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Butser Ancient Farm:
The Open Air Laboratory for Archaeology – 22/7/01

by 'Melvadius Macrinus Cugerni' (Iain Dickson)

To quote from its guide book "The Ancient Farm is a most unusual place. It is neither a museum nor a theme park simply designed for the public." Butser is part of an ongoing project, which started in 1972 on top of Butser Hill in Hampshire. The current site of the project is the third that it has occupied since its conception and currently comprises four round houses based on examples from excavated examples from Wiltshire, Wales and Somerset. They are also in the process of recreating as exact a copy as possible of Roman villa from an example excavated at Sparsholt.

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The main focus of the site is from 1000BC to 43 AD and the period of occupation by the Romans although some other periods are also investigated. This is the view on the approach to the main village complex with the largest hut on the left and two huts used for storage visible in the rear of the picture.

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As much as possible the site has been laid out using authentic materials when it comes to fencing in livestock. The livestock themselves are from amongst the oldest breeds surviving in the UK including Moufflon and Soay sheep, which are closest known relatives of Neolithic examples. Most of the livestock when I called were either being kept in the further areas of the site or else were departing for there with their young at high speed so I did not try to get closer photographs of them.

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The largest recreated roundhouse is 15m in diameter and gives a very good impression of how a village elders or chieftains house may have looked, with a thatched roof sitting on wattle and daub walls. In practice goats and sheep are most likely in practice to have either been tethered where needed or else only allowed to freely roam within fenced off areas.

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The second largest roundhouse (currently under repair) is 9m in diameter and shows several of the construction techniques that were used. The base of the structure is made up of vertical posts with horizontal hazel "withies" woven between them to form a framework onto which a mixture of mud and other material, called "daub", would be applied. Some of the daub can be seen to the right of the doorway in this picture. Inside the outer wall and slightly resting on it a framework of upright posts and sloping rafters is erected as the base for the reed or straw thatch to be laid. Once thatched the structure becomes suprisingly wind and weather resistant and the outer wall could be removed if desired without affecting the stability of the thatch although it is essential during the construction phase.

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View from inside the great roundhouse over the fire pit in the centre of the hut where much of the cooking may have occurred. Interior of the great roundhouse showing how a few animal hides, cloth and pottery bowls could provide some basic comforts.

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As far as possible items, such as this quern stone for grinding grain, are placed where visitors can experiment with them safely and if necessary under supervision. For this reason it cannot be seen as a ‘pure’ representation of a building of the period although it continues to provide valuable research material.

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Despite occasional ‘modern’ conveniences in most ways the site gives a very good impression of a working farmstead and has led to similar experimental archaeology sites around the world. There is a range of "hands on" experimentation which may be available during any particular visit at various times and locations around the site, in addition to their own ongoing experimental work. During my visit there was a section giving information on herbs and cereals grown in the period as well as sections of the site which covered various technologies including bronze and iron working along with charcoal and pottery making.

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The latest ongoing long-term experiment is an attempt to make an exact copy of a Roman villa. At one end the construction has reached the stage where the known archaeological remains have almost finished and they will need to complete the structure based mainly on conjecture and limited information from sites elsewhere in the Empire. The original structure appears to have been used as an administrative building although it contained fine mosaics in several rooms. The most advanced part of the reconstruction shows the section, which contained a hypercaust, while braziers possibly heated the other end (still to be built above foundation level). As one or two men are carrying out the construction on a part-time basis at most, using lime mortar and random pieces of flint, so this project will probably run for several years to come before it is finished.

For further information on the projects carried out at the site, information on their publications and details of how to get there go to: http://www.skcldv.demon.co.uk/iafintro.htm