Give Me Shelter Part 3

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

Part 1:

Part 2:

return.JPGAll 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

Water Resistance

Moisture and rot issues arising with the UK climate

Fire Safety


 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.

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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.


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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.

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Dakota Style Tipis and Ojibwe Wigwam (Unk author, Public Domain)

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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)

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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.

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(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.


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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.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 18.02.03.png(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.

skull.JPGView 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.

Stone Age Experience


Give Me Shelter Part 2

This is a follow on article regarding my experience as a consultant with the production of 10000 BC series one, and some of the observations and questions it has provided me.

After a frantic day of evacuating the cast and crew out of deep Bulgarian forests amidst a massive snow storm, the odds of completing the project looked grim. We spent a long night with the consulting group and the production team discussing possibilities over a fair bit of wine.

The following day, we had decided that we would push forward and make the project happen. I immediately started working with the consulting and safety team (Taff’s TV), and we came up with a game plan to train the few who chose to stay on to a minimum level of basic survival skill functionality so we could restart the project. During the day, myself and a Taff’s consultant (Dave Connell) would train them on basic hunter-gatherer skills, such as processing bone for marrow, making containers, etc. and in the evenings, I researched the best ways to stem their massive loss of body weight. This was all occurring as we were socked in by the snow, with limited phone, internet, and inability to travel. In addition to working out the survival aspects of restarting the project, the production team headed up by Spencer Kelly and the manager Jackie had their own challenges of keeping the logistics going, so everybody involved in the project was working their tails off to reboot the project.

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Producers Spencer Kelly and Hannah Lowes sitting in deep thought in the production HQ trying to work out how to make the show a success.

By looking at some physiological data on cold weather, I was somewhat shocked to learn that a person can burn in excess of 400 kcal an hour just by shivering. I had actually used this strategy before to lose body fat when I was trying to make weight for wrestling tournaments in high school, but didn’t realize just how much weight could actually be lost in this manner. A cold eight-hour sleep session meant that the participants could be losing almost 1 lb of weight a night just from shivering (3500 kcal = 1 lb weight). The reality was that darkness came early and when it did, the cast all retired to the shelters early, so many of them were sleeping a lot more than 8 hours, and presumably shivering for most of it.

A pound or more of weight loss a day just from being cold at night is unsustainable for a group of people who have very limited foraging skill and almost no hunting skill. It is estimated that Neanderthals in a glacial climate required 4500 or more kcal a day to survive and did it quite successfully for thousands of years, but our group were not Neanderthal hunter-gatherers, and in the end, the Neanderthals did not survive anyway (but they did interbreed with us). Our group were barely gatherers, and definitely not hunters. Some skills such as cordage you can teach in a morning, and some such as hunting (which is a whole plethora of skills) require a life-time of apprenticeship and learning, and the real calories come from animal fats and proteins.

The first thing taught to them was how to make proper bedding, and what the necessity of it is. Even with animal skins laid on the ground, as soon as they are damp and compressed tightly, they will become conduits for heat transfer to the ground. So, I showed them how to take cattails and bundle them together so that they will hold air and act as air mattresses. The added benefit to that is that in gathering cattails for mattresses, they can also pull roots for food, which are also fairly tasty.



Dave Connell, a Taff’s TV survival consultant and former regimental Sergeant Major takes the remaining cast members through a highly motivational calisthenics session during training to show them how to warm up in the cold

The next step in stopping the cold loss was assessing the shelter dynamics. In the first two weeks of using the shelter, the participants had not been very judicious with keeping the door sealed or providing a means of sealing it (bundled grass etc). This allowed the fire to act as a convector for the heat by pulling in fresh, cold air from the door and pushing the warm air up. This would be well and good if you were sitting in the upper chamber of the shelter or were right next to the fire all night, but that wasn’t possible. So to arrest this convection we took two approaches. The first was stopping the upward air flow of heat, we built the false ceiling of animal skins, with just a small smoke hole at about 8 foot high., We determined that by building an internal lattice frame and putting a false ceiling of animal hides a few feet above head height, and then adding insulation over that, we might prevent the heat from escaping strait up into the upper chambers even if their door wasn’t being used appropriately. It was reasoned that a hunter-gatherer group in this ecosystem might have used the upper chambers to store goods and supplies anyway, with the smoke having a preservative effect to keep rodents and insects away. This would have had the added benefit of reflecting heat down (same principle as a heat reflector on a lean-to) and hopefully trapping some the heat. We also showed the participants how to build an insulated door to stop the flow of cold air in. This false ceiling was meant to trap heat and reflect more heat back down onto the floor.

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Adam Hendley of the Taff’s team overseeing food processing training (with some modern materials involved) with J.P. and Steve

Lastly, the participants elevated their beds a bit with wooden logs and sunk the fire pit down a bit deeper into the floor to make the difference in elevation between the fire and the heat chamber greater and to allow for the “cold sump” effect to let the colder air flow down away from them. The survival consulting team had initially done this, but the participants did not heed or understand the advice on how to use them and had deconstructed the beds.

None of the efforts to arrest the loss of heat were done to a great deal of precision due to time constraints and the madness that comes with a large group of people doing multiple things at once, particularly when there are cameras involved, but in this case it seemed to do the trick. Unfortunately, during this process I was not able to record any real data points as I had no recording equipment with me and could not know the exact degree of difference that they modifications had. When we put the group back into the experiment, the snow had melted and it had warmed back up substantially and cold was not an issue initially, giving the participants a chance to get settled back in before they got socked with the cold monster again.

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Andy Dorsett and Adam Hendley of the Taff’s team using a bow and arrow to shoot a length of rope over a large tree limb that is overhanging the main road to the camp. They used the rope to pull the tree limb out of harms way.

The whole process proved to be thought provoking: and having read some earlier academic papers speculating that glacial European humans were making lean-to shelters or only cave sites, it seemed extremely unlikely that a hunter-gatherer group would either loose that many calories to being cold and still survive or that they would willingly sit in shelters such as lean-to’s that would still result in burning twice as many calories during sleep due to some simple design dynamics. Evolutionarily, we often talk about selection and adaptation in terms of small percentages of efficacy within a population group. A hypothesis of early European shelter usage that puts the inhabitants in a position to burn almost twice as many calories as a well constructed shelter doesn’t seem like something that would persist. It left me wanting to explore some of the thermodynamics of shelter building on my own. It was with that inspiration that I proposed to the University of Oxford Palaeotechnology Society, of which I am a member, and Manse Ahmed of Wilderness Pioneers (who works with the society) that we make our own shelter and explore the dynamics ourselves under much more controlled conditions. So we did.


Experimental shelter built by Univ of Oxford Palaeotech Society and Wilderness Pioneers


The follow-up blog post will be an overview of how we built our shelter and what we discovered.

Give Me Shelter Part 1

This is the first in a series of articles about an experimental shelter construction project conducted by the University of Oxford Palaeotechnology Society and Wilderness Pioneers (a UK based Bushcraft company) that was inspired by my work with the television show 10,000 BC on Channel 5 (UK TV).

It is hard to overstate the impact a warm shelter would have had for our early human ancestors living in a glacial Europe. Having been taught and having made a number of crude “survival” shelters while serving as a wilderness survival student and instructor, I had a healthy appreciation for their value, as I have often had to sleep in them in inclement conditions. During one particularly memorable training event at the beginning of my education, two colleagues and I started a multi-day “primitive” survival exercise with no modern or metal tools. We spent the better part of the first day incorrectly prioritizing our survival efforts on tasks such as picking berries and fishing, etc., then hurriedly built a shelter just prior to nightfall using what might be considered the standard debris shelter design.


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Debris Hut

This design incorporated a one meter thick roof of debris piled onto a high pitched roof and frame. We suffered greatly that night, as a cold, spring rainstorm proved the shelter insufficient to handle the elements. The heavy rain quickly found channels through the weak spots of the grass and debris roof, while the water that did funnel off the roof came flooding in from under the base of the shelter. The three of us (all spec-ops types) spent the night huddled together in a very wet, cold, ball of man-misery.

It was a lesson well-learned, and the following day, my fellow students and I devised a simple thatching technique that used thin compression bars and a limited quantity of grass to provide a waterproof and insulated cover for a shelter. This method used only materials available in our ecosystem. It is a system I still use and teach today not only because it works, but because it can make use of less-than-desirable building material and requires a lesser amount of grass than a traditional debris hut.

Thatching using thin compression bars to pinch the grass together increasing the insulation and waterproof capability of the grass

Later, as a Palaeolithic archaeologist, the subject of shelters appealed to me as an academic interest as they are one of the subjects about which very little is written due to the scarcity of archaeological evidence for shelters much older than the Mesolithic (12,000 years ago). Despite this lack of academic material on the subject, shelters may have been a crucial aspect of human migration out of Africa for example.

Part of the problem, from an archaeological perspective, is that organic materials such as wood tend to not preserve very well in the record. This means that early stone age shelter support structures, which would have likely been made primarily of wood, possibly with stones as base supports, wouldn’t have survived for archaeologists to discover (there is evidence of the use of large animal bones as shelter supports). Additionally, the time-consuming nature of using stone tools or fire to cut wood means that large logs may not have been used as a primary building material for Palaeolithic shelters. For the archaeologist, the problem is that the smaller and easier-to-harvest logs are even less likely to be identified in an archaeological context. Basically, we know very little about what shelter design would have looked like prior to Upper Palaeolithic (and even that is pretty sparse) where the record becomes very limited due to factors such as time, glacial scouring, etc.

The subject of Palaeolithic shelter construction and design came back to me was after I entered graduate school. I began working with a television project, hoping to observe the results for data or inspiration for future experimental projects regarding cognition and subsistence. I participated as a consultant and on screen expert for the UK television show 10,000BC, which asked twenty UK citizens to live in a replica Palaeolithic camp for two months, given only a pan-Stone Age mix of tools for survival, a little bit of food, and a developed camp. I got involved in the project very late in the game, literally just before filming, so I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. While I liked the concept and the challenge of the project (and it was pretty damn entertaining), I quickly realized it was not possible to set it up in a way that would make it a true “experimental archaeology” project; it fell more in line with a televised social experiment.

The Bulgarian landscape where the show took place

That being said, it did unexpectedly present some interesting observations for those of us who were seeing more than what was edited down for television. These are the little observations that most viewers would probably have no interest in, but archaeologists and survival students might. I will touch on some of the more interesting points in future posts, but the first  observation from that experience was that the shelter that was built had multiple dynamics to it’s function that would not be obvious to someone who wasn’t living in it regularly. I think for any archaeologist to get a replica stone age shelter built and then ask 20 people to live in it using only stone age materials would be quite an ambitious project in any respect.

The builders based their work on designs from previous experimental archaeology projects, had shelter experts consulting, and the structures were very well built. The interesting points of observation seemed to be the way the thermodynamics functioned. In the first two weeks, the participants were averaging a one and a half pound weight loss each day and, even before we had a snow-storm at the end of the second week, more than half of the participants had already quit the project. It had been relatively warm during the day and cool at night during the first two weeks, and the participants had a supply of food adequate to sustain each remaining participant for at least one and a half weeks. The best that could be said about their diets after two weeks was that it was “restricted”. They also had individual reindeer hide cloaks, bedding and leather clothing, and many of them were huddling together at night for warmth. Some had laid down grass or hides for bedding and some hadn’t. Their daily activity was observed and while they were (mostly) all working, it wasn’t as if they were running marathons. The safety team was monitoring their water consumption and, while they probably weren’t excellently hydrated, they were staying within healthy measures of hydration.

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Grass thatched shelter for 10,000 BC season 1 based on designs from experimental archaeologists

After the first two weeks, things were looking grim for the project due to the number of people that had quit. The production crew asked me to step in and do an on-camera “check up” on the cast and see if we couldn’t provide some motivation. I was really only meant to interact with the cast at the beginning, middle and end of the project, so I hadn’t been there the second week, and I returned to Bulgaria to check in. The night I landed in Sofia, fog settled in and sleet started falling. My normal two-hour car ride to the production HQ took four hours and eventually the sleet and fog started forming an ice layer over everything. Fortunately, I had an excellent taxi driver named after a famous Bulgarian king (Kaloian) who regaled me in broken English with tales of his pet squirrel that drinks Coca-Cola, but that’s another story.

Kaloian (left), owner of a Coca-Cola drinking squirrel, and Peter (Pepe) a Bulgarian Game Keeper (Ranger) that you would want on your side in a bar fight
The lodge/production HQ first thing in the morning as the snow started to fall

By the next morning, large flakes were falling as I was gearing up and strategizing with the production team (Rob Rawlings and Spencer Kelley) about how to motive the participants. It was a forty-five minute drive on rough trails to the camp and by the time I arrived, there was six inches of snow and ice on the ground and none of the participants had left the main shelter that morning. I went in with a production team, not sure what to expect, but knowing that in the two weeks since I had last seen them, almost half had quit, and now the snow had started falling.

Entering the camp was a grim experience: the participants looked like zombies and were mostly huddled up together, seemingly waiting for somebody to provide relief. I immediately noticed that despite the fire and body heat, I could see my breath and my hands were cold and despite being covered under reindeer hides, several of the participants were shivering. The first thing to occur to me was that here was a very noticeable and continuous draft of cold air coming straight in from the door that was essentially some large pieces of leather flapped over the opening, but with no seals around the sides or insulation. It was almost as cold inside the shelter as it was outside. The shelter was large in most respects, approximately six meters in diameter and six meters tall (that may be off to a degree as I wasn’t able to take a tape measure to it). It had a very thick layer of insulated grass covering it (at least one meter deep), and there was a smoke hole about a meter across at the top.


Prepping as the snow falls with Producer Spencer Kelly before heading in to check up on the participants


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By mid-morning, approximately 10cm of snow had fallen on the camp and the participants were huddled inside the shelter

The production and safety team wisely decided to pull the participants from the experiment that afternoon, as they were in no condition to continue and the snow was still coming down hard. Another aspect to this was that the ice storm was unusually early in the season (the trees had not yet lost their leaves), and well outside the norms of predicted weather for the last 20 years (The weather patterns had been thoroughly checked by production and health and safety team). While sitting in the shelter with the participants in the late morning, we started hearing tree limbs crashing in the forest regularly, and by the end of the day we were seeing limbs a half meter wide or bigger crashing down regularly (By the next day, the hazard from the limbs was so great that even the locals were afraid to venture into the forest). We pulled the participants back to the lodge in a sort of frantic convoy of vehicles stuck on bumpy forest trails, with a tractor working up and down the line pulling vehicles out of drifts. We were a convoy of miserable reality television participants, miserable camera crew (those guys endured a helluva lot of cold while standing in one place over the course of the shoot), and some very anxious producers.

Evacuating the cast and crew and getting vehicles out of snow drifts

It wasn’t until after dark that everyone had finally made it back to the production HQ, where the participants were isolated in a wing of the lodge with a strictly controlled diet and the rest of us went about the process of deciding if the project was still tenable… with a bit of wine helping the decision making.


Production Crew enjoying life

The follow on post will explain what happened with the project after the snowstorm and what other observations were made.

South Wales Geology with my Dog

Recently my wife and I were visiting a friend in South Wales and after a long weekend, he suggested we finish the trip by visiting Nash Point Lighthouse along the Monknash Coast.

nash point
Nash Point

I am a recent newcomer to the UK, and as such am still “exploring” it, but it is quickly becoming apparent why it is essentially the birthplace of modern geology. The exposed geology and geomorphology is extremely diverse for such a small landmass. It is also easy to see why geology pioneers James Hutton and Charles Lyell were inspired and curious to try and create models to explain the fascinating features that dotted their landscapes.

coastal view
Coastal view to the SE
coastal view west
Coast view directly west

When we got to the lighthouse on Nash Point, my attention was immediately diverted by the cliffs along the coastline and a rock formation that I later heard referred to as the Welsh Sphinx.

Traeth Mawr at Nash Point (Sometimes called the Welsh Sphinx), looking to the NW. A border collie and a Frenchman used here to give relative size.

I recently had a phone upgrade, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore the geology and test the camera on my phone. The exposed geology in this area is enough to make any student of the natural sciences go gaga, so it was a very rewarding way to wrap up the weekend.


The whole region is a location where Carboniferous Limestone (363-325 MYA) is overlaid by a formation called the Lower Lias, which is a late Triassic and early Jurassic formation that is known to contain a large amount of fossils in it’s early stages. In between those time periods (The Carboniferous and the late Triassic) there was an unconformity which basically means that some event scoured or removed the deposition that would have occurred during that time. When the deposition becomes visible again, there is evidence that early Jurassic creatures are boring into the underlying carboniferous limestone.

Ammonite fossil or cast

The hardness of the limestone and the movement of the water have created what is called a wave-cut platform, which results in vertical stone cliffs that are perpendicular to a flat stone platform that extends out into the ocean. In addition to the sculpted outcrops, the beach is littered with dense cobbles and boulders that make it difficult to walk along the areas where the waves have piled them up.

wave erosion
Wave action erosion on the dense limestone formation

We explored the coast and watched as the sunset and the tide came in before heading off to a local country pub.

The crew
Ocean view as the sun sets
ringo contemplates
Ringo contemplating the meaning of it all

Wild Food Recipe: Burdock Root Sautéed in Duck Fat


For many of us, foraging our own foods is a deeply rewarding way to assert our independence from “the system” and stay in touch with our origins, particularly those of us with an interest in prehistory. The reality is, however, most of us would not likely care for the cuisine that was available to our prehistoric ancestors.

We live in a global food economy, with ingredients and cultural influences from across the world that often converge into one dish. Mexican cuisine is my personal favorite,  and living in the UK, it is difficult to find, so I stockpile cooking tools and ingredients, and have had to source import specialists to find what I need to make decent Mexican food. Simply put, I have made eating Mexican cuisine a priority in my life, and it is worth noting, that while I view it as a cuisine that has it’s origins in the southern end of North America, it is really a cuisine that has global origins.

When I eat a simple Mexican dish such as carne asada tacos with black beans and rice, I am benefiting from not just a global influence, but also the benefits of thousands of years of plant domestication that occurred in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. All of these continents contributed to my simple plate of food. With the exceptions of coriander (which has been found in Neolithic Continue reading “Wild Food Recipe: Burdock Root Sautéed in Duck Fat”

io9 Article on Lost Skills: “There are no magic bushmen”

I was asked by editor George Dvorsky at io9 to contribute to a discussion about lost survival skills.

After thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that it would be hard to point to any one “skill” or “technique” and say that it is lost. There are still hunter-gatherer communities that practice many of what we would consider to be survival skills and there is a large community of practitioners from the archaeology and primitive technology communities in the western world that actively research and pursue knowledge of these skills.

I decided to focus more on what aspects were lost from a social, cognitive, and ecological perspective. You can read the article here.