Stone Age house painstakingly recreated by archaeologists using bone tools and ancient materials

·4 min read
The Stone Age home built at Butser Ancient Farm in the Hampshire South Downs - RUSSELL SACH FOR THE TELEGRAPH
The Stone Age home built at Butser Ancient Farm in the Hampshire South Downs - RUSSELL SACH FOR THE TELEGRAPH

A vast Stone Age house has been reconstructed using only the prehistoric tools and techniques that our ancestors would have recognised 5,000 years ago.

Makeshift bone chisels and stone axes have created an entire thatched timber building at Butser Ancient Farm in the Hampshire South Downs.

In a groundbreaking project, archaeologists followed evidence from the remains of an actual house found in Berkshire in 2012 – the home of early farmers around 3,800 BC.

The building is covered with a shaggy thatch of water-reed that comes right down to the ground from the roof.

Claire Walton, archaeologist at Butser, told The Telegraph that it looks just like Doogle, the long-haired dog from The Magic Roundabout, the children’s television classic. “Somebody pointed that out and I can't get it out of my head now, but it is a good analogy," she said.

She spoke of her astonishment over how efficient the most basic ancient tools proved to be.

“People always call it the Stone Age, which is such a misnomer because we discovered that bone makes such a useful tool," Mrs Walton added.

"What normally is discovered are the stone tools and hand-axes, and not things like bone chisels. We actually used bone chisels, for example to make holes into which we drove pegs. Bone chisel turned out to be remarkably effective with almost no preparatory work to [it]… That was quite revelatory.”

Replicating the skills of early Neolithic man, the archaeologists used stone hand-axes to shape the timbers and, for more detailed elements – such as a decorative hazel feature above the doorway, pictured below – they split hazel using a piece of flint.

Stone Age house at Butser Ancient Farm  - Russell Sach for The Telegraph
Stone Age house at Butser Ancient Farm - Russell Sach for The Telegraph

In replicating the ancient peoples' use of natural resources, the archaeologists used a glue extracted from birch trees. They even constructed a window pane from deer hide which, once the fur was removed, became almost translucent. Fish oil made it water-proof.

One end of the house – which measures 15m by 7.4m – bears an oak-planked wall, the other is wattle and daub.

“The wattle is hazel harvested from the woodlands around us,” Mrs Walton said. “The daub is horse manure. You could use horse or cow. Both nice and stretchy. Mixed with soil, bits of straw and hay.”

The archaeological evidence does not reveal how our Neolithic ancestors decorated their interiors, but Mrs Walton argues that they must have been as aesthetically sensitive to their surroundings as we are today.

“If you look at other artefacts that you find in the archaeological record, there are little carved figurines and pieces of woven material," she said. "It’s really obvious that these people didn’t just subsist. They lived and thrived and were creative and artistic.”

Whether Stone Age man had furniture is unclear. “Certainly there’s evidence in other parts of the world that they had clay or earth platforms to sit on," Mrs Walton said. "But the geology of where we were wouldn’t necessarily have supported that. So we’ve built some benches… Sometimes we do early Neolithic peoples a disservice by thinking that they sat on the ground on a heap of leaves.”

The thatched roof, pictured below, was constructed from hand-cut water-reed. Mrs Walton said: “We thought reed was a good choice because, on a practical level, it was available to us at the time – there has been a terrible shortage of straw for thatching over the last year or two due to terrible harvests... Water-reed also lasts much longer than straw.”

Stone Age house at Butser Ancient Farm  - Russell Sach for The Telegraph
Stone Age house at Butser Ancient Farm - Russell Sach for The Telegraph

She spoke of feeling emotional in listening to the sounds of the team working the timbers because it meant that they were “connecting back to people thousands of years ago”.

Butser Ancient Farm has had a difficult time financially over the last year and the new Stone Age house will be unveiled as it prepares to re-open.

To safeguard its future, it is also launching on online platform, “Butser Plus”, a resource for anyone interested in archaeology.

For a small donation (from £5.99 a month), the public is taken behind the scenes, with demonstrations of ancient crafts such as flint knapping and weaving, with specialists thatching a Saxon house, building a Bronze Age roundhouse, and laying mosaic floors.

The new Butser Plus platform can be found at www.butserplus.com

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