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!

Jersey Neolithic Longhouse; February 19th – 23rd 2018

Monday 19th February 2018

A fog bound morning marked the start of the second volunteer week in February.  Volunteers are working on the remaining “V” joints to install the Wall Plate on the southern side of the building.  

Shorter sections of quarter split timber are being used to form this wall plate and it presents an interesting challenge for those involved.  Mike, Bill, Danny and Derek are combining their efforts on this task.  They are selecting specific timber shapes to suit the upright posts and then cutting the joints to house them.  Their skills and judgement are now more than capable of performing this task!

Astra has used the bone chisel to finish “Bone Corner” – a section of wall planks that have been shaped and fitted authentically.  Again, this demonstrates what is possible with Neolithic tools and provides a guide for our use of metal tools to follow (at a faster rate!).

Phil is organising and fitting the central bay rafters.  We have enough rafters to narrow their gap to around 700mm.  This will not only make a stronger roof frame, but make a visual and aesthetic difference to the inside of the main living space.  We rarely think about visual and aesthetic considerations within the same building.  It is an interesting idea to consider.

 If these longhouses were indeed divided into living, storage, animal “zones”, is it not reasonable to consider that each zone may have been treated differently in terms of refinement and finishing.  A Medieval farmhouse is quite different to a medieval barn or cattle byre – perhaps not in construction technique – but certainly in some of the material choices and aesthetic/non functional considerations such as colour, and levels of timber finishing.  Perhaps to move through the length of a Neolithic longhouse was to encounter obviously different zones, treated quite differently from the next to highlight the importance or significance of those areas to daily life or belief systems?

Tuesday 20th February 2018

Grey cloud and a light wind are with us today – but the temperature isn’t as cold as it has been.  

The decision has been made to insert two more rafter pairs into the “livestock” end of the building.  This will close the gap between rafters to 700mm and match the rafter spacing over the living space.

Work has begun on cutting and splitting joists to support the floor above the animal pen area.  These are being cut at 2 metre lengths and will be ¼ or ⅛ split depending on the diameter of the tree trunk.  The joists will be supported by timbers that run across the building from wall plate to wall plate.  We are positioning these timbers to come into contact with the sets of three posts that run down the centre of the structure.  Although the posts are not perfectly aligned to accommodate a straight timber, we think we can hand pick timbers that will match the curves and irregularities of the uprights.  Structurally this makes sense and will add a great deal of lateral strength to the frame.

It has been suggested by some that “tie beams” were not a part of Neolithic architecture….. My personal view is that there simply isn’t enough evidence for the superstructures of Neolithic buildings to make that claim.  However, looking at other available evidence, if Neolithic doors exhibit the equivalent of tie beams to give lateral strength to three butted planks, the same principle can be used in a building.  The Neolithic door found in Zurich, uses the same construction methodology found later in the the Dover Boat whereby butting planks are held together using a perpendicular beam that runs through mortised hewn “bosses”.  This principle effectively joins and stabilises the planks and requires a high standard of carpentry to accomplish.  Are we seriously suggesting that the thought processes that achieved these remarkable products were incapable of running a timber from one wall to another and lashing or pegging it to the three posts is would encounter on the way?

Wednesday 21st February 2018

A clear, bright and chilly day has dawned at La Hougue Bie.

Work continues today on preparing the “tie beams” that will support the joists for the mezzanine floor above the livestock end of the building.  An oak timber has been beautifully split by Pippa, Astra and Rosie and now needs adzing to remove the sapwood.  Oak sapwood is very soft and quickly rots and encourages beetle infestation.  Unfortunately, this is a time consuming process – but necessary.  Even as we are adzing through it, we can see the worn/beetle tracks already leading into the timber.

Franco’s wonderfully split joists from yesterday are being shaped by Daryl and Mike.  These joists will be support the mezzanine floor above the livestock pens and so will be visible to visitors.  Again, we face the issue of how finished or refined these timbers would have been in this portion of the building.  Was it normal to finish all timbers to a certain standard?

The wall Plate team are pressing on with their task.  More “V” notches into the tops of posts and fitting Wall Plate sections to them.   It is impressive to see the determinatiuon and hard work of this team.  It is a crucial part of the build and requires the largest numbers of joints (there are 19 posts in both walls) to accomplish.  

Thursday 22nd February 2018

A beautiful winters morning is bathing la Hougue bie in cold sunlight.

Volunteers are working hard on their tasks to keep warm and the temperature is due to drop further by the weekend!

Bill, Iris, Rosie and Astra are working feverishly to finish removing the sapwood from the split oak timbers that will become tie beams in the building.  Working with an adze to remove the sapwood and leave the strong and resilient heartwood is not straightforward.  It requires a good eye and feel for the changing texture and colour change in the wood.

Danny and Paul are splitting more sweet Chestnut joists – this in turn will need to be processed further to remove sharp corners, and eventually be shaped to slot into the tie beams.

Again we face the issue of aesthetics.  The joists will eventually be visible from beneath as visitors enter the livestock end of the building.  To what degree should we finish these timbers?


Derek is ploughing on with the “V” notches to house the next Wall Plate length.  

The first two tie beams have been lifted into place and marked for final adjustments.  The oak stands out against the weathered chestnut beautifully. Each timber now needs notches cutting into their ends and “scoops” to ensure a close contact with each vertical post.

Friday 23rd February 2018

Another bright and cold day has arrived.  The last day of another work week and what a week it’s been!  Everyone has been surprised at the progression of the structure and how brilliant it looks.  

Volunteer teams are focussing on the production of joists that will eventually support the mezzanine floor at the livestock end of the building.  

Some of the ¼ split timbers are being successfully split again to produce more.  From the start this project has been organic in its approach – with ideas changing or modifying according to available materials and interpretations.  We are now considering that the joists for the mezzanine floor will be presented in two ways.  Half of the floor will be finished to a high standard and half will be left as functionally split timbers.  At the very least this will provide visitors with a visual difference that they can base their own opinions of how it would have been.  

Derek has begun the process of cutting a mortise with a bone chisel into one of the tie-beam.  Again, we are testing the theory and evidence provided by square mortises in Neolithic timbers from Germany.  

Derek is discovering that the edges of bone chisels degrade after only half and hour of use in green oak.  The re-sharpening process is reasonably quick – involving grinding with sand on a flat stone surface.  Nevertheless, it is raising the obvious question of “support” for carpenters on large projects.

Once again the volunteers have pushed through the cold weather and really pushed the building on visually.  It is interesting to note that we are now beyond the construction stage shown in the model.  All of us have looked at it over the last year and wondered how long it would take to reach that point.  We have surpassed it and we are rapidly heading towards the next epic phase of construction – the roof  and thatching.




Jersey Neolithic Longhouse; February 5th – 9th 2018

Monday 5th February 2018

The first week of the new construction year has begun!  The last two months has been wet and cold, but this morning, the sun has broken through to welcome back the volunteers to an exciting year ahead.  The next few weeks will see the roof beginning to take shape.  Rafters will be shaped and lashed into place with a variety of materials, and the roof will then begin to be thatched using water reed.  

Some of the reed will be harvested from the Wetlands centre in the autumn and used to for the ridge.  We are also considering using bracken if we can harvest enough in the summer.

Today, we are pressing on with the wall plates that link the tops of the wall posts together.  These timbers will eventually bear some of the weight of the roof and must be fitted with care to ensure structural integrity.

The sun has appeared and the site is filled with the noise of axes on wood and conversations between volunteers.  It’s good to see the team again after a couple of months off and to hear their stories.  

The social aspects of ancient construction projects are often forgotten by archaeologists.  We tend to think of the build process as somehow clinical and devoid of social interaction.  What is clear with this project, is that the construction process is held together by a glue of human interaction, of relationships forged in the mud, rain, sun and heat of an active building site.

For me, it is these friendships that form the long lasting memories of the project. Each plank and knot, each split timber and axe cut notch are physical traces of the conversations that fuelled their production.  It is fascinating to visit a finished building and to have those memories jogged by particular shapes of timber or specific joints, or the form of a particular knot.  

The personalities of those involved are trapped in the very fabric of the building. 

Tuesday 6th February 2018

After more rain and some snow last night, the morning has broken with some blue sky and broken cloud.

Today sees the beginning of the roof taking shape.  We have to sort through the ¼ split rafters to find matched pairs that will lie opposite each other on the roof.  It is important that this is done to try to minimise any future warping of the roof line.  Each rafter will be lashed to the Ridge Beam, the Purlin Beam and the Wall Plate.  The irregularities of the four timbers means that each rafter will have to be pulled into position at some point along its length – this creates tension on the frame and makes it very strong.  However, if the tension on each side of the roof is unequal, the roof will distort and produce a building that is buckled.  This week, we will be lashing the first of each matched pair of rafters onto the north side of the roof.  The second of each pair will be lashed onto the south side of the roof when the wall plates are installed.  We are also considering the aesthetic of the internal roof, saving the nicest (in our modern opinion) rafters for the central bay as these rafters will be entirely visible in the finished central hall.  This of course raises the question of what would have been aesthetically appropriate and meaningful in the a Neolithic House.  We will never know the detail of this question, but we can say that aesthetics were important in Neolithic life, as demonstrated by objects such as wholly polished stone tools, decorated ceramics.

Work continues on the installation of split planks between the Wall Posts at the Sill Beam end of the building.  This end of the building is really taking shape and feeling more and more substantial as each day passes.  The installation of split planks is our interpretation of what might have been going on.  The slot trench clearly indicates a different method of construction from the other walls of the building, and for me suggests the need for something more robust.  We have fantastic evidence of split Neolithic planks and we have the right timber to produce them for this project.  Perhaps there was no fixed construction method for this part of the original buildings, or perhaps they reflected the available raw materials, or some cultural considerations that are now invisible to us?

 Wednesday 7th February 2018

A clear bright day has dawned at Hougue Bie.  The clouds are scudding across the sky driven by a biting northerly wind.

Volunteers are wrapped up warmly and keen to press on with their tasks to keep warm!  Bill and Danny are refining the fitting of Wall Plate 4a.  As always, this process is time consuming, requiring detailed work to fit irregular timbers to four other irregular timbers!

Rosie and Pippa are continuing with the fitting of their split planks into the walls.  Other jobs include the pegging and lashing of Wall Plate 3a, the cross cutting of a reasonably large oak to enable the production of more split wall planks.  

Edward is re-hafting the flint axe that has seen so much use on this project.  The old haft finally began to fail and Ed had kindly agreed to take on the job of producing a new improved version.  It’s interesting to see the process of producing a well shaped haft for a flint axe.  The assumption has always been that producing a flint axe head is the time consuming part of making a complete tool.  What becomes very clear, very quickly, is that the haft – the wooden housing and handle of the flint axe head is a technically difficult thing to produce.  It has to be shaped and a socket created (carved or burned) to house the profile of the flint exactly.  If the socket grips the flint too tightly on its side, the flint acts as a wedge and splits the haft in two.  If the socket is too loose, the flint can twist and shatter.  

The site is alive with the sound of tools on wood, flint grinding on stone and the conversation of volunteers, and the sun is shining!

Today we have entered the next phase of construction!  The first rafters have been lashed into position.  We are choosing the less regular rafters for the first bay of the building as we plan to put a floor above the animal area which will hide the rafters above.  It’s great to see the form of the roof and the golden winter sunlight highlighting this exciting new development.

Today we also hosted ITV news who filmed a short piece about the project and the weather forecast for tonight.  

 Thursday 8th February 2018

A calm and bright morning greets us for our penultimate project day this week.  

Today we push on in an attempt to finish the wall plate on the northern side of the building.  We are making adjustments to this as we proceed to accommodate the irregularities in each piece of timber.  The goal of course is to produce a roof angle that will allow thatch to shed water, without obvious high or low points.  

The placement of 3 rafters yesterday has demonstrated that each split rafter will have a particular place on the roof that it fits the best.  Our job is to match specific rafter shapes and bends to the undulations between ridge, purlin and wall plate beams.  Personally I prefer that this match is NOT exact (in other words, it doesn’t rest perfectly on the three supporting timbers), so the rafter has to be bent or tensioned to meet one of the three supports – I have always felt that this creates more strength by building tension into the roof.  The skill is in ensuring that this tension is equal on both sides of the roof to prevent distortion of the final shape.

We are also beginning the think about the internal structure of the building.  Four tie beams will span the building from wall to wall at wall plate height.  The plan is to accomplish this at the “passage way”  locations.  The tie beam will stabilise and link the walls, provide internal structure to build floors onto and form the lintels of any internal doorways.

Friday 9th February 2018

Heavy rain overnight has left the site waterlogged.  Today is forecast as sunny spells but with a bitterly cold wind.

The final section of Wall Plate has been finished on the northern side of the building and we are now switching our attention to the southern side.  The plan here is to utilise some of the shorter Wall Plate sections to span just 2 or 3 wall posts at a time.  This will test whether is is quicker to fit more short sections or fewer long sections.  The jury is out on this question.  But having seen the complexity of cutting accurate joints (sometimes 5) to fit a single Wall Plate and accommodate all of its irregularities , I wonder if shorter sections might not be quicker?

Before this process can begin, the volunteers have set the wall posts that are jointed to the Sill Beam vertical to hold them in position.  

We are also processing the first batch of harvested willow ready for use.  Each willow stem is snedded with a billhook (to remove small branches) and the thin whippy ends cut off.  This produces “Weavers” (willow rods that will be woven into the walls to create solid panels), zales (thicker rods that will be used as uprights in the woven panels) and “Ties” (thin willow ends that can be twisted to use as lashings.  We aim to attach much of the thatch to the roof frame using willow ties, so we will need thousands of them!

New splitting wedges have been made today.  We are rapidly moving away from the ¼ splitting of logs and refining our technique of plank splitting.  This requires patience  and a deft hand with narrow wedges to successfully achieve.

It’s been another good week.  Motivation is high and the building is now really starting to look like the scale model we have gazed at for months.  Well done all!