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!

Wow!
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!

 

Beeston Bronze Age Structure: Construction Week 2

25th – 29th February 2019

Phase 1 Construction Week 2

The weather is incredible with unseasonable warmth and sun bathing the tor in golden light.  This week, the remaining posts and wall plate timber have arrived and we have begun to cut joints and to prepare the new timber ready for use.

This project is using locally gather materials that are far from standard in size or shape and as such we have to work with each piece of timber to find its specific location within the structure.  The joints used to link these timbers reflect their individual properties. Work is progressing well with the three central posts. These the joints in these timbers reflect their individual characteristics.

Post CP14 has a very knotty top that does not lend itself to creating a tenon peg, so the volunteers have cut in two deep mortises to house the ends of the triangular purlins that will meet there. Mortise 1 was completed entirely with bronze tools and recorded in detail.

 The efficiency of the tools surprised the volunteers, as did their capability for accuracy and refinement. The mortise took 108 minutes to complete (total working time), a staggering 13,124 blows using bronze tools, with an average removal of 0.12 cubic centimetres per blow.  The final mortise is impressive. We are fast approaching the technical challenge of raising this 6 metre oak post into the ground and orienting it to the exact position for the mortise to support the purlins in the correct place.

Wall posts are also having tenon pegs cut into their tops to locate and support the wall plates that will eventually link them together.  

Our aim this week is to have most of the posts jointed and ready to lift into position in the first half of the next project week.  That will then leave us time to joint and fit the wall plates and purlins that will make the basic structure sound.

The volunteers have tried various methods to achieve the round pegs, but general consensus has settled on the cutting of flat surfaces to form a square peg – then rounding off the corners.  The results are impressive and, timber allowing, relatively fast.

We have also been gathering some comparative data regarding tool efficiency.  This has involved cross cutting logs with the same circumference using steel and bronze tools to understand how our ancient tool types perform.

All in all, we have had a very productive week and now stand ready to spend the next session hauling the posts into upright positions!  After all of the initial labour intensive work of bark stripping, cutting to length, and jointing, the structure will suddenly burst into life!

 

 

Beeston Bronze Age Structure – Construction Week 1

11th – 15th February 2019

Phase 1 Construction Week

Work begins in earnest this week!  

The weather looks settled – at least for now, so we are taking advantage of less mud and rain to organise the 14 post holes ready for fitting our structural posts in the ground over the next three project weeks.

Each hole is being cleared of debris and widened to accommodate the timbers we have available.  Some of the post holes come down onto quarried bedrock at 600mm below surface, but where possible we are digging further to around 1000mm.  This should provide ample cantilevering to the earthbound posts once the excavated soil is tamped back in thin layers around the foot of each post.

We begin the careful matching of available posts to available wall plates.  The wall plates will run horizontally across the post tops to link them structurally.  Eventually, the wall plates will form a continuous ring of timbers that will prevent the walls from spreading under the load of the roof.  The joining of each wall plate to a pair (or more) of post tops can be achieved in a number of ways and, depending on the specific timber sizes we have to work with, we will try several of these methods to construct the ring.

The volunteers are now well into the routine of working the timbers.  Bronze and steel tools are at work and the sound of sharp edges fills the woodland at the quarry site.  We take for granted how the woods have changed over the last millennia. Modern managed woodland tends to scream with the high pitched wail of chainsaws and large machinery.  The woodlands of our ancestors were more melodious in their management and we have all commented on the difference. Conversation and birdsong can be heard during our work and yesterday, we paused in our efforts to listen to a woodpecker tapping out its message on a nearby tree.

Alongside this traditional noise is the inevitable need for hard work at generally mundane tasks, but the unobtrusive noise of traditional tools at least enable time and space for thought and friendships while the work continues.

The volunteers have also cut in ramps to locate the base of each post during raising. The site is suddenly looking like a real construction zone!

New bronze tools have also been hafted using branches selected from the woods and prepared with notches to house each tool head.  The heads are then attached to the haft using rawhide strips that are applied wet and then dried to form a shrink wrapped binding.  All of these tools will be well used during this project and it will be interesting to see what issues we face as Bronze Age workers.

Experiment 2 is underway to see what effort and time is required to cut a deep mortise into the top of one of the three central posts.  The post top will locate two of the purlins that form the rafter supporting triangle of timbers at the top of the roof.

 

Beeston Bronze Age Structure – Induction Week

4th – 8th February 2019

Training Week

This week marks the formal beginning of this project on site.  The volunteers arrived, keen and well wrapped up for the weather and to all our surprise, the weather has been relatively mild and calm!

The team begin their first day on the project!

The aim of this first week is to introduce some of the essential methods and principles of moving, processing and working green timber to create the individual timbers for construction.

Organising and hewing the first structural timbers on site.

My approach is always to do a little bit of essential talking, to outline the project and its construction phases, some of the thinking behind the structure (lots more discussions along these line will be had!), but then to do a lot of hands on learning by practising skills and familiarise ourselves with tools and processes.

Experimenting with some beautiful bronze tools kindly loaned to the project by Edwin and his son Robin Wood.

This has involved learning how to move large and heavy things safely using a variety of methods and tools from bars, long tongs, timber arches, and more traditional methods such as Spanish windlasses.  The key to all of these tasks is teamwork, organisation and clear commands given by one person!

Splitting a knotty Silver Birch with wooden wedges

This week is also focusing on identifying specific construction timbers from the piles of available materials we have and then using tools to prepare those timbers to the right length and shape.

Tapping in the wooden wedges to direct a split.

Debarking is one of those early jobs that simply has to be done.  Removing the bark and sometimes the sapwood of particular species will prolong the life of a building structure and discourage the actions of boring insects.  At a later date, another way of achieving this is will be to ensure a regular fire is lit inside the building as soon as it is finished! The smoke is very effective at discouraging insect action – especially in the natural smoke zone of the roof frame.

Beginning the epic task of bark stripping!

The weather is finally becoming seasonal towards the end of the week with high winds and heavy winds forecast.  We will have to see how sheltered the construction site is and to what degree adverse weather will affect our work over the coming months!

The volunteer team are bonding very well, with everyone keeping a close eye on each other and being very careful with some unfamiliar tools and processes.  Our only issue at the moment is a general reluctance to stop for breaks, due mainly to the walk back down the hill to the cabin!

Construction begins next week!

 

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!!