Give Me Shelter Part 3
This is part 3 of a continuing blog series covering aspects of my participation in the production of 10’000 BC, the challenges the production faced and how it inspired a shelter project.
Please read parts 1 and 2 for the greater context of the show and the projects we took part in
All of the remaining participants being shuttled back to their replica camp to reboot the project after the snow storm and training (Photo: Klint Janulis)
After the snowstorm and reboot, I returned to Oxford and met with the University of Oxford Palaeotechnology Society. We discussed some of the challenges that the participants had to overcome and some of their solutions. From that analysis, we worked through an outline of what we would want for our own shelter if we were to design it from scratch and decided to move forward and build it. We were very fortunate to be in contact with Wilderness Pioneers and a private landowner who has allowed us the use her woodland for our projects, and after hearing this proposal for the shelter, she agreed to let us build it on her property. This was meant to be partially an experimental archaeology project, partially a survival skills project, but mostly an excuse to get out in the woods and play.
For our purposes of shelter design, we wanted a shelter large enough it that would not only fit 4-6 people (a family unit), but also provide space for food and goods to be stored.
Anthropology vs Archaeology
The heat retention issues that were discussed in the previous blog were an obvious design element to be factored in, and for that we relied on a mix of input from archaeological, anthropological, and survival sources. Archaeologically, there is a debate regarding how much we can rely on anthropological and historical accounts of hunter-gatherers to inform what we observe in the pre-historic record. That debate is much too convoluted and dense for this blog, as there are good points on both sides of the issue. For our purposes, it works to say that while we cannot infer what was absolutely being done in the Stone Age, we can assess the conditions that our ancestors lived in and what more recent hunter-gatherers have done to adapt to the same conditions. This approach can give us insight into what is possible, what is necessary, and what is probable.
For inspiration, I turned to the excellent 1989 work by Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton’s “Native American Architecture”, Scott Jones’ experimental archaeology book, “A View to the Past”, John McPherson’s “Ultimate Guide to Wilderness Living”, as well as a number of other archaeological and survival resources.
For our shelter, we didn’t want to adopt the solutions from any one particular culture. Rather, we primarily wanted to see what could be done i) with the materials in our ecosystem (not a prehistorically accurate ecosystem I might add); ii) using only prehistoric technologies; iii) in a reasonable time-frame; iv) while leaving a limited archaeological signature (small support poles set in shallow soil); and iv) while also addressing the following areas:
Organisation of goods and supplies
A goal of high level of heat retention
Moisture and rot issues arising with the UK climate
The organisation of goods and supplies may seem to be a minor issue, but storage of food and goods is actually pretty important, particularly for a group in a temperate climate that requires saving food for winter. In Bulgaria, after we put the participants back into the wilderness and made some modifications to the shelter to handle the oncoming cold weather, we tackled organising the group.
As an individual survival skill, how to stay organised in the field is not something commonly taught, but for a group of people in a long-term survival experiment, it really can make the difference between life and death. The participants in season 1 started out with a large amount of tools and objects that all had specific functions and took a great deal of skill and time to make. These included things like fishing weights, hooks, sewing needles, pre-made choppers, spear points, etc. This doesn’t include the food that they either started with or accumulated. Additionally, there were a large number of wooden tools that may not have been recognizable as such to the untrained eye, including throwing sticks, digging sticks, mallets, and cordage material.
Some examples of the types of essential things that need organised and curated. A fishing net (left) made by Lee Grana and fishing tools and needles made by Manse Ahmad and Cory Cuthbertson for season 2 of 10KBC (Photo’s Klint Janulis)
Very quickly, many of the tools were lost, most of the small ones trampled in the dirt, and many of the wooden tools and cordage fibre material inadvertently made their way into the fire. This led to big problems when it came to repairing or improving shelters, clothing, blankets, fishing, and cordage making. So, technologically, while they had started out quite advanced, they very quickly regressed. Much of the food provided at the beginning was trampled into the dirt and or lost to moisture, rodents, or birds (there was some amazing video footage of birds and rodents stealing their dried food supplies). They lost what amounted to literally hundreds of labour hours in tools. Part of the problem was that they did not have the knowledge to recognise what was valuable for this new way of life, and the other problem was that they had no way of storing stuff and staying organised. This is where containers and structure design comes in. Lastly, there was no personal ownership or responsibility for the tools as they had not been made by the participants.
Dave Connell of Taff’s TV bringing the participants their deer after the reboot. All this meat needed dried and stored away from vermin. (Photo: Klint Janulis)
To address the organisation issue, we gathered a large amount of hazel and willow limbs to leave at the camp when we placed them back in. participants Melissa Schnelling and Steve Nicholson set to work using them to make shelves in the main shelter to get small tools and dried foods off the ground. They then converted one of the debris shelters into a storage shelter with rafters to hold extra food. They were given another deer, and they dried most of the meat for future use, so this had to be taken care of, in addition to the numerous cattail roots they had been collecting. Melissa was also declared the quartermaster of the group and implemented rationing and accountability of food and tools, which went a long way towards helping the group function. As a comparison, for season 2, we provided storage racks and a lot more containers, but the lack of “ownership still proved to be a problem.
Shelving and containers provided for season 2 of 10KBC to help the participants keep track of their goods. (Photo: Klint Janulis)
For organising our shelter, we decided to make a tall shelter so we would be able to store our material goods high in the rafters. This would have the added benefit of the smoke keeping vermin and pests out of our goods.
Back at the shelter-building project in Oxford, to avoid having to use large poles for our shelter that would be difficult to cut with stone tools and would leave a large archaeological signature, we elected to go with a dome-shaped design.
Dome shaped shelters were used by hunter-gatherer groups across the world in prehistory and a few in warmer climates still use them today. We were primarily looking towards shelter design to withstand cold winters, so we focused primarily on Native American and First People’s shelter designs, as well as shelter designs used in Siberia and Northern Europe. There is an interesting 19’000-year-old archaeological site in Israel where archaeologists have identified the outline, shape, and even the plant material used to make what was likely a dome-shaped shelter that might have looked roughly like an Apache wikiup.
Amazing picture of an Apache Wikiup (Photo by Edward S Curtis 1903-Public Domain)
The dome shape can allow for a great deal of structural strength, with smaller-sized poles used for the supports. We used hand axes and hafted axes to chop long hazel and willow limbs, and determined that the ideal size for us was approximately wrist-sized or shorter because they could be chopped quickly using stone tools (not all of the wood was chopped with stone tools). So, for our purposes the shelter design we went with was something that would most closely resemble Tipai (Native American) grass houses that were built and used in California all the way up to the late 19th century.
Early 20th century anthropologist John P Harrington had actually participated in the construction of grass-thatched dome structures with the assistance of Tipai and Chumash Native Americans in the 1920s, one of which was done for a county fair in Southern California. We definitely were not breaking new ground here, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing.
Thatch or Skins
I have heard reports of an animal skin-roof shelter made in the UK that didn’t last a season due to the roof collapsing from moisture and rot. My guess is that this is due in part to the shallow slope of the roof (I saw a picture), and because fire use under the shelter was likely infrequent (It was a weekend bushcraft shelter), allowing for pockets of moisture to develop in the skins in the very damp climate in England.
A skin shelter such as a tipi is essentially a living, breathing thing that needs constant care and that is preserved by use. While it is common anthropologically, the tipi is usually seen with mobile groups and often not used as a winter shelter, but primarily when following large game. Frequent set-up and take-down and constant smoke and heat means that the skins themselves are constantly being “preserved” and repaired. A static shelter in a damp environment is not ideal for animal skin usage.
Dakota Style Tipis and Ojibwe Wigwam (Unk author, Public Domain)
Paiute Wikiup: Temporary shelter that wouldn’t be called pretty by some but met the needs of the users (Photo: John K Hillers, Public Domain)
Shelter used in 10kBC Season 2: a dome-shaped structure using a mix of limbs, grass, and hides to provide cover. (blurry photo by Klint Janulis)
Another aspect to any modern “experimental” skin shelter is that we lack the Megafauna that existed until the end of the ice age. We lack the mammoths, woolly rhino, or massive deer to use for large waterproof skins like our ancestors would have had. A woolly mammoth hide with hair-on stretched over a frame might have made a pretty tremendous shelter because you would not only get a waterproof cover, but insulation as well. By the Middle Palaeolithic, humans (and Neanderthals) were exploiting mammoth bones for shelter construction, and it seems logical to assume the hides as well. There have been some experimental recreations of shelters based on archaeological evidence found in Ukraine that indicates dome-shaped shelters were built 44’000 years ago and those researchers concluded that those shelters would likely have been covered with hides, with the base supported by Mammoth bones.
Walking Shelter Material (Mural by Charles R. Knight 1916, American Museum of Natural History CC)
Experimental shelter made using actual mammoth bones for “Frozen Woolly Mammoth Yuka Exhibit” 2013 in Yokoyama Japan. (Photo: Nandaro CC)
We chose to go with grass thatching because of the aforementioned reasons, and our building location had a large swampy area with lots of sedges and grasses. I had thatched with grass before and there are numerous anthropological examples of how to do it, including in the UK, where it is still done for traditional roof construction, as it resists rot. Our goal was to do it in a way that could have been easily done by cutting the grass and supports with stone tools, not having to rely on machine-cut grasses, such as hay bales. Time constraints for 10kbc meant that the grass for the primary shelter was cut by machine and then used in thick layers, instead of thatching or bundling (which is also seen ethnographically). There is also a fairly substantial record of bark from trees, such as birch and cedar, being used as well, but the birch in our area of the UK is too highly scarred to be of much use. Further, bark may work well for waterproofing, but not as an insulation material.
(Top) Chumash Grass Lodge House being constructed by six Chumash men and Anthropologist John P Harrington.(National Museum of The American Indian CC) (Bottom) Grass panel being constructed with three thin willow branches laid under grass. After the rest of the grass is added, three more will go over them and will be tied tightly making one “panel”. (Klint Janulis)
For our project in Oxford, we chose to thatch using thin compression bars instead of bundles to reduce the amount of grass necessary. The compression bars were meant to trap air pockets between the grass to give it better insulation with less material. This is a system that looks to have been used by the Chumash in California, as well as numerous Native American groups on the Great Plains of North America.
One of the Bulgarian locals stopped to have his picture taken while he was throwing the hay used for the grass shelter (Top). Steve Nicholson gathering hazel use to prepare the shelters internal roof and storage system (Photos: Klint Janulis)
We went out and did a practice run, cutting the grass with some stone tools to gauge the length of time it would take to cut the grass needed for the project, and found that simple large flint flakes did the job quite well. The only additional time compared to using metal tools was that it was necessary to retouch the flakes every 20 minutes or so. I would like to say we cut all of the grass with stone tools, but we were working with volunteers and a lack of time, so it simply wasn’t practical. Once we determined that stone tools could do the job in the hands of experienced users, we were willing to take any help we could get using knives, which do not require maintenance and skill to use.
Fire Safety, Heat, and Smoke Holes
We opted to build a closed roof with no large smoke hole, as most of the ethnographic examples of dome-shaped thatched shelters have closed roofs as well. My survival skills mentor, John McPherson, advocates for a closed roof on a grass thatch shelter because no matter how tight the grass, enough smoke will seep out the top anyway. Closing the roof allowed us to restrict the upward flow of heat and allowed the smoke to collect in the upper chamber (below head height). It may seem counterintuitive, but by closing the roof, we were making it safer. By allowing the smoke and carbon dioxide to accumulate in the upper layers (above head height) a low oxygen environment is created, making it difficult for sparks to ignite the grass. Grass shelters are basically giant tinder bundles, as we saw with the participants in Bulgaria, when a couple of times the shelters were nearly set on fire.
Another significant aspect to this, as Dave Connell had pointed out during last year’s planning of the reboot, is fire management. The participants in 10kbc Season 1 slowly learned how to manage fire, but initially their fires were either not hot enough or too uncontrolled. Fire management was one of the skills that we had to emphasize extensivley during their “reboot” training. Fire management is a skill that takes time to learn and it is a lot more complex than just knowing how to make a fire: you must know what type of wood (or animal bones and dung) works best for what conditions, how to keep a fire from burning smokey, how to keep it at optimum temperature for generating appropriate heat, how to make it perform multiple tasks for you and importantly, how to avoid burning down your shelter. This is a skill that we have had in some form for almost a million years, and some of the best archaeological evidence for this comes from an archaeological site in Spain, Cueva Negra, that I excavated under Professor Michael Walker of the University of Murcia. Evidence of burnt bone, chert, and wood in a simple fire hearth in a cave showed that early humans were at least capable of achieving high temperatures with managed fire at least 800’000 years ago.
(Top) Fire Hearth being excavated. (Bottom) Cueva Negra Spain, home of some of the oldest evidence for fire in Europe, and not a bad place to spend the summer digging up old things. (Photos: Klint Janulis)
Since our shelter was meant to be the sort of shelter a group would have occupied in the winter, we wanted it to not only insulate well, but to build something that would not require a tremendous amount of firewood to warm up. A lean-to type shelter or poorly insulated shelter require a much larger and hotter fire to stay warm, and a fire that has to be constantly managed since it is direct heat warming the occupants. This means that easy-to-gather firewood becomes harder to find as winter progresses, requiring further travel to find sufficient firewood in colder times. An efficient, insulated shelter helps avoid this problem because even if the fire dwindles down, there is enough ambient heat to keep the occupants warm.
The above summary covers the reasons and some of the anthropological and archaeological logic behind the shelter we constructed in Oxfordshire. My next blog post will address the actual construction and all of the annoying little details we had to learn the hard way.
View of the Bulgarian Landscape (Photo: Klint Janulis)
The shelter project was done in cooperation with Manse Ahmad of Wilderness Pioneers who offers courses teaching bushcraft and prehistoric technology. Find out more information by following the link below.