Butser Ancient Farm, A brief history.
Butser Ancient Farm was established in 1972 as an open air research site to use experimental archaeology to investigate aspects of life in the British Iron Age. Butser relies on funds from students of all ages and from the general public to ensure it’s survival. It is and has always been an independant organisation. I believe the current directors are Maureen Page & Simon Jay.
The original farm was located on the slopes of Butser hill near Petersfield in Hampshire and was not generally open to the public. As the project grew a second site was opened in 1976 along the A3 at the foot of Butser hill this new site was open to the public. Later growth within the Queen Elizabeth Country Park caused pressure on the farm and in 1990 it was relocated to a single site known as Bascomb Copse where the farm resides to the present day. The current site is located at SU 719 164 which is just East of the A3 at the Clanfield junction on the road to Charlton.
The farm has two main types of structures, the first type are based on archaeological excavations from around Britain where detailed floor-plans are evident allowing accurate structures to be recreated, the second are purely speculative where post holes are discovered but the usage is unknown and can only be guessed at. These two B&W images are examples of speculative buildings showing how a Iron Age toilet might have looked like, the wind appears to have got the better of this building. The image below is another such structure and has been named as the Clunch house after the material it is made from. Clunch or Cob was an Iron Age concrete and was commonly used across southern Britain and consists of straw, mud and chalk mixed with water. This type of building would typically be used for storage.
The first of the following two images is of a granary, this is a speculative building which has been built using construction methods of the era to research how a granary may have looked and to see if it was viable and in a trial it was used to store 500kg of grain for a year. In the trial 500g of grain were removed daily, when the year was up some of the grain that remained was germinated to prove that it had kept well, and some was also ground into flour and then baked into bread. It can store up to about 750kg of grain. The second image (pictured right) shows a wattle and daub constructed building, it has been deliberately left unfinished so that the construction can clearly be seen. The wattle – woven hazel branches over uprights are then daubed with a mix of mud, dung and straw, when dry the daub can be painted with liquid clay coloured with natural pigments.. The building is finished with a ring thatched roof. Pictured below is Moel y Gerddi one of three large round houses.
Moel y Gerddi
Moel y Gerddi is a house based on one excavated near to Harlech in North Wales. It is unusual in having two doors although only one is in use and is the oldest roundhouse on the site having been completed in 2002. As can be seen from the image the roof has been finished with a ring thatching.
What cannot be seen in the images is that the main posts of the inner ring had rotted below ground level. A decision was made to replace the posts in-situ rather than dismantle the building. A successful operation to replace the timbers was carried out in 2009, the ends of the timber that were placed in the earth were charred to help prevent rotting. I have included several images of the interior of the house showing the construction of the roof, the door hinges and the general layout of the building. The internal walls have been decorated with paintings and artwork in the style of art from the period. The external walls appear to have been left with a natural finish. Note the second or back door in the image below.
It can be seen from the photo below that there isn’t a chimney or hole in the roof to let the smoke out, the tar from the smoke gives the underside of the thatch a golden sheen.
I was surprised at how warm these buildings were compared to the bitter cold outside, they are more draught proof than Victorian homes.
I was interested in the simplicity of the door hinges (right hand image) and was wondering how long they would last as the weight of the doors must be colossal. This final image of Moel y Gerddi gives you a feel of the building and shows cookware and an oven. The floors of these houses are made of crushed and beaten chalk.
Little Woodbury is the largest of the roundhouses and is based on one excavated just outside Salisbury in the late 1930s. Overall it is some 50 feet in diameter, it was not determined as to what function the original building served.
One thing I noticed on entry into a building that had a fire burning was a lack of a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. Although still smokey at head height it isn’t too bad although I must have smelt like an arsonist. These buildings must have been fantastic as a place for gatherings, for bonding and feasting as well as living, I can imagine how warm and cozy they would be with 20 – 30 people inside. I could almost smell the bread baking and a suckling pig roasting over the fire.
I now know that it is a bad idea to leave a hole for the smoke to exit, the smoke filled roof cone serves two purposes the first is that it kills the insects in the thatch which in turn stops the birds pulling the thatch apart looking for insects, secondly, and more importantly it reduces the oxygen level in the cone so that any embers that fly up from the fire are naturally extinguished before they can set the thatch alight. By contrast, having a hole will increase the upper cone oxygen levels, create a through draught that will make the fire burn more fiercely which in turn increases the likelihood of embers floating up into the thatch and setting it on fire.
This house is a reconstruction of an excavation of a roundhouse at Danebury Hill fort, nr Andover in Hampshire. It is the first time in Britain that a roundhouse of this type of construction has been tried. The walls are of vertical timber planks laid in a slot trench.
This house was furnished with items that would have been found in Iron Age houses and illustrates how a typical house may have looked both inside and out. Shown in the image above right, is a quern-stone, a quern-stone is used for hand grinding a wide variety of materials including cereals into flour. They are used in pairs, the lower, stationary stone is called a quern, while the upper mobile stone is called a handstone. The quern-stone is from where stone ground flour originates. They were first used in the Neolithic period.
If this type of furniture and lifestyle was typical back in the Iron Age then whilst times were obviously hard and life expectancy was rather low it didn’t look a bad time to live. Looking at that bed and the timbers used to create the walls I wonder how long it would take to saw up the planks for the walls, they looked to be about 40mm thick oak, I wonder what the status of the person who would live in a house constructed that way.
A loom as shown by the image above left which has weights hanging from the Warp threads, dates from the early Neolithic from around the Danube basin in Turkey and in Britain from the Bronze age. The word “loom” comes from the Old English “geloma” formed from ge-(perfective prefix) and loma, a root of unknown origin; this meant utensil or tool of any kind. In 1404 it was used to mean a machine to enable weaving thread into cloth. By 1838 it had gained the meaning of a machine for interlacing thread as in weaving, knitting or lacemaking. Click on the image to the right to read a description as to how it was used.
Mound 59 & Mound 74
These two smaller houses (M59 on the left & M74 on the right, the numbers refer to the house number on the excavation report) are based on excavations from the lake village site near Glastonbury, and are named after two of the mounds from this extensive site.
The site of the original houses were on a man-made island on the Somerset levels so were very marshy, it was found that some of the houses had up to 10 clay and brushwood floors on top of each other – as one sank into the marshy ground another would be added on top of the previous one.
As the original houses were built on marshy ground and would be prone to sinking, it was decided to build an experimental light weight house (M59 left hand side house) that would hopefully be less prone to sinking. The wattle and daub walls are very thin and are made of willow to reflect the local materials available, it was decided to use ring thatching for the roof as this saves about a third of the weight of the roof. The thatch is of water reed as that would have been in abundance on the levels. The house is unusual in that it doesn’t have a door pointing to the rising sun. The door is made of a lightweight frame covered in animal skins. With all the weight saving measures taken, the house still weighs in at around 4.3 tons gross weight.
The image below is of M74 another small house based on the same excavation site as M59. This one, like M59 has a more traditional style of thatching, also made from water-reed but differs by having a small porch.
Glastonbury Lake Village excavation site of which these last two buildings were based on was an iron age village on the Somerset Levels near Godney, some 3 miles (5 km) north west of Glastonbury, Somerset, England, and covers an area of 400 feet (122 m) north to south by 300 feet (91 m) east to west. The lake village, a ‘crannog’ or man made island, was discovered in 1892 by Arthur Bulleid a local medical student, and son of a local mayor and the founder of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society.
The Roman Period
Off to one side of the site is a building of a Roman Villa based on one excavated in the late 1960s by David Johnson at Sparsholt, West of Winchester. It was decided to reconstruct just one wing of the range of buildings. Roman Britain, referred to by the Romans as Britannia, was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from 43 AD until c. 410.
I found my visit to be most fascinating and was great to glimpse what some of our earlier history may have looked and felt like. I look forward to my next visit.
I’ve also included a few links.