Thursday, July 1, 2010

Public Archaeology: Butser Experimental Ancient Farm, southern England

 “There is a trend toward teachers understanding the different ways of learning… Written materials are not the only way”.
 ~ Maureen Page, Director of Butser’s School Education Program 


In several earlier posts, I talked about the benefits of public education in archaeology (For more information, see here and here). Experimental archaeology is one of the more recently developed directions in archaeological research, although archaeologists are now becoming aware that one of the most effective ways to engage the public and to understand the past is to try to reconstruct it as accurately as possible. Educators are also realizing that not all students learn the same way via written materials and that hands on experience-based activities raise both interest and cognitive learning. An example of this would include the innovative and long-term research project at Butser Ancient Farm, Hampshire, in southern England. Butser Experimental Farm provides unique opportunities for the public and students to take part in organized experimental archaeology activities. The site is a working replica of an Iron Age farm settlement with earthworks, ancient structures, crops and livestock, in order that the agricultural and domestic economy of the late prehistoric period in Britain can be studied. Visitors are encouraged to participate in any of the practical sessions, such as prehistoric agriculture (grinding corn), animal husbandry (feeding livestock), and manufacturing (pottery making, metal and charcoal production and spinning). Peter Reynolds, former director of Butser, expressed that essentially experience is probably the best teacher of all. Some time ago, I personally attended one of their residential archaeology courses and I doubt that I would have learned as much from solely a didactic presentation (See insert box below for further details). Butser continues to provide a wide variety of quality courses, demonstrations and events for the public (of all ages) and is worth a mention here.

A short background to Butser

The late Dr. Peter Reynolds (1939-2001) established the long-term research project for Butser Ancient Farm in 1972, with the initial support of sponsors such as the Council for British Archaeology (CBA). The project was set up specifically as a program for research and education, and the goal was to construct a practical working version of an ancient farm in order to study the domestic and working structures, manufacturing activities, crops, and domestic animals of the Late Iron Age and early Roman periods (c.400BC to 400AD in Britain). The project was devised from evidence excavated from archaeological sites and the results from Butser experiments were to be compared with archaeological remains in order to test ideas put forward by archaeologists. Butser is not an archaeological site or a museum, but an open-air research laboratory for archaeology, where the Romano-Celtic World is being investigated by full-scale experimentation using the techniques and materials available at that time (but also by applying modern technologies such as magnetic susceptibility, mass spectrometry and computers to enhance archaeological practice). Continual experimentation with the changing seasons, as well as corrections in archaeological theory, means that the farm is in a dynamic state of change, as opposed to merely representing a static reconstructed prehistoric settlement.

Based on archaeological remains from sites such as Little Woodbury in Wiltshire, Moel y Gerddi in Wales, and Sparsholt in Winchester, Butser has been able to reconstruct several types of building, such as Iron Age round houses and a Roman villa with a working hypocaust (under-floor heating). Although reconstruction is often an imperfect product of our time and archaeological truths are debatable, Butser nevertheless endeavors to perfect the work they present in order to make them as historically accurate and as relevant as possible. For instance, Maureen Page, Director of Butser’s School Education Program, says that there are no other sites in the whole of the UK that use original building materials to the same extent as those used for the Roman villa at Butser Farm. Similarly, prehistoric types of crops and livestock or their nearest equivalents have been brought to Butser.

Although the Ancient Farm has now been in operation for 38 years, it hasn’t always occupied the same site. Its initial location was on Butser Hill in Hampshire (from where it takes its name) and a second site was opened in 1976 at Hillhampton Down in order to better accommodate the visiting public. In 1991 the whole project finally moved to its present location on Bascomb Copse at Chalton, Hampshire. Butser Ancient Farm is now operated independently by Butser Education CIC, and since moving to its present location, economic support is solely obtained through its educational programs. Despite the recent economic downturn, Butser is able to continue its original mission of carrying out quality experimental research and educational activities. Indeed, Butser is witnessing a continual increase in visitor numbers, particularly secondary school students this year. The site has also managed to rebuild four Iron Age round houses in the enclosure and also has plans for a fifth, as well as a new visitor center by September.

What programs do they offer?

Butser offers a variety of fascinating and unique hands on experienced-based educational activities for school groups, educators, undergraduates, graduate students, archaeological societies, special interest groups and the general public. The vast numbers of visitors that Butser receives every year attests to the quality of programs they consistently provide. More than 14,000 school children are welcomed to the site each academic year, in addition to scores of others who participate in workshops or special events. For primary school children up to age 11 (Key stages 1 and 2), sessions meet many aspects of the national curriculum by assisting with general education issues. Children can explore technologies from the ancient world of the Iron Age Celts and the Romans, enabling them to make connections with different societies. Such awareness can help diminish stereotypical beliefs about people who existed in the past and influence children’s consideration of other people and their heritage. The farm’s educational component can also assist with numerous parts of the school curriculum for secondary children up to the age of 16 (Key stages 3 and 4). For instance, the pre-Roman periods are not readily included within England’s national curriculum, but the core subject of history can cover prehistoric life, the Iron Age Celts, Romans and early civilizations. Children are encouraged to use complex thinking skills by contributing to discussions about their experimental research.
“We encourage children not only to use their imaginations but also, as far as possible, to use their five senses to experience what it might have been like living in those far off times. The Schools Educational Programme is directed to meet several of
the specific requirements of the National Curriculum…” ~ Butser Education CIC

All visits begin with a preparatory talk in one of the distinctive Iron Age round houses or in the Roman villa, before students become actively engaged in any hands-on activities. Unlike traditional teaching methods, students aren’t simply the passive receivers of information, but are able to actively learn through their own experiences at Butser (learning through doing). The site intentionally omits offering classroom materials to students or teachers, so as not to be distracting in any way. The one-day sessions are selected in collaboration with school teachers and can be tailored to meet particular requirements. Although England’s curriculum contains core subjects with key concepts and processes, the programs of study are not rigid, and offer broad parameters for content. Teachers are therefore given more autonomy to develop creative learning methods in schools. There exists a collaborative effort between Butser’s educational program and schools in order to develop suitable curriculum methods. Teachers are encouraged to devise their own follow up lesson plans from their visit to the farm. Likewise, although Butser has its own research agenda and is not specifically driven by educational requirements, it nevertheless continues to respond to the changing needs of education. Although the teaching of heritage stewardship is not a major component of Butser’s agenda, it is nevertheless briefly mentioned in their courses.

Despite the subject of archaeology no longer being taught in schools at GCSE level (only at A Level and beyond), Maureen Page was pleased to say that experimental archaeology has now become mainstream within many college archaeology courses in the UK. In fact, Butser offers a variety of experiences for sixth form students and students from colleges and universities. The site also has workshops for the general public (of all ages), which entail hands-on experience in ancient crafts and archaeological methods with qualified instructors. Although such workshops cover similar themes to those that I attended during the 1990s (See insert box for further information), financial constraints mean that five-day residential courses are no longer offered. One or two-day courses are however available, but accommodations are now recommended off-campus. Special events are also available, and can sometimes include food and celebrations with story telling or singing, or perhaps even the chance to try your hand at using ancient weapons. Those who sign up for Butser can also enjoy the unique and evocative setting amongst or within reconstructed Iron Age round houses and a Roman Villa, as well as a variety of crops and animals similar to those found in the Iron Age (such as Emmer, Spelt and primitive sheep called Soay).

Charcoal Clamp at Butser Ancient Farm (c. 1994)
This pyramid fire was covered with straw and then soil in order to keep air out, thus preventing combustion of the wood inside. The fire burned slowly for about 36 hours, so that the timber would reduce into carbon to produce charcoal.

My early experience at Butser Ancient Farm

Some time ago, I attended a workshop called “Fire, Clay and Metal”, which was mainly aimed at examining the role of fire in prehistory and the Roman period and the development of metallurgy. Topics included the agricultural use of fire, pottery production and kiln construction and firing, as well as practical work in the production and alloying of metals from base ores using bowl and shaft furnaces.

Despite attending this workshop a very long time ago, it left a positive and everlasting impression, to such an extent that some of the supplementary early technology courses I later attended with my first degree seemed somewhat inferior by comparison. I was fortunate to be able to spend my then five-day residential course working in a relatively small group that was directed by the wonderful Dr. Peter Reynolds. At the start of each day we received appropriate instruction for the topic at hand before embarking onto our lively experiments. The course was so comprehensive that we not only refined our clay in order to make pottery, but we also constructed a charcoal clamp and Iron Age pottery kiln before firing our own handiwork!

Despite Pete’s unwelcome departure, I am pleased to hear that Butser Ancient Farm’s educational component is still thriving and continues to offer many stimulating and quality experienced-based activities to people of all ages and aptitudes.


Although the real past will always elude us and we will never know EXACTLY what it was like to live in the Late Iron Age and early Roman periods of Britain, for almost 40 years Butser Ancient farm has been effective in offering a fascinating insight into ancient times. The research conducted within such a distinctive and stimulating environment offers a unique teaching tool that can also address many curricula concerns (such as science, history, art, literacy and numeracy). Butser’s innovative educational programs connect with the public through exciting hands-on learning opportunities, and have introduced thousands of people to experimental archaeology. Butser has also significantly improved our understanding of the Celtic and early Roman periods of southwestern England, as well as many other aspects of the remote past.

The hands-on experimental approach at Butser is offered at all levels (pre-college, college and for the adult public) and is suitable for all ages and abilities. Indeed, there is something for everyone at Butser Ancient Farm, no matter the level of interest possessed in the field of archaeology or education. Although pre-college school has ended for this academic year, it’s never too early to plan for next year so that you don’t miss out next time. Also, there still time to sign up for many workshops and special events in 2010 (some sessions may be booked in advance). In July, there is a practical archaeology weekend school, which provides an introduction to archaeological excavation and recording methods. There is also a workshop to observe the common herbs grown in the Roman home, or a lecture and presentation on Roman cooking where attendees may participate in the preparation of a Roman feast in the villa kitchen. Courses are also available on metal production, pottery making, coracle construction, or cave painting, and much, much more. Special events activities include a weekend to observe skilled flint knappers from the Lithic Studies group, an open weekend where Butser will be cooking various foods for visitors to taste, or Samhain Celebrations (Festival of the Dead), involving story telling and a live band in the ‘Great Round House’. For more details, please click on the Butser links located at the end of this blog post.


Jameson, J. H., Jr. (ed.) 1997. Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Digging for Truths. Altamira Press.
Portions of this book may be found in Google Books here

EXARC International Organisation of Archaeological Open Air Museums and Experimental Archaeology

Reynolds, Peter, J. 1999. Butser Ancient Farm, Hampshire, UK. In: P.G. Stone and P. G. Planel (eds.) 1999. The Constructed Past: Experimental archaeology, education and the public. Routledge: One World Archaeology Series.
Portions of this article may be found in Google Books here

Reynolds, Peter J. 1999: The Nature of Experiment in Archaeology

Sansom, E. 1996. Peopling the Past: Current Practices in Archaeological Site Interpretation. In: P. McManus (ed.) 1996. Archaeological Displays and the Public: museology and interpretation. Institute of Archaeology. University College London, 118-137.

Stone, P. and Mackenzie, R. (eds.) 1994. The Excluded Past: Archaeology in Education. Unwin Hyman: London.
Portions of this book may be found in Google Books here

Stone, P. G. and Molyneaux, B. L. (eds.) 1994. The Presented Past: heritage, museums, and education. Routledge: One World Archaeology Series.
Portions of this book may be found in Google Books here

Stone, P. G. and Planel, P. G. (eds.) 1999. The Constructed past. Experimental archaeology, education and the public. Routledge: One World Archaeology Series.
Portions of this article may be found in Google Books here

Wallace, M. 1990. The value of special events as interpretive tools. Heritage Interpretation: 44.


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  2. Every workshop has a hands-on element allowing the children to express their creativity, more information


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