It is a balmy afternoon in summer, and 70 children are squashed pleasantly together on the floor of a Neolithic longhouse in Hampshire. While swallows flit between thatched eaves above, they listen to tales of what life might have been like in ancient times. Away from touchscreens and reality television, their racing minds readjust to the simple crackling of fire; this isn’t the usual routine for most youngsters.
But today they are visiting Butser Ancient Farm, the experimental archaeological site nestled in the sloping hills of the South Downs National Park. While the farm is home to a flock of the ancient breed of Manx Loaghtan sheep, three mischievous goats, a handful of pigs, and two cockerels, the real spectacle is the re-created architecture.
Building the past
The farm is best known for its cluster of Iron Age roundhouses, conceived of by Butser’s original site-director, Peter Reynolds, over 40 years ago (CA 171). Some 10 years ago, an impressive Roman villa was added, its white walls still shining out against the verdant landscape (CA 188). And now, the latest addition is a Neolithic enclosure, the brainchild of Butser’s prehistory expert and primary constructor David Freeman.
To get a grasp of potential Neolithic building methods, David’s experiments began on a more modest scale with a trial house, as he explains: ‘The technology is inevitably different to that of the Iron Age roundhouses, and I wanted to understand how the rectangular shape could work’.
His pilot house was based on general excavations at Durrington Walls, the Neolithic settlement near Stonehenge in Wiltshire. David then looked more closely at the excavation footprints, and decided to attempt to recreate one directly from that area; by Christmas 2013, he had finished what was classed as an ancillary building, or what is nicknamed the ‘snailey’ house by site staff due to its spiral design.
At this point, the government announced that the National Curriculum was about to change. Children at Key Stage 2 would now learn about life in Britain from the Stone Age through to the Iron Age, rather than the previous ‘settlers and invaders’ approach that brushed over almost everything pre-Roman. The farm was already teaching hundreds of schoolchildren each year, but once the new curriculum launched, annual visiting numbers grew to tens of thousands. In order to meet the demands of the excitable waves of schoolchildren, and indeed of the archaeological community, in 2014 the farm directors asked David to build a Neolithic longhouse.
As Neolithic technology was still unfamiliar, David decided to use wattle and daub: at least he understood that technique, which he had mastered on Butser’s latest generation of roundhouses. However, it remained a challenge to crack the engineering of longhouses. His research eventually led him to a promising site at the small village of Llandygai near Bangor, North Wales. It contained the remains of an early Neolithic timber house, excavated in the 1960s. Added to this, a nearby site had produced a second house when excavated in 2005 by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.
The Llandygai longhouses date to around 3800-3600 BC, and provide a good deal of useful information. The example dug in the 1960s measured around 6m by 13m, and had a clear set of post-holes down its entire length. But it was not well preserved, and much of the detailed evidence for the walls or their construction had been lost.
However, the house dug in 2005 (which measured some 12.5m by 8.0m) had a clear series of post-holes defining the walls. According to site director Jane Kenney, it had evidence for possible timber planking at the gable ends, while the side walls were probably built using wattle and daub or similar.
With this gold-dust information, the early part of the year was spent sourcing potential materials for construction. David started the physical build around July 2014, and over the summer managed to erect the frame and build the wattle walls.
Due to Llandygai’s original location, reed thatch was chosen to cover the roof: the village is close to the Menai Strait, a narrow stretch of shallow tidal water separating Anglesey from mainland Wales. The mudflats there meant that reed would have been readily available to Neolithic people, so it made sense to use it when reconstructing the longhouse. The build took around four months to complete, with the odd patch of daubing still to be finished.
Meanwhile, the original Neolithic trial building was suffering badly from the extremely wet conditions of winter 2014. Throughout December and January it had started to move, and was eventually dismantled. In the New Year, reconstruction began on another house based on the excavations at Durrington Walls. Dating back to c.3,000 BC, building 851 was chosen due to its excellent preservation, particularly its evidence of flooring and furniture.
After examining the environmental conditions for materials at the time, and owing to the closeness of the wall posts, David decided to weave with willow rods. Standing together, Durrington 851 and the Llandygai longhouse reconstruction provide an interesting comparison, as materials changed across Britain in the 1,000 years between them. The Durrington build turned out to be a comparatively lightweight structure, and as David tried out new ideas to strengthen the building, the archaeology suggested that the original occupants had curved the corners. After adding a heavy plate to further strengthen the walls, he then had the correct surface onto which to build the roof.
Into the future
As David continues to finish the build and complete the Neolithic area, the farm is looking forward to new ventures. The Saxon longhouse project is now beginning, which will hopefully end with a sparkling new building at the northern end of the farm. Resident archaeologist Ryan Watts is also hoping to start work on his Roman garden next to the villa, with an array of herbs, flowers, and plants, and authentic Roman decorations.
Plans are afoot too for a butterfly garden to increase local wildlife populations, and a beehive area to manage the farm’s own swarm of honey bees. Meanwhile, local schoolchildren will continue to descend on the farm every weekday until the summer holidays, when the farm will begin to welcome the usual parties of families enjoying some time off and, of course, archaeologists seeking to understand our past.
Tiffany Francis is a writer, wildlife artist, and the Creative Developer at Butser Ancient Farm.
Butser Ancient Farm, Chalton Lane, Waterlooville, Hampshire, PO8 0BG
All images: Butser Ancient Farm, unless otherwise stated.