Neolithic homes reconstructed for Stonehenge visitor centre

English Heritage recreates prehistoric houses in Wiltshire based on local excavations that will be rebuilt for outdoor gallery

A small housing estate of deceptively spacious detached dwellings, with excellent rural views and many period features – including central hearth and convenient smoke hole – is under construction in Wiltshire.

Strictly speaking it is a brownfield rather than a greenfield site, but there have been no nimbys to complain since the city of Salisbury upped sticks and moved from the windy hilltop of Old Sarum to the plain below, more than 700 years ago.

The wattle and daub reed thatched houses, based on excavations of the dwellings believed to have been occupied by the Neolithic tribes who built the later stages of Stonehenge 4,500 years ago, are being reconstructed by volunteers for English Heritage, and will be rebuilt as an outdoor gallery for the long-promised new visitor centre for the world's most famous prehistoric monument.

While fierce argument continues to rage about the purpose of Stonehenge – status symbol, astrological calendar or cemetery – most sides agree that prehistoric peoples came there on special occasions but did not live there.

The low rectangular houses being built at Old Sarum are based on hut sites excavated by Prof Mike Parker Pearson a few miles from Stonehenge, at Durrington Walls, which he believes were occupied by the monument builders and also the scene of great mid-winter and mid-summer feasts that lasted for rollicking days and nights.

Post holes give good evidence for the timber hammered into the chalky clay which formed the frames of the houses, and also indicate the door openings. Scorched marks of hearths remain, but the building materials, probably willow woven between the posts and then made wind and watertight by plastering with clay, rotted away millennia ago – except for the base of one wall, believed to be the earliest example of chalk cob as a building material.

The upper levels, and the shape of the roofs thatched with straw or sedge, are conjecture, so several different styles are being tried out, included thatching over steeper ridges and shallow curved hazel hoops.

Susan Greaney, a buildings historian with English Heritage, said the evidence from Durrington Walls allowed them to try something special at the visitor centre. "The reconstructed houses will be an immediate and sensory link with the distant past."

The 60 volunteers started work, using flint axes, 12 tonnes of chalk and 2,500 bundles of hazel and willow rods, in the coldest March in a lifetime. They expect to finish in May, and their work will be open to the public on 5-6 and 25-27 May.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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