‘Through a series of spectacular experiments, the archaeologist Peter Reynolds… told us more about Iron Age buildings and agriculture than most of the excavations of that period put together,’ said The Guardian in its 2001 obituary of the first director of Butser Ancient Farm, the pioneering archaeological open-air museum nestling in the South Downs, which is now celebrating its 50th birthday.
Reynolds arrived at Butser in 1972 with a passion for ‘experimental archaeology’ – a branch of academic study that uses controlled experiments to form a clearer understanding of the past. Basing their work faithfully on archaeological evidence, he and his team used ancient techniques to reconstruct prehistoric buildings, and to study Iron Age methods of animal husbandry and cereal production – even using ox-drawn ‘ards’ (primitive ploughs) to till fields.
As we discover this week on The Past, Butser’s influential early achievements included the reconstruction of a full-sized Wessex roundhouse, known as the Pimperne House. At the time, it was the largest building in Western Europe to be built according to prehistoric principles, and it became the template for many similar reconstructions in experimental, educational, and tourism contexts around the world.
As Reynolds’ techniques gained wider notice, Butser expanded not only its educational and public-facing activities, but also its chronology – with the reconstruction in 2000 of an experimental Romano-British hypocaust, or underfloor heating system. Today, the site has grown substantially, too. In pre-Covid times, it welcomed around 35,000 schoolchildren and 20,000 other visitors each year, while its experimental buildings now also include structures representing the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Anglo-Saxon periods.
In the new issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Trevor Creighton traces the past and present of this ground-breaking site, and we share the memories of some of the people who have been involved with, or inspired by, its work over the past half-century.
Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives to discover more about Butser: we learned how the excavation of a Bronze Age roundhouse on Salisbury Plain fed into a new reconstruction at the site; and we went behind the scenes to report on the ups and downs of its latest creation, a reconstructed Neolithic house.
And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of Iron Age Britain. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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