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Housebuilding prehistoric style

There’s a Stone Age house at Broekpolder, near the city of Vlaardingen. It wasn’t built by prehistoric people but by modern archaeologists from Leiden University and volunteers from a local initiative known as Broekpolder Federation. They used replicas of Stone Age tools, such as stone axes and chisels made from bone or horn. ‘It’s a kind of forensic investigation of archaeological finds.’

Annelou van Gijn, Professor of Archaeological Material Culture and Artefact Studies, is leading the project, which involves building a Stone Age house with prehistoric tools.
Annelou van Gijn, Professor of Archaeological Material Culture and Artefact Studies, is leading the project, which involves building a Stone Age house with prehistoric tools.

This is an article in a series about partnerships and impact on society. 

At the Educational Archaeological Yard, where the Stone Age house has stood since 2016, volunteers spend two days a week giving tours to school classes and visitors. Researchers can also do experiment with things such as firing earthenware or conserving wooden posts in the ground. ‘It’s fantastic to have somewhere to try things out,’ says Annelou van Gijn, Professor of Archaeological Material Culture and Artefact Studies at Leiden University. She has been involved in the project from the start. ‘For the local volunteers it’s a kind of community centre: making things together brings people together. They are very committed to the Yard.

Forensic research

‘This work is part of a kind of forensic investigation into the traces of use on archaeological objects,’ says Van Gijn. As an experimental archaeologist, she makes – or gets others to make – tools such as axes, chisels and hammers and then uses them in different ways. ‘Then I compare the traces that arise with the traces I find on prehistoric tools that we’ve discovered in excavations. I try to find out what these objects were used for and what everyday life was like at the time.’

Burn it down and dig it up again

The Stone Age house at Broekpolder is not the first house that Leiden archaeologists have built: they already built a similar house at Hosterwold in Zeewolde in 2012. ‘I worked with Staatsbosbeheer [agency that manages nature reserves], the Prince Berhard Culture Fund and Diederik Pomstra, a law graduate who now also works as an experimental archaeologist,’ says Van Gijn. ‘Last March we burned the house in Zeewolde down, and we excavated it again in June. That was a great way to follow the entire life cycle of a Stone Age house.’

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Excavated floor plan

Both Stone Age houses are based on the floor plan of a house from what is known as the Vlaardingen Culture from around 2,500 BC. This floor plan obviously wasn’t discovered on paper but is based on an excavation in Haamstede-Brabers in 1959: in effect it is the discolouration in the ground that indicates where the wooden pillars would have stood. ‘We don’t know what the house looked like above ground,’ says Van Gijn. ‘We have to interpret this with the aid of a few rules, such as that the roof pitch has to be sufficient for rain and snow to run and slide off.’

Wealth of information

The Stone Age houses produced a wealth of information for Van Gijn’s research. ‘They weren’t built with modern tools but with replicas of prehistoric ones. Where and how these were used is fully documented. We also analysed the traces of use that occurred on the tools and have added them to our reference collection.’

Diederik Pomstra (right) and prehistoric housebuilding expert Leo Wolterbeek (middle) building a Stone Age house at the Archaeological Yard. Nigel Langdon (left) shooting a film about the construction process.

Student fieldwork

There has been a different prehistoric building project each year at the Archaeological Yard since 2016, for instance building prehistoric canoes. Leiden researchers work on these together with volunteers and students. ‘It’s fantastic fieldwork for students,’ says Van Gijn. ‘They experience what it’s like to chop down a tree with a stone axe. This results in a knowledge of materials that you would never learn in the lecture hall.’

Text: Dorine Schenk
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