Volunteering in the Neolithic

stonehenge neolithic housesI’ve started volunteering with English Heritage (EH) at Stonehenge, and I’m loving it! I’m learning so much about Stonehenge and its magical surrounding ritual landscape, and about life in the Neolithic period. The training offered by EH is wonderful, and I’m beginning to get hooked on learning ancient crafts. So little is known about them from the sparse evidence that comes down to us in the archaeological record, so experimentation and trying things out is an important means of increasing our understanding.

The new reconstructed Neolithic houses at the visitor centre are fascinating, and a popular part of the site for many visitors. They have been beautifully built, based upon the excavations at Durrington Walls henge, and make a great place to try out Neolithic crafts and ways of living. I’ve always had a particular interest in textiles, so the opportunity to find out about and practice twisting, spinning and weaving fibres that would have been used in the Neolithic is right up my street!

In the Neolithic, bast was a widely used form of fibre for all sorts of textile items. Bast is the fibrous part of woody plants that lies between the outer bark and the inner sapwood. Sapwood carries nutrients and water up to the leaves, and the fibrous web of bast carries nutrients from the leaves. Over time bast becomes bark, and new bast is formed from the cambium layer of cells on the outer part of the sapwood. Bast is processed by “retting”, i.e. soaking the outer part of the plant in water until the bark rots away and leaves the useful fibres. Spruce, elm, oak, alder and maple were all sources of fibre, but bast from lime trees was the most frequently used as it was particularly good for twisting and twining.

natural twistsMany other plants were processed in the same way, particularly flax (to make linen), hemp and nettles. Ropes were also made from soaked reeds and the bast layer of brambles. The picture on the right shows cords I’ve made from hemp (middle), reeds (the thicker cord), and bramble at the top left of the picture. In each case, the fibres are twisted in the fingers in one direction, and then plied by winding two of the lengths of the twisted fibre together in the opposite direction to the original twist. All these fibres make remarkably strong cords; well, they’d need to be to manipulate the enormous stones of Stonehenge!

finger woven braidsOnce you have some cordage, you can begin to weave. There is good evidence from Europe and beyond that people at the time of the Durrington settlement and final reconstruction of Stonehenge (around 2,500 BCE) were weaving textiles using looms, but that there was also a great deal of finger weaving of braids and belts. I find finger weaving fascinating and strangely addictive; once I’ve started a braid I find it hard to put it down. The picture on the left shows the kind of braid that is made in basic finger weaving using a flat or tabby weave, i.e. the “above, below, above, below” method. In finger weaving there are no dedicated warp or weft threads; all the cords take turns at being the weft and the warp threads. The thread to the extreme left of the group is woven in and out of its neighbours and laid over to the right, then the next left thread is woven and incorporates the previous thread at the end of the row. It then becomes the thread left out to the right and the next left thread is woven through, and so on. You can see the resulting pattern in the braids I’ve woven in the picture to the left. I’ve done one in modern threads in 2 colours, so it’s a bit easier to see how the fabric is constructed. The others are woven in jute cord as practice pieces.

American First Nation people have woven like this for thousands of years, and they create some truly beautiful and complex patterns of chevrons and diamonds. I’m a complete beginner, so I’m really looking forward to learning how to weave  some more complex patterns, and in trying out many more fibres and weaving techniques.