Butser Ancient Farm is an experimental and public archaeology site nestled in Hampshire’s South Downs, about 20km north of Portsmouth. Today it is home to an array of reconstructed buildings representing a wide span of human history, but its genesis came about thanks to a decision by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), in 1970, to allocate funds for the study of the British Iron Age, with an emphasis on experimental investigations of agriculture. Two years later, Dr Peter Reynolds was appointed as Butser’s first director – a logical choice because of his prior experimental work with both prehistoric cereals and the experimental construction of some modest roundhouses based on Iron Age archaeology – and he immediately began the development of the Farm’s original location, on Little Butser, a spur of Butser Hill.
In these early years, Peter – alongside fellow archaeologists, students, and a growing coterie of enthusiastic and able volunteers – initiated a series of cereal trials and a programme of animal husbandry, each geared towards the study of Iron Age foodways and the use of animals as primary resources and a means of traction. The team also began work on a reconstructed roundhouse, something that Peter spearheaded with the same rigorous approach that he applied to all of his experimental work. To put this work into context, archaeology in Britain at this time, at least at an academic level, was increasingly enmeshed within the Processualist world of the New Archaeology. The past was considered accessible through the rigorous application of science, and Peter’s particular formulation of experimental archaeology was in tune with this zeitgeist. Experimental archaeology was, for him, an aspect of experimental science, and testing hypotheses in a methodical and repeatable format was key. As Peter himself put it:
Hypothesis implies a deduced or reasoned conclusion which can be further subjected to test or trial to confirm or deny that conclusion. The method of testing is called an experiment… The experiment, therefore, is not an exercise imagined or concocted by the experimenter. It is quite specific to a particular hypothesis.
Once the initial research funding from the CBA was fully allocated, it was necessary for Butser to become self-sustaining financially. In the earliest phases of operation, Peter was adamant that archaeological experiment and public engagement were more or less incompatible – but, as activities at the Farm became increasingly well-known and public interest grew, the site hosted occasional open days. The visitor numbers took the Butser team by surprise, with some weekends seeing over a thousand people flocking to see the site. This fact, twinned with the need for financial security, was a catalyst for the Farm, and Peter, to embrace public archaeology and education more fully, sowing the seeds of the Butser Ancient Farm of today.
I’m not sure that there is a more relevant visitor attraction in the UK at present, given the need to dig deep into humankind’s relationship with the planet and the pressure to consider where our food comes from. Butser Ancient Farm is so much more than a set of reconstructed buildings designed for immersion (although it does this brilliantly). It is also an active archaeological site where we can explore issues of materiality from extraction and exploitation to use and discard, all of which constitute an essential knowledge base as we attempt to navigate our way out of a world of overconsumption.Dr Alex Langlands, Swansea University
Beyond this, there is an increasing need in present society to understand ourselves and what makes us tick. We are movers and makers of things, storytellers and craftspeople, and now, more than ever before, we need to find a way to re-engage with our creative selves and to consider broader societal well-being.
If Butser Ancient Farm stands at the forefront in the engagement with contemporary concerns it is because, from its inception, it has always sought to look forward, to research, to explore, and to push the boundaries of knowledge. If the present plans for experimentation, engagement, and research on the site are anything to go by, the next 50 years promise to be just as successful.
A second site
By 1976, the Farm had expanded to occupy two separate sites. The original Little Butser Hill location remained exclusively experimental. The other, only 2km away at the base of Butser Hill, was designated for public engagement and education, and was called the Butser Ancient Farm Demonstration Area. At both locations the focus remained on Iron Age Britain, and it was on the latter site that Peter and his team constructed what is certainly the most influential representation of British Iron Age architecture: the Pimperne house (see CA 171). This was a representation of a large, double post-ring Wessex Roundhouse, and it is fair to say that the construction techniques that Peter used and documented during its construction have become a template for a great many roundhouses since – not only in experimental, educational, and touristic contexts, but also as models for archaeological texts. Butser’s roundhouses have become, in effect, de facto representations of the British Iron Age per se. As Mick Aston observed, ‘Virtually all the reconstruction drawings of Iron Age settlements now to be seen in books are based [on the work at Butser]’.
In 1991, Butser’s operations were again relocated, and experimental and public outreach activities were incorporated on to a single site near the village of Chalton, Hampshire. This site, which we have occupied continually since, is still only a few kilometres from the original on Little Butser. As educational and public-facing activities grew at the new location, so Butser’s chronology began to expand, with the construction of an experimental Romano-British hypocaust based on archaeology from Sparsholt, near Winchester, in 2000. The design was Peter’s, but sadly he did not live to see the completion of the reconstructed villa that it was intended for (CA 143 and CA 188), as he died unexpectedly in 2001. In subsequent years, Butser has grown significantly, although not without first tackling the necessities of putting the organisation on a sound financial footing, and of rebuilding the considerable gap in experimental capacity left after Peter’s passing.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Butser welcomed around 35,000 schoolchildren and 20,000 other visitors each year. Our experimental buildings now include structures representing the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Anglo-Saxon periods, as well as Roman Britain and, of course, the British Iron Age. Each of the buildings serves a dual purpose. They all embody an experimental element or elements, which are designed to test specific assumptions or ideas. Each is also a piece of public archaeology – a means of communicating ideas about the past in a tangible and immersive environment.
I can’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be an archaeologist, and it all began at Butser. I grew up in Hampshire and visited as a child; in one of my earliest memories, I’m in a gloomy, smoky roundhouse grinding wheat and making Iron Age bread. I can still smell that smoke, taste that bread, and remember how it made me feel – I was entranced, drawn in by the idea that there was a way to learn about people from so long ago. I was about four years old, and I decided that I wanted to be part of that world.Dr Hannah Fluck, Senior National Archaeologist, National Trust
Years later I returned, as an archaeologist. As Events Secretary for the Lithic Studies Society, I established the annual ‘knap-in’; being back there and sharing what I had learned in the intervening 30 years with other children was inordinately satisfying.
Now I visit with my own children, sharing that magic. They don’t want to be archaeologists (yet!), but that isn’t the point. It’s a place that takes us out of our daily lives, helps us imagine other worlds. More recently I’ve worked on how archaeology can play a positive role in tackling the environmental crises of our age. Places like Butser have an important role to play in that, contextualising our changing relationship with the environment over time – exploring the past is an essential foundation for imagining different futures.
My favourite time to experience Butser is early morning or late evening in the summer, with the thatch roofs steaming almost like they are smouldering, the pink spikes of willowherb, and the smell of woodsmoke. It still connects me right back to that four-year-old girl experiencing that magic for the first time, and I have no doubt I am not the only one who has been inspired by its magic.
Butser Ancient Farm as an experimental and educative organisation is, to a significant degree, Peter Reynolds’ legacy. The roundhouse as the iconic image of Butser is also his legacy, but I don’t think either is what is most significant about Peter or about Butser in the present day. In fact, he was quite explicit in stating that he wasn’t trying to ‘replicate’ Iron Age architecture – rather, he was testing engineering solutions to problems posed by the archaeology. Along with many other pioneers of the discipline over many years, Peter helped set experimental archaeology within an empirical, scientific methodological framework. He was engaging with contemporary archaeological thought, while simultaneously shaping a methodological structure from within which archaeological experiment could, and still can, be thoroughly legitimised. And it is that legacy that has allowed experimental archaeology to flourish in recent decades. It is that legacy, also, which allows us to keep doing our experimental work at Butser. While what we have built to-date is significant, it is what we will build next, what we discover from the demise of old structures, and the questions that we can ask from our work now and in the future that is most important.
Over the past four years, in particular, we have been able to build a number of significant structures, each of which has addressed a number of specific archaeological questions. In 2018, a mosaic floor was laid in our Romano-British villa. The process of creating that surface with authentic materials highlighted some considerable lacunae in existing knowledge about the processes and the people responsible for the creation of mosaics in Roman Britain. Then, in 2019, we built a large Neolithic house based on recently excavated archaeology from Horton, near Heathrow airport (see CA 377, CA 375, and CA 292). The difficulties that we encountered while working to resolve the structural challenges involved in realising that structure are still proving fruitful in current discussions about prehistoric construction and social practices. And last year we completed a Bronze Age roundhouse as a collaboration with Operation Nightingale, a pioneering MOD initiative which works to involve military veterans in archaeological fieldwork (CA 383). The archaeology that this structure is based on presented, as does all archaeology, a series of puzzles, and the resulting roundhouse is a hybrid structure offering possible solutions to those puzzles in a variety of forms in a single building. From an experimental perspective, it was very exciting to be able to test multiple interpretations of the archaeology in a single building and, just as excitingly, it is a great stimulus for visitors to engage with archaeology as a series of questions, rather than to passively receive ‘answers’.
Butser and Operation Nightingale
With lockdowns and distancing and restrictions, 2021 was a very tough year. This placed added stress on the military veterans taking part in the Operation Nightingale programme. So thank goodness for Butser. Meeting all the relevant protocols, we were still able to gather a team to build our experimental Bronze Age house, based on their Salisbury Plain excavations in 2020. This was a life-saver, as we could get out to meet friends, to be in a beautiful cathartic landscape, to learn new skills, and to watch our house – a thing of beauty – gradually emerge from the chalk. This house is very much ‘owned’ by the team, given their investment – some now volunteer at Butser and guide visitors around the building. Many of the team still meet up socially as friends. At a time of real pressures on well-being and mental health, the project ‘Exercise Roundhouse’ was both a life-saver and a chance for valuable research to take place. The partnership between academics, field archaeologists, experimental archaeologists, and veterans and their families was a joy to behold, and this came to the fore at the launch with Professor Alice Roberts and Dr Phil Harding, when the sun shone and the Bronze Age was illuminated.Richard Osgood, Senior Archaeologist, Defence Infrastructure Organisation
Our collaboration with Operation Nightingale proved incredibly fruitful and satisfying. It has delivered a significant experimental structure, generated a great deal of public interest, and, most significantly, contributed to the well-being of many of the people who were involved in the project. But that is far from the only collaboration we have been, and continue to be, involved with. As Butser has tackled increasingly challenging archaeology in recent years, so we have expanded dialogue with other archaeological institutions and colleagues, with commercial archaeology units, and with academia. This has allowed us to reinforce and renew links between Butser and the wider archaeological community, and has greatly enhanced both our experimental capacity and the relevance of the experiments themselves to the wider archaeological community. Just as significantly, the structures that are the fruits of those collaborations enrich the experiences of our visiting schools and public. We have been beneficiaries of funding from a number of bodies, which has greatly benefited our organisation and our work. The enhanced profile that Butser’s ambitious, collaborative works have generated has, without doubt, contributed to our capacity to attract the generous support of funding bodies. A considerable amount of that profile has been generated in this very magazine, and we are very grateful for the support of Current Archaeology in enabling us to reach the wider archaeological community: if no one knows about our experimental work, then it is entirely pointless.
Looking to the future
We now find ourselves enmeshed within a very exciting, if sometimes dizzying, virtuous cycle that has derived its considerable momentum from this collaborative process. Thanks to a collaborative partnership with University College London, we have commenced work on an experimental kiln based on a Romano-British original. The Operation Nightingale team are again in action, this time constructing a new Iron Age roundhouse based on archaeology from Danebury Hillfort. Staff and students from King’s College and the London School of Mosaic are now preparing to install a second mosaic floor in our villa, which will build on and extend the experimental parameters of our earlier work. Students from a number of universities across the UK frequently join us to expand their own horizons, and we are engaged in discussions with University College Dublin about forging closer ties with their outstanding archaeology department. We are also working with Dr Rachel Pope from the University of Liverpool to create an experimental Iron Age roundhouse that promises a quietly radical departure from all that we have built before – which has the exciting air of bringing us full circle after half a century. Being able to bring together such a collective of archaeologists enables us to do not only more, but more-challenging experimental work, and to be able to share the outcomes with those partners, while also giving us enhanced capacity to disseminate the information to the wider archaeological community.
Fifty years on, Butser is the embodiment of Peter Reynolds’ legacy. Experimental archaeology is alive and thriving, and all of us involved in the Farm are as excited about the future as we are about the past.
Access and inclusivity
The UCL Institute of Archaeology first began its experimental archaeology course in 1982, exactly ten years after Peter Reynolds established his experimental Iron Age farm at Butser. While we haven’t established a firm connection between the two, it is impossible not to consider the influence Butser would have had in raising the profile of experimental archaeology, and how that might have fed into the enthusiasm among the Institute’s students to do the same. Four years ago, we were delighted that [Co-Directors] Maureen and Simon agreed to us bringing the course to Butser, and for us to be able to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the course this autumn at the farm, as they celebrate their glorious half-century.Dr Matthew Pope, Principal Research Fellow, UCL Institute of Archaeology
For me personally, bringing the course to Butser has been a joy. As a teenager in the ’80s with a growing passion for archaeology, Butser Ancient Farm was firmly on my radar. Occasionally I would see images of it in books or documentaries, set within the familiar landscapes of the South Downs, and it absolutely shaped the way I viewed Iron Age landscapes and structures of southern Britain. I was never lucky enough to join a tour or open day at the farm back then, and I came to appreciate Butser as an important research centre but not one that seemed easily accessed. Butser today couldn’t be more different: still a centre for research and experiment, but also an open-air museum, an educational resource, and a tourist attraction. But it is far more than that: it’s an open, welcoming, and inclusive community, which we’ve been lucky enough to become a part of and to welcome our students into.
Hopes for the future
I answered an advert over 25 years ago for an educationalist to come and help with visiting school groups, and came to see such an amazingly different place of work. This was so totally different to anywhere else I had worked. It was so refreshing to be able to enthuse children and young people to try out activities and use materials that our ancestors had been so familiar with, but which very few of our visitors had handled before. I have learnt that those experiences are so important to our understanding of the past, and I believe also very relevant to how we should be looking at the future. However, over the years I have been increasingly aware of the value of the people who come to the farm. Everyone enthuses about the place and how it makes them feel, but I am certain it is those people who all make such a positive contribution in all sorts of ways that make such a difference. Our staff are so interested and continually seeking to try out ideas and test theories. Our volunteers add another dimension, coming to join the team and offering such valuable help. Our visitors, who are inspired by the place but also the staff that they meet, ask questions and make us all think just that bit more about the past and how we can best explain our findings. I feel proud to have been part of such a dynamic organisation and to have worked with such enthusiastic people.Maureen Page, Co-Director of Butser Ancient Farm
Having been involved at Butser for half of its life now, I have seen a great many changes. The place never stands still, but we are constantly seeking new ways to explore and bring the past to life. Over recent years, it has been wonderful to work with an increasing number of partner organisations and universities to develop this vision. We want Butser to be used by, and useful to, the archaeological community – to continue to be the open-air laboratory of Peter Reynolds’ first vision – and with many exciting projects and collaborations on the horizon, we are excited to see where the next 50 years will lead.
Mick Aston (2001) ‘Peter Reynolds: archaeologist who showed us what the Iron Age was really like’, The Guardian obituaries, 5 October 2001.
P Reynolds (1979) Iron Age Farm: the Butser Experiment, British Museum.
P Reynolds (1994) ‘The Life and Death of a Posthole’, in E Shepherd (ed.) Interpreting Stratigraphy 5 (16 June 1994), Norfolk Archaeological Unit, pp.21-25. Available at www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/strat/pastpub/95nor.htm.
P Reynolds (1999) ‘The Nature of Experiment in Archaeology’, Experiment and Design: Archaeological Studies in Honour of John Coles, Oxbow Books.
P Reynolds (ed.) (2006) ‘The Scientific Basis for the Reconstruction of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Houses‘, ESF Workshop, Arhus, Denmark, 1987. Available at https://exarc.net/ark:/88735/10012.
Christine Shaw (archivist) The Butser Ancient Farm Archive (1973-2007), www.butser.org.uk.