length required on the ground.  

Pairs of pegs are then tapped into the ground to contain the thatch as it is sorted. The ridge roll has 1 ½ bundles of reed per metre of its length. The bundles are laid out between the pegs and overlapped to provide the correct volume.  Their ties are then cut and the reed sorted to avoid abrupt joins. The thickness of the potential roll is continually confirmed during this process to avoid the roll being excessively thick or tin along its length. Once we are happy, the bundle is lashed (I prefer a blanket stitch) to maintain its shape and enable it to be carried up onto the roof.

The third 6 metre thatch roll forms the ridge shape at the livestock end of the building.  This end of the roof is relatively complicated, simply because we don’t yet know if we will need a smoke hole in this position or not.  From the start this build has had to change at times as each new stage unveils questions and answers that were impossible to foresee at the design and model stage.  One of the more obvious questions concerning houses like these is “Did they have smoke holes in the roof?” The short answer is that we simply don’t know! But before we leave it at that, why don’t we ask “what do we know?”  Experimental archaeology has tried many options for ventilating smoke in replica buildings. My own experience in the construction and use of many different “traditionally” built houses is that smoke holes are sometimes required and sometimes not.  The type of roof covering, size and shape of building, surrounding vegetation, orientation of building, the type of fire used in the structure and even the species of timber being burned, all have critical influence on the decision for, or against, smoke holes.  This building is being thatched with water reed, and in relatively light layers (compared to modern thatched roofs).

The goal is to allow the smoke particles from a cooking/heating fire to percolate through the thatch layers (driven from beneath by the heat of the fire).  My experience tells me that we “shouldn’t” need a vent in the roof. However, this is a longhouse – and my experience of building Viking Age longhouses with shingle roofs and central vents tells be that any smoke from the fire that misses the smoke hole cools and lingers in both ends of the building unless there is some kind of vent in the apex of the gable ends.  Returning to our Neolithic Longhouse; given its length, if all the smoke is not driven through the central portion of the roof by the fire beneath, I suspect it may linger – especially in the entirely enclosed “livestock” end of the building. Our solution to this currently unknown issue is to create the potential for having a smoke hole in this end of the roof. When we eventually test the fire, we will have to option of opening a smoke hole without the need for retro-engineering.  Of course, ancient builders would not have had this issue as their experience in seeing and building successful houses would have answered these questions before they started building. This entire discussion is a product of trying to re-invent the process of Neolithic house building.

 

Friday 5th October 2018

 

Another fine and warm day has dawned at la Hougue Bie.  The teams are in for the last session of the week. Work continues with two thatching teams.  Team one is working on layer 7 while team 2 works on layer 8. Today works also starts on a rough levelling of the floors in the house.  The house frame has been built “by eye” with no use of levels. What has become noticeable as the frame has been finished, is the unevenness of the floors in places.  The floor still has to be constructed properly – but at this stage we have begun to remove soil from the high point and deposit it in the low points.

More shutters are being made to finish the window frames.  Steadily, the building is beginning to reveal some of its beautiful detail!

A week of unseasonably warm weather has come to an end and we have cracked the technical detail of the roof ridge.

Well done to the team!

 

Neolithic Longhouse; September 10th – 15th 2018

Monday 10th September 2018

We are back at work after the summer break.  Everyone is refreshed after their break and what an amazing summer it’s been!

It feels like we are on the last leg of this fantastic project.  The next few months will see the building finished as a blank canvas, with, frame, roof, walls and floor complete.  The next few weeks will see discussions between our fantastic volunteers and to identify the first series of tasks that will start to fit out the building (in terms of beds, storage, upper floors, shelves) and will form a range of activities and tasks that turn the building into an interesting attraction for visitors.

Today we press on with thatching the roof.  We have around one more layer of thatch to put on before we then have to start working on the ridge.  The ridge will consist of several thatch rolls that fill the cruck between the rafters and form a dense mass of reed beneath the finished ridge.  We then need to trim the rafter ends and thatch the final two layers over the top. The final touch will be the addition of a cap – that may be reed, wheat straw, bracken or even turf.

We are also marking out and de-turfing the ditch that will run around the building.  This ditch will act as a drip trench to soak away water rainfall from the roof – but will also double as a robber trench to get our daub material from (topsoil).  

 

Tuesday 11th September 2018

Today sees the start of daubing at a determined scale!  Our test panels have had several months to dry and endure the weather, giving us time to see how well they work.  The results are positive. The local soil sees to produce a fine grade daub that resists weather well, is relatively easy to mix and apply and gives a good surface finish.  The key to mixing daub is ensuring a high fibre content to prevent excessive shrinkage and cracking.

We are using hair and hay as the fibre for our daub.  Clay is commonly used for daub (in clay rich areas) and animal dung can be used as the fibre element as the digestive system of the animal processes the plant fibres to a high degree, but our testing has shown that the local loess soil is a very good daub material when mixed with amble fibre.

We have extra help today from a group of volunteers from Lloyds Commercial Bank.  They are really getting stuck into the task of daubing and the walls are becoming dark and solid from the ground upwards!

Today we have also started giving serious thought to the second mezzanine floor.  This floor will be installed at the main entrance end of the building and enable further storage of tools, repair materials, harvest and fodder crops.  We have thought long and hard about how this floor will function and how best to enable light to access the heart of this end of the building.

 

Wednesday 12th September 2018

So, an interesting day today.  Teams have carried on with thatching (of course) while Bill has been fitting and securing joists for the mezzanine floor above the livestock end of the building.  The tie beams and joists for the second mezzanine floor have also been shaped and positioned ready for fixing.

James Dilley (flint knapper and ancient technologist) was here today to be filmed making a Neolithic Flint Axe rough out.  It was great to see James again and great for the volunteers to see outstanding knapping skills at close hand. The sound of a real Neolithic skill filled the longhouse – a sound that was undoubtedly heard in building like this 6000 years ago.

This afternoon, between jobs, our volunteers met with Jersey Heritage staff to discuss ideas for the exciting future of the building.  From the very beginning, this project was as much about the volunteers as the building, and it is great to see them putting forward great ideas for the kinds of crafts, skills, maintenance and improvements to the longhouse and its environs.  This project will clearly go from strength to strength when the building is “finished”.

 

Thursday 13th September 2018

 

After rain last night, the site is damp and autumnal this morning.  Iris, Danny and James are thatching this morning in an attempt to get closer to finishing layer 6.  I am dressing the thatch on the south side – making sure each layer is the correct distance from the previous.  Dressing involves the use of a leggit or paddle that is used to pat (sometimes harder!) the ends of the reed upwards towards the roof ridge.  This process neatens the roof, but critically also tightens the reed beneath the sways that clamp it into position.

Bill and Mike are finishing lashing the joists in the first mezzanine floor so we can proceed with making it a usable and safe surface for storage.

Derek is coming to the end of his task to make a shutter and window frame.  We have all had brief glimpses of it partially fitted – and it is clearly a fine piece of work using known Neolithic carpentry construction – can’t wait!

The tie beams in the entrance way mezzanine are now being lashed to the posts using some of the fantastic cordage Astra has made.  There are three uprights tie beams and we have decided to lash each one with a different type of cordage, Nettle, Sweet Chestnut, and Willow.  This is a lovely piece of detail that will be clearly visible to visitors.

 

Friday 14th September 2018

Layer 6 is nearing completion and we are taking some time to dress and organise the thatch that is already on the roof.  The next phase involves working on the ridge of the roof. The finished thatch ridge will bear the brunt of the weather and accordingly, needs to be substantial, secure and water tight.  Our plan is to create several thatch rolls that will lay along the ridge line and create a depth of thatch at the very peak of the roof. The final two layers of thatch will then overlay these rolls and be trimmed off.  The final stage is to then attach some kind of cap to the whole mass.

Saturday 15th September 2018

A calm sunny morning heralds the end of another week at La Hougue Bie,

Today we are continuing with dressing thatch layers 1-6 in readiness for the final two layers that will run up to, and over the ridge of the building.  We have an enthusiastic team of daubers in the form of Andrea, Anya and Ruth who are mixing and applying our own unique blend to another of the many willow wall panels.

Derek is nearing completion of his amazing shutter and frame, is is impressive to see his commitment to accuracy and finish.  

His standards set the benchmark for other projects on site. Interestingly i don’t think it is in anyway out of place. Existing and new evidence for crafts and carpentry in the Neolithic Period show high levels of finishing and sometimes unnecessary complexity.  Well linings from Germany show the presence of mortise and tenon joints where simple overlapping joints will suffice (as demonstrated in other well linings). The planks are split and shaped but not refined (the well lining was intended not to be seen after all) but the level of sophistication can only hint at the level of finish and refinement that would have been invested in visible items of furniture for example.  

From the start of this project, our mantra has been one of expelling the commonly held belief of the Neolithic as a time of rudimentary adoption of agriculture, all of its associated trappings, and its struggle, almost kicking and screaming into modernity.  Each new discovery confirms to us that this period, coming right at the end of the Stone Age, is abundant with sophistication and a knowledge of materials and their properties that we will never attain again.

Neolithic Longhouse; July 9th – 13th 2018

Monday 9th July 2018

Wow! Summer is definitely here and the sun is baking the volunteers on site.  Apart from thatching, which necessarily has to be exposed to the worst of it, other jobs have retreated to the shade of the trees.

Today sees help on the project from HSBC, who have sent us ten of their best to help out.  The mission today is to move some of the thousand bundles of thatch that were delivered two weeks ago.  We are separating them into short, medium and long bundles and piling them on either side of the roof to enable faster thatching.  

Two thatching teams are continuing work on the roof – we have a large amount of work each week to get the roof in place before the worst of the winter weather rears its ugly head!

We have teams working on peg making, preparing internal timbers for the building, and finishing the last few sections of woven walls before our next visit (which will focus on daubing).

We also have schools on site today – looking at the Neolithic Longhouse and exploring the methods behind its construction.

The ambitious timetable for thatching is to complete two layers per week.  Ironically, this super warm weather will affect this goal as the roof is a pretty hostile and energy sapping environment in full sunshine.  

 

Tuesday 10th July 2018

A grey start to the day has given way to glorious sunshine again.  The very busy site of yesterday has returned to the familiar murmur of voices and the tap tap tap of chisels on wood.

Today we are focusing on thatching once again.  Two teams are working methodically along each side of the roof.  Working on the second layer of thatch is proving to be far trickier than the first.  This is due mainly to the difficulty in positioning ladders in ways that do not hinder access to the thatch and sways.  Volunteers are being careful to stick to the correct thatch thickness (6 bundles per square metre) in order to create a roof that will allow smoke to escape.

We have created new devices to help the thatching process.  Needles have been produced from thinly split chestnut – with long eyes created by boring two holes a few centimetres apart and then cutting out the groove between them to make a slot.  

They are proving to be efficient and certainly possible to make with simple flint tools. The second device supports the thatch while it is being positioned. This plank with a pole attached hasn’t yet got a name – but it is enabling the thatchers to think about one less thing during the complicated process.

Franco, Rosie  and Daryl are working on the  window frames that will be slotted into place.  Edward has begun the second shutter – based on Derek’s first version, which has set the bar extremely high for those following!

 

Wednesday 11th July 2018

Another incredible day of sun at La Hougue Bie!

Our thatching teams are now well into their groove and they are really starting to refine the basic process of thatching into a skill.  The subtleties of thatch thickness, lashing position, dressing and sway thickness are being mastered and the roof is starting to look amazing.  

Layer three has started and our ambitious timetable of two layers per week seems to be possible!

At the gable end, we have put in some temporary barge sticks (a barge board usually faces the end of a roof and contains the roofing material and stops the wind and weather from driving in beneath).  Our barge sticks are lashed to the frame beneath and provide a working edge to the roof. Time will tell if these become permanent features or not. Layer three is now covering the roof to above the purlin height and marks a third of the roof covered.

 

Two window frame are now built and we begin the task of fitting them between pairs of wall posts.  Again, we are exploring different ways of doing this. One method is to “simply” cut notches in the posts to house the ends of the frame sill and lintel – allowing (at least theoretically) the frame to be inserted into the space as a unit.  Another way is to cut mortises into the posts at one end of the sill and lintel and to then push in the other side into locating notches.

 

Thursday 12th July 2018

 

Another astounding day of warm sunshine and clear skies today!

Both thatching teams are working on the third layer – moving from the gable end of the house towards the livestock end of the building.  The slightly more complicated method of working from ladders is well embedded now, with each team finding their own particular rhythm and routine for thatching.  It should be said that working with a regular team greatly improves efficiency. In line with all of the other tasks on this build, by the time the roof is finished, the thatching teams will have learned a method and refined it to a degree where they could thatch the same roof again in two thirds of the time!

The biggest issue we face this week is the heat!  Regular breaks are being taken to ensure we are drinking enough and finding shade.

Friday 12th July 2018

A hazy start heralds the last work day of the week.  The sun is due to shine again at lunchtime, so we have a few precious hours of coolness before the summer continues.

Thatching is the obvious priority again today with a obvious target of trying to finish layer three.  

We are also looking at tidying the site in preparation for possible public involvement during our next visit.  

Ideas are beginning to come in from our volunteers regarding the shutters that are/will be built.  It is interesting to see how the original evidence (in this case, a three plank door from Zurich) fuels a range of other options.  Derek and Edward are making shutters that reflect the Zurich door by having hinge pegs integral to the first plank of the shutter – this enables the shutter to open like a door.  Alternative suggestions have been made however, using the same principles, one of which sees the hinge peg in the centre plank of the shutter, thus enabling the shutter to pivot at its centre – allowing light and air to enter the building without requiring much opening space into the building.

This has been the most incredible week of fine weather and the building has moved on again.  

 

Jersey Neolithic Longhouse; June 4th – 9th 2018

Monday 4th June 2018

After a blazing week of sunshine, Hougue Bie sees some light rain this morning.  

The project is entering a new phase of construction this week with the beginning of thatching.

The volunteers will be taken through the process of this task during the week and have enough hands-on experience to set the method in their minds.

The first stage of the process is to make and attach a thatch roll that sits along the first batten (at eventual eave height).  This is formed by laying out three thatch bundles on the ground, cutting their ties and merging them to form a continuous “sausage”.  The roll is lashed and then attached to the batten using slip knots.

The aim of this roll is to create some height at the eave that forces the subsequent layers of thatch to bend and kick out at their base.  This builds tension into the thatch and helps it to stay in place.

In the afternoon, the first willing volunteers learned the basics of thatching.  Nicky, Tim, Mike and Jane formed a team and learned the knots, the process and the subtleties of placing bundles on a roof.  There first section is 6 metres long and has 18 bundles of thatch in in. A great first go and what will become very familiar territory over the next few project weeks!

Tuesday 5th June 2018

Grey cloud is blanketing Hougue Bie today – but the rain is holding off.  

A range of jobs continue on site.  The main focus this week is to get volunteers up to speed on the theory and practice of thatching.  Tim is transferring his knowledge to Bill and Ed this morning and as the day goes on, we will rotate more people through the process.  Thatching has its own kind of rhythm and often requires more hands than are available. For the straight runs of thatch we are putting 3 bundles of reed on the roof at a time.  Three bundles cover 1 metre of the roof to a depth of around 100 mm (compressed). The process is as follows…

  • Measure a metre on the roof.
  • Attach one end of the sway with a temporary lashing.
  • Roll three bundles of reed under the sway.
  • Clamp the sway in position (with hands or temporary ties).
  • Cut the reed ties (and hold!).
  • Spread the three bundles across the measured metre – ensuring they are untangled and following the rafter line.
  • Thread a thatching needle and push through the thatch around 200 mm from the temporary lashing at the end of the sway.
  • Unthread the needle on the underside – pass the string around a batten and rethread the needle (this is done by someone on the inside of the roof).
  • Pull the needle through the top side and tie the string around the sway – applying as much downward pressure to the sway as possible.  
  • Repeat the last process 3 times to reach the end of the measured metre.
  • Dress the ends of the thatch using a hand or scapula to force it upwards (tightening the thatch and knots) to a finished level.
  • Repeat…

Danny and Astra have finished installing the third wall planks in their respective bays.  Danny has now moved on to trimming the wall plates at the corners of the livestock end of the building.  This is required to allow the roof to curve around the corner rather than make an abrupt turn (making the thatching easier to complete, and importantly, easier to weatherproof.

Astra and Ray are working on the final internal wall sections – using the now familiar wattle technique of horizontal rungs and vertical fill.

Dave is trimming the rafters in the newly thatched porch to stop visitors from banging their heads!

Wednesday 6th June 2018

The grey cloud persists over Hougue Bie.  The first layer of thatch is completed on the north side of the house.  18 metres of the first layer has required 3 bundles of thatch spread across each metre.  This means a total of 54 bundles used so far. This work has been done by one thatching team in a day and a half – while learning a new skill!  Although it looks beautiful and impressive we are all aware that the first layer gives the impression of achieving much in a short space of time, the reality is that there will be another 7 or 8 layers above the first – each taking as long, to reach the top of the roof.  The first 18 metres belies the epic task of thatching a total of 340 metres total length!

Like all of the tasks on this building, an initial learning period is followed up by an impressive improvement in speed and efficiency. By the time we reach the ridge of the building, all of those involved will be competent at making a traditional building watertight.  This style of thatching is simple (that doesn’t mean easy!) compared to the complexity of methods used by master thatchers on medieval roofs.

At this stage the thatch is being stepped in visible layers.  This is a good way of keeping track of each layers thickness as the roof progresses.  Unlike a modern thatched roof (which has a chimney), our roof will need to “breathe” in order to let the smoke from the fire escape through the thatch so the thickness of the thatch is critical.  When the roof is covered we then have the option of “dressing” the edge of each layer to form a constant gradient (as you would see in a modern thatched roof).

 

Thursday 7th June 2018

 

A grey start has turned into a warm and brighter day.  

This morning we organised the thatch bundles on site, sorting them into, short, medium and long and piling them under tree cover on both sides of the building.

Today we are attempting to that with two teams on the roof in different locations.  Team 1 is starting the steepest part of the learning curve – working from ladders and still efficiently performing the many jobs that thatching requires!  They are starting layer 2 on the north side of the roof, working back from the gable end.

Team 2 are working on the south side to complete layer 1.  As with all of these tasks, efficiency and refinement can only be gained by doing it!  Each team is rotating to give members a go at each aspect of the job. In this humidity, the work is surprisingly energetic and tends to involve positions and actions that are entirely unfamiliar in modern daily life.

Derek is making great progress with Shutter 1.  Based on the amazing preserved Neolithic door from Zurich, Derek has now completed the mortises in three planks and has shaped and fitted the runners that tap through the mortises to stabilise the three planks and make them as one.

 

The idea here is that this first shutter will form the model for the remaining shutters to be made.  Even at this stage, the level of carpentry and skill required is plain to see and I am looking forward to the moment our first visitors question the complexity of  this technology in the Neolithic and we can securely tell them that it follows known evidence! It should be a real “eye opener”!

Friday 8th June 2018

A fine day has dawned at Hougue Bie.  Today thatching has paused while we get to grips with other essential jobs on site.  There are still some interior willow walls to construct, wall planks to fit in the end of the building, and joists to fit in the mezzanine floors.  

Derek is also continuing with Shutter 1  – based on the Neolithic door evidence from Zurich.  Derek raised a good point this morning concerning the use of detailed carpentered shutters in the “livestock” area of the building when the “living” space will only have simple openings at the top of its walls.  It is a good observation, and led to the decision to attempt the contruction of several “standardised” window frames and shutters that can be installed in any appropriate wall within the main living space. The question of windows in ancient buildings is problematic.  There is simply no evidence that they did or didn’t exist and so, once again we are left with a decision to make. For me, the Zurich door clearly shows high levels of carpentry employed to fill a hole in a wall (a doorway). Do we really suggest that other holes in walls (windows) would not have been used where light and ventilation was required, especially on those murky winter days when daily tasks have to continue under cover?

 Its a difficult question, and again comes back to questions relating to the purpose of the house and the spaces within it, the prevailing weather conditions and access to direct sunlight, and of course the ever ambiguous cultural considerations of the people involved.

Phil and Alcindo are now working on the first of these “shutter” frames for the building….the idea being that each constructed frame will slot into prepared notches in the wall post that will effectively lock the vertical frame elements in place without the need for pegs.

Iris has taken on the task of fitting planks into the triangular gaps at the end of the building where Derek’s diagonal braces slant from the central to outer posts.  This requires careful work, chiselling an approximate angle and then fitting and adjusting.

Doug is adzing off some of the thicker split planks to allow them to be used in the walls or even to become eventual shutters or furniture.  Ruth, Bill and Mike are fitting the split joists that will support the mezzanine floor above the livestock pens. Each joist is located in the tie beam by cutting a notch and pegging.  

Heather is working on the final internal wall panel – cutting the mortises for the willow rungs into hard Holm Oak.

 

Saturday 9th June 2018

Thunderstorms and heavy rain are bringing the week to a close.  Unfortunately, this means a pause on the thatching (due to treacherous ladders and sodden thatch).  

Our ever keen volunteers are not put off by a bit of torrential rain and standing water so jobs are continuing under whatever shelter we can find.

Bernie and Murry are pegging wall planks in position.  Derek has started on the frame that will eventually hold his beautiful shutter in position.  Astra, Chloe and Ania are making cordage in the shelter of the site hut (a wise move), while Pippa and Daryl are working on the other shutter frames for the main living space of the hall.

All in all, this week has seen another major push towards some kind of finishing point.  Everyone is impressed with the first layers of thatch and their affect on the look of the building.  The project is now entering the “home” phase, where we put our minds to the question of what goes inside the building!

 

Jersey Neolithic Longhouse; May 14th – 18th

Monday 14th May 2018

This project week has begun with sunshine and a fresh breeze.  The site has been transformed by the trees in full leaf, making the longhouse seemingly grow from the trees themselves.  It nestles in its clearing so beautifully, with its natural lines mimicking the surrounding woodland shapes.

 

This week work continues with the lashing of battens onto the rafters to form the final structural elements of the roof.  When this stage is complete we will have an all too brief view of the complete frame, the “skeleton” of the building, that will soon be lost, covered by the layers of thatch that will turn the project from beautiful frame into a useable building.

Although the thatch is an inevitable part of the build and has a beauty of its own, for me, the bare bones of a finished frame has a certain appeal that tells the story of how the building stands – and is visible reminder and physical story of the sheer effort and many processes that made it happen!

Derek and Danny are making a couple of final adjustments to rafters to ensure their ends don’t kick out too much from the wall plate.  Although the roof will become an organically irregular shape, we need to avoid the creation of gullies that will naturally funnel rain water into them (keeping them wet and rotting the thatch).  These final touches will make the difference between a beautifully functional roof and one that leaks!

Tuesday 15th May 2018

The sun is shining again today and a warmer summer breeze is welcome on site.

The battens on the south side of the roof are now finished!  Nicky and Ruth are checking them all to ensure they are tight before thatching begins.  The north side is ¾ finished with Astra, Ed, David and Derek lashing on battens and adjusting a couple of rafters to improve the shape of the finished roof.

Franco, James and Danny have made a start on the internal walls – the walls that divide some of the internal spaces such as the passageways from the main hall and livestock area.  This “simple” operation uses the same method as building the willow frames for the external walls but it has inevitably led to a debate concerning the angle of walls. The simple question is…. “Do we join the dots (in terms of making internal walls by simply linking vertical posts) or fabricate more recognisable angles”?  For now we have decided to join the dots and then see what spaces are available to us… it may be that we have to come up with some interesting storage solutions and carpentry, but the alternative is to make things straight in an organic building in order to fit our modern notions of usable space. We come back once again to the lack of detailed evidence for building interiors – and the eternal issues of building function reflecting material shapes and properties or the conscious decision making process and design of its occupants.  For example, do the stone built Neolithic houses at Skara Brae reflect a design choice of making curved internal corners, or a structural solution to building a cor-belled wall/roof out of un-cemented stone?

We have the same issue with our timber building.  Do the shapes we see in the surviving post holes reflect a conscious design that raw material was shaped to fit, or did it result from the use of a specific suite of raw materials?  In short, we will never truly know, and the temptation exists (often in academic thought) to throw the weight of personal opinion into one or other camp. I feel the answer may lie somewhere in between.  Coming to the modern era, we can look at buildings as diverse as the “Shard” or St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Both buildings seem to represent free choice in design (the whim or vision of an architect), but  the reality is very different! Each (indeed all) building is the result of vision and design, but that design is often predetermined by factors such as location,  available construction plot size, the eventual purpose of the building, what the society in which it stands is trying to say about itself, and of course available budget (in time and materials).  Once the design is settled, the real work begins, the endless modifications and sometimes dramatic changes imposed by the qualities of materials and the calculations of structural engineers, issues of time and shrinking budgets (impacting on materials). There is also a factor present in all aspects of what we do and build that we often overlook, Tradition.   For 99.9% of the time, things look like they do because of what went before.  Whether it be a restrained baroque style cathedral or monumental modernist skyscraper,  all buildings reference in greater or lesser ways, the styles and conventions of what has gone before.  The same has to be the case with a Neolithic longhouse. We presume that the design of these buildings incorporated the new requirements and architecture from a farming economy and blended them with existing construction styles (based on a hunter – gatherer lifestyle), architectural thought and cultural needs to create what we now recognise as the beginnings of sedentary house building.  The details of those influential parameters are, for the time being, lost to us.

  

Today I have worked out the joist pattern for the 7 bays of the building (4 at livestock end and 3 at entrance end).  We will require 56 joists varying in length from 1800 mm to 2200 mm. Each bay will have 8 joists that span from “tie beam” to “tie beam” – leaving gaps of 500 mm, which should be ample to support a strong floor (especially with a woven hurdle platform above).

Wednesday 16th May 2018

Today, work shifts from the roof to other tasks to allow unhindered access to the structural engineer and building control who are visiting today to check on progress.

The tasks include fitting the third layer of wall planks into the livestock end of the building.  From the start, the evidence of a slot trench at this end of the structure inferred a different construction method to the rest of the building.  Our interpretation has involved the setting of horizontal timbers in the ground (Sill Beams) and mortising posts into them to create upright walls.  The gaps between posts are being filled with planks to create a robust wall that would be capable of protecting livestock from predators and also preventing their escape when being over wintered.

More willow and hazel needs to be woven into the finished wall frames in other areas of the building to create strength before we daub in July.  And more work is needed on preparing the mezzanine floor joists before we begin fitting them in position.

Bob Godsell of “Just Structural” flew over from England this morning to check the progress so far.  Bob is a structural engineer and has done the calculations for the building so far. It is always interesting to see how the structure lives up to what the model and drawings suggested.  From the start of this project, the exact technical data has necessarily been a bit of a movable feast based on the exact decisions and specific pieces of timber we have used during the construction.  Bob has now seen the structure and is more than happy with its strength. The interesting conversations now start with Building Control who determine if a building is safe based on the very latest measures from the modern building industry.  On the face of it, a Neolithic Longhouse can never meet the requirements of a modern building industry – simply because it is using ancient methods. That does not mean that it is unsafe (as Bob’s calculations prove), but just different!

Thursday 17th May 2018

The fine weather is still with us!

Today we have a group of Corporate Volunteers with us from  RBS International. Our “regulars” are showing them a range of jobs and processes to push the building onto the next stage.  

Teams are busily working on draw knifing more joists for the mezzanine floors.  Infilling the wattle panels with willow and hazel to make them strong, and tying on the few remaining battens on the north side of the roof.

Our new volunteers are very keen and hardworking, their efforts have made a real difference to the building in just one day!

What is interesting at this stage is the separation of interior space by some of the new interior walls.  We are beginning to get a feel for the living space and the height of the mezzanine floor above the livestock bay.  Interesting shapes are forming that force us to start thinking about the best way to “live” in the finished building.

Today we made the decision to install some proper windows into the livestock bay walls.  It has become apparent that this end of the building will be the darkest when the roof is thatched – only being accessed through two interior doors that open onto a single exterior door.  To mirror the construction techniques in this bay (planks and sill beams), we are opting for a sophisticated solution. We will install two lintels or sills and two uprights to create a window frame.  The surround will be planked or willow filled and daubed, and the window will be closed by way of a miniature Zurich Door (or window in this case) that will showcase the known carpentry skills of Neolithic builders..

Today, with the help of RBS International, volunteers gave 6895 minutes to the project – that’s nearly 115 hours!  Well done all!

Friday 18th May 2018

A fine week is topped off with the best day yet!  Warm sun and a slight breeze are filtering through the leafy canopy at La Hougue Bie.  The Longhouse is partially hidden now by the summer trees and almost seems to grow out of the landscape itself.  Birdsong is punctuated by the tap tap tap of wooden mallet on chisel or axe on wood.

Today, another good week of progress comes to an end.  Tim and Mike have finished the batten lashings on the north side of the roof and are finishing by putting in willow or hazel rods between the crucks of the rafters.  This final run of timber will give us options for attaching the thatched ridge at a later date.

Danny is working on another wall plank – the time consuming grooving of the upright is all too familiar now!  Danny’s carrot is that when the third plank is in place, he will start making a sophisticated window to fit above it!

Iris and Astra are working together in “Bone Corner” – fitting a third plank – with bone chisels.  Epic work especially in hard Holm Oak!…

Derek has begun the complex and detailed carpentry required to produce a “Zurich” style window.  His logic is to produce the shutter first using off-cuts (we have limited splitting timber left) and to then fit the frame to the shutter – it will be interesting to see this marvel progress over the coming weeks.

Bill is also working on a third plank for another wall section while Heather, Ed, and Pippa are pressing on with the shaping of floor joists for the mezzanine floor at the livestock end of the building.

The progress of the building seems to be racing on now – and we are beginning to consider the detail of interior finishing that will be needed to turn this project from a fascinating construction into a home.

 

Jersey Neolithic Longhouse; April 30th – May 4th 2018

Monday 30th April 2018

 

Winter is making a final showing at Hougue Bie this week (we hope!) with low temperatures and a  biting wind!

The volunteers are beyond worrying about the weather though and are cracking on with the tasks at hand!

The test daub sections we applied last time have dried completely which allows us to assess their qualities.  What is noticeable is the hardness of the finished surface, where it has been finished smoothly it is hard to the touch and pretty resilient to knocks.  The expected shrinkage is well within acceptable limits – with the widest cracks measuring between 1 and 3 mm. This suggests that we can try and squeeze more fibre into the final mixes to reduce this further, but it also depends on what kind of finish we might be putting on the walls at the very end.  Narrow shrinkage cracks would actually act as a “key” to hold on a final render coat or even paint layer… Again, we have to start thinking about how the building will look when it is finished, now!

We are now well stocked with 4 mm hemp string for lashings, so the positioning of battens is proceeding this week.  We are attaching the stripped (white) willow battens over the living space to give it a different appearance from inside.

Willow panels are continuing in preparation for a “Daub Fest” planned in July.  We hope to get lots of visitors to help with this task during the first week of the summer holidays (July 23rd – 27th) so we can try and complete all of the daubing in a short space of time!

 

We are also boiling the next batches of willow bark for cordage.  The new “Law” on site states that each volunteer should make a 28ft length of handmade rope for some of the critical lashings in the building.  This is a serious task, requiring lots of prepared willow bark and time!

 

Tuesday 1st May 2018

The sun has unexpectedly come out to welcome the start of May!  Finally, spring tries (again) to throw off its winter coat!

Today teams are continuing with the lashing of battens to the roof.  We are aiming to finish one end of the building to allow thatching to start.  

We have also made a decision on the mezzanine floors.  We are now thinking that the passageways (see below) between the living space and storage and livestock areas should logically have floors that run over them.  This would increase the floor area available to storage, and make use of the wasted full height space that would have been in a passageway used only for access to the other elements of the building.  This of course assumes that they were passageways!

On this point we revisit the issues of reconstructing a building based mostly on ground evidence.  It is interesting though, moving beyond the model and its constraints. As always, it is only at this stage that the reality of the building takes over.  For the first time we can stand in the spaces and imagine how usable the finished building might be. Any doubts about the installation of a mezzanine floor have evaporated for me – simply because the structure is able to support one, and crucially, the space above the proposed floor is large and very practical.  Any farming activities require large volumes of storage for tools, fodder and harvest crops and I don’t see how this building would support a farming economy without the use of floors that essentially increase floor area by 40%.

Kerry Jane has produced an amazing 17 ft (5.1 metres) of willow bark rope in just over an hour!  She has changed the method to include tying the end of the rope to a post as she works – this makes it easier to maintain tension and to judge the thickness of the rope more accurately.  What is also clear is the new preparation method of the bark is producing good quality raw material for the job. The long sheets of stripped bark (with the outer removed) are boiled for two hours in wood ash and then teased into narrow (5 mm) strips.  These strips are then dried to keep them safe and soaked before use.

 

Wednesday 2nd May 2018

Rain is forecast for this morning but it is warmer than it has been!

This morning we have suspended work on the roof until conditions improve.  The wet weather is ideal for rope making though as the rain keeps the prepared willow fibre moist while it is being twisted!

 

Danny is working on another willow panel on the south side of the building.  The test daub panels have confirmed that we can use far less material than a traditional hurdle panel would need and still produce a strong and sturdy wall.  There are of course any number of ways to fill a gap with willow rods, but our preferred method seems to use the least material for the strongest and neatest result.  Horizontal spacing takes 5.5 metres of willow rod (12 rungs) whereas three verticals take 6 metres of willow rod (4 would possibly be better but use 8 metres of willow). – The horizontal method allows us to use any section from an irregular rod as they rarely exceed 50 cm in length, whereas the vertical rod method needs three 2 metre rods of higher quality (straightness) to ensure alignment.  The gaps between horizontal rods ranges from 12 – 14 cm, while on the vertical method it ranges from 17 – 20 cm (requiring more infill material to achieve the same strength). There is also potentially an issue with the eventual finish – especially at the sides of the panel where the infill meets the post.

An advantage of the vertical method is the fact that the daub does not touch the ground – and the mini sill beam the vertical rods are housed in forms a natural dry course.  This would be useful in particularly wet areas of construction. However, the evidence for these buildings seems to suggest a robber pit running close to the eave line (to take daub materials for the walls) and this would provide a natural drip trench for the eaves and a sink that takes water away from the wall bases.

Today a load of hazel was delivered to site.  It was harvested by Alcindo and delivered by Dave Pittom – once again (and very kindly) using his sons scaffold truck.  The hazel will be used for a range of tasks including roof battens, wall panels and floor panels.

28 Feet Later…

In the last two days, Astra and Edward have completed the first two 28ft (or 8.5 metre) lengths of willow bark rope!  The length is what is required to lash a rafter to a purlin, wall plate or ridge. The process has been an interesting example of technological evolution – starting at a small scale and becoming more refined to produce larger quantities of material.  

We have improved the outer bark stripping from using flint scrapers to split chestnut edges, we take the green outer bark off in stages and immediately peel the inner bark to stop it from drying out and adhering to the stem, and we split the sheets of boiled inner bark into 5 mm (roughly) wide strips as soon as it has been boiled as the fibres seem to separate easily at this point.   Rope making is more efficient when the end of the made rope is tied to a post – this allows tension to be maintained, and the addition of more fibres is done by looping them across both rope ply – creating a strong join and allowing refinement in volume to be made.

Although we have found a method that works on the scale we need, I have no doubt that Neolithic rope makers would have taken the process many stages further to include detail such as precise willow species, the exact time of harvesting, the exact duration of boiling for best results, methods for splitting the boiled bark into fine fibres and a method of manufacture that would have produced large quantities in a shorter space of time.  They also would have benefited from a direct line of knowledge transfer from their ancestors (undoubtedly over thousands of years), whereas we are trying, in many respects to re-invent that lost knowledge. Our rope production has been an interesting sideline to the main task of building a longhouse, but even the little we have done has hinted at the possible refinements we could make if we had the time to investigate and experiment fully.  

  

Thursday 3rd May 2018

A long spell of dry and sunny weather has begun and our work on the roof of the longhouse can continue.

Teams are lashing more battens to the roof.  The lattice of timbers is really starting to take shape – and the strength of the whole structure increases with every new piece of wood attached to it.  Our decision to use stripped willow rods over the main hall is producing the desired effect – in combination with the more refined rafters, the roof of the main hall is already looking more refined than the other utilitarian aspects of the building.

The “livestock” end of the roof is nearing completion and we now have to consider if some kind of smoke hole might be required.  It is always easier to build a frame for one and not use it – than to retro-fit a frame once the roof is thatched.

The question of smoke escape in traditional roofs is an interesting one.  Our familiarity with densely thatched (sometimes up to 45 cm thick) cottages belies the reality of thatched roofs before the advent of chimneys.  A chimney takes smoke from the fire and delivers it beyond the roof line.  This has led to increasing thickness in thatch since the medieval period – when, for the first time, thatchers had no need to consider the breath-ability of a roof – but only how long it would last. From experience, and without evidence for chimneys, ancient roofs must have had much thinner thatched roofs.  The ability of a thatched roof in a pre-chimney building to breath is critical. Without a roof that allows smoke to escape, the living space rapidly becomes unlivable. Depending on the exact location of a house, its orientation, types of wood being burned, the size of the fire and the direction of prevailing winds, enabling an efficient draw (the movement of smoke out of the building) can be tricky and dependent on the through flow of air from doorways, windows or other openings.    The heat of the fire is also critical to this fine balancing act. Too much air moving through a building will swirl the smoke into an unlivable haze, too little air will simply fill the building with smoke. For this project we intend to build in smoke holes and vents or openings in the walls. Only during a lengthy testing stage will we be able to discover which (if any) vents and holes are required to make the building work.

 

Friday 4th May 2018

The weather is fine again today… Another week is drawing to an end on the project.  Everyone has commented that progress on the building is speeding up. This week we have achieved a great deal, and the roof frame is probably only one more project week from completion.

The next serious stage of construction will be the thatching of the roof.  Before this can happen we reach a critical milestone in the project – the conversation between structural engineer and building control!

This building, although “ancient” and traditionally built, still has to be safe for visitors.  This relies on the ability of a structural engineer to mathematically prove if the actual structure (as he sees it on the ground) will stand.  My initial design has already been proven, and any changes we have made (due to actual materials) have been theoretically checked – but it is always an interesting stage – seeing the process of an ancient building being “ticked” off by professionals from the modern building industry.  I suspect there will be a fair bit of chin rubbing involved!

Well done to all those involved this week! – a strange mixture of Winter and Summer weather was met with fortitude and achievement!