Back at Butser Ancient Farm: reconstructing the past and safeguarding its future

In mid-April, CA travelled to Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire – our first site visit of 2021! – to catch up with what’s new at the recently reopened experimental archaeology centre. The site has just unveiled an immersive reconstructed Neolithic house, as well as an innovative new online offering to share the team’s research more widely. Current Archaeology's Carly Hilts reports.

Inside the Neolithic house, flames crackle softly in the hearth, filling the high-peaked space with flickering light and the sweet smell of woodsmoke. Animal skin-draped benches provide a comfortable seat around the fire, while typical household items such as wooden ladles, bowls, and stone tools lie conveniently to hand. This atmospheric scene comes from the modern day, however; the prehistoric structure is in fact the latest of Butser Ancient Farm’s immersive reconstructed buildings, and its design is based on the remains of a nearly 6,000-year-old house excavated by Wessex Archaeology eight years ago.

The Neolithic period is when hunter-gatherer communities are believed to have settled down to farm the land, domesticate animals, and create lasting homes – but the physical traces of the structures that made up these settlements are rarely found in Britain. The discovery of a cluster of four Neolithic houses during Wessex Archaeology’s investigations at a CEMEX UK quarry site near Horton in Berkshire was, then, truly exceptional (see CA 292). These buildings survived only as rectangular footprints preserving a pair of quite different designs: two were smaller, their outlines picked out in post-holes, while the other two were larger, more- elaborate creations combining post-holes with foundation trenches that may have held upright timbers or planks, and preserving hints of some kind of internal division.

Above The new Neolithic: Butser Ancient Farm’s latest reconstructed building is based on the remains of a nearly 6,000- year-old house that was excavated by Wessex Archaeology in Berkshire.
The new Neolithic: Butser Ancient Farm’s latest reconstructed building is based on the remains of a nearly 6,000- year-old house that was excavated by Wessex Archaeology in Berkshire.

The largest of these, ‘Horton 2’, has now been recreated at Butser Ancient Farm – an experimental archaeology site nestled in the South Downs, which reopened to the public in mid-April. It replaced a predecessor based on the Neolithic longhouse found at Llandygai (see CA 203 and 306), which had reached the end of its working life. The Farm’s staff and volunteers have worked closely with Wessex Archaeology in all aspects of the house’s design and construction to ensure that it reflects the archaeology as accurately as possible. The result is an imposing trapezoidal structure measuring 15m by 7.5m, with a double door located towards one end of its southern wall. True to the excavated remains, its frame is dominated by six large posts – one in each corner, with the remaining timbers dividing the internal space into two chambers and helping to support the roof.

Above The inside of the reconstructed ‘Horton 2’; details are, as far as possible, based on excavated evidence.
The inside of the reconstructed ‘Horton 2’; details are, as far as possible, based on excavated evidence.

The presence of so few posts in such a large building posed quite the architectural challenge for the team, Butser archaeologist Claire Walton told CA during our visit to the site, particularly as no above-ground aspect of the Horton house had survived to indicate how it should look. The resulting reconstruction is therefore just one interpretation of what may have stood above the original outline, but it is based as far as possible on excavated evidence, combined with environmental data from the site and additional details based on information from other sites.

Archaeology meets architecture

For example, the team calculated that the roof must have had an angle of at least 45º – less than that, and the roof would rot and thus leak – but there was no advantage in having a more sharply pitched roof, which would have just consumed more materials in its construction. This decision then led into other aspects of the design: the weight of the roof on timber walls would have been considerable, so the team combined roof and load-bearing walls, with the thatched slopes coming right down to the ground. This would create a more robust structure, they determined – and a safer environment for the large school parties that they hope will make use of the new building. ‘We are all about sights, smells, workshops – experiencing the past,’ co-director Maureen Page said.

As for what the roof was made of, a number of materials are possible, from straw and turf to heather – but as we know that Neolithic Horton was covered with wetlands, the project settled on water reeds, drawing on environmental data from Wessex Archaeology’s work to ensure that the right kind was sourced to provide the 5-6 tons of thatch required. Similarly, the house frame has been built exclusively from oak, Scots pine, ash, and hazel – all trees known to have been present in Britain during the Neolithic.

From aerial aspects to more terrestrial matters, the make-up of the floor was also a mystery, as the Berkshire site had been heavily ploughed, removing all traces of internal surfaces from the Neolithic houses. As an educated guess, the team has created a simple beaten earth floor with a clay hearth, as has been seen during many other excavations of prehistoric houses.

RIGHT The footprint of the original house measured 15m by 7.5m, but this substantial structure seems to have been built around just six post-holes (each marked here by a member of Wessex Archaeology).
The footprint of the original house measured 15m by 7.5m, but this substantial structure seems to have been built around just six post-holes (each marked here by a member of Wessex Archaeology).

The house itself was built using tools and techniques that would have been available in c.3600 BC. We have some knowledge of the capabilities of Neolithic carpenters thanks to the discovery of a series of 7,000-year-old waterlogged wood-lined wells in Germany: from these, we can tell that they were sophisticated craftspeople able to create complex tusked mortise and tenon joints. The Butser build team used wooden mallets, stone and bone tools, and flint axes to shape and chisel through timbers – processes that were ‘surprisingly straightforward and quick’, Claire said. Timbers were fixed in place using lap joints and lashed securely using almost a kilometre of plant-fibre rope, together with a further 2.7km of twine attaching battens to the roof structure. There was no recourse to modern scaffolding or mechanical cranes – timbers were raised into position using A-frame scaffolds and a good deal of hauling on ropes – and in just four weeks the house frame was complete, although the thatching took rather longer, being interrupted by the closure of the site due to the pandemic.

Gareth Chaffey of Wessex Archaeology, principal site director for the Horton excavation, described his first sight of the finished structure as ‘an emotional moment’. ‘Seeing it in the ground and then seeing it standing – it’s like coming full circle’, he said.

The future of the past

The new Horton 2 joins a regular village of reconstructed buildings at Butser Ancient Farm, with prehistoric neighbours including a cluster of Iron Age roundhouses (soon to be joined by a Bronze Age example based on Operation Nightingale’s excavation at Dunch Hill), as well as a Roman villa and two Anglo-Saxon houses. The site has been hosting archaeological experiments for decades, and next year is set to mark its 50th birthday – but, when COVID-19 restrictions saw heritage sites shut down across the country last year, the Butser team feared for the Farm’s future.

BELOW The reconstruction was built using materials, techniques, and tools that would have been available to Neolithic carpenters.
The reconstruction was built using materials, techniques, and tools that would have been available to Neolithic carpenters.
Creating the house’s roof involved 5-6 tonnes of reed thatch and 2.7km of thatching twine.

Normally attracting thousands of paying visitors and upwards of 35,000 schoolchildren per year, the site was suddenly shorn of 80% of its income – but the costs of maintaining its buildings and feeding the animals on the site (around £800 per day) did not disappear. Donations from supporters across Europe, the USA, and Australia helped to keep the Farm (which is a not-for-profit Community Interest Company) afloat during those difficult early months, co-director Simon Jay said, and the site has now received a grant from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund, enabling them to launch a new online initiative.

Driven by a desire to give something back to supporters, and to safeguard the Farm’s financial future during the pandemic – and inspired by how virtual tools have helped people to connect and explore the past during lockdown – the team has now launched Butser Plus. This platform is intended to run alongside the physical farm site. It hosts behind-the-scenes insights and videos showcasing the archaeological experiments and ancient skills practised at the Farm, from coppicing and flint-knapping to making tools and weapons and smoking fish, as well as sharing the thinking behind various aspects of the reconstructions.

ABOVE A screenshot showing some of the exclusive videos available to subscribers to Butser Plus, the Farm’s new virtual platform to share their archaeological experiments.
A screenshot showing some of the exclusive videos available to subscribers to Butser Plus, the Farm’s new virtual platform to share their archaeological experiments.

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of mental wellbeing, the team says, and the platform therefore also has a focus on mindful content, complementing the calming rural setting of the physical Farm by sharing videos featuring scenes of nature and the rare-breed animals that live on the site. Future content will provide updates on new reconstruction work taking place over the next few months, covering techniques including thatching and timber framing. Supporters will be able to access this content in exchange for a monthly donation beginning at £5.99, and the Butser team hopes that the website will help to expand the reach of their research and educational resources to people all over the world, even as life on the Farm returns to normal – ‘using modern technology to connect with the ancient past’, Simon said.

Beltain online

In normal times, 1 May would have seen a major celebration taking place at Butser Ancient Farm, marking Beltain – one of four fire festivals that marked key turning points in the Celtic year. Beltain heralds the coming of summer, celebrating fertility and hopes for a good harvest, and was traditionally marked by the lighting of large fires. An annual festival has been running at the Farm for more than 30 years, culminating in the burning of a huge wicker man. It represents an important fundraiser in the site’s calendar.

With people unable to gather as usual, though, this year’s festivities have been a little different. The Farm still set fire to a towering effigy – this year’s design was reminiscent of the Long Man of Wilmington, the South Downs giant in neighbouring Sussex – but the event was otherwise a virtual one. The team has shared dramatic footage of the event on Butser Plus, together with storytelling by woodland bard Jonathon Huet, hoping to encourage donations to safeguard the Farm’s future, as the usual in-person celebration would. For more information, see www.butserancientfarm.co.uk/butser-plus or www.butserplus.com.

Further information
Butser Ancient Farm is now open to pre-booked visits – for more information about the experimental archaeology centre, go to www.butserancientfarm.co.uk. For further details of Butser Plus, visit www.butserplus.com.
You can find a series of blog posts describing the Horton excavation and the reconstruction work at www.wessex arch.co.uk/search?keys=butser.
There is also an hour-long webinar and shorter videos about the reconstruction project on the Wessex Archaeology YouTube channel: search for ‘Butser’ at www.youtube.com/c/archaeologists.