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Saturday, 28 July 2018

Butser Ancient Farm - Experimental Archaeology


If the latest Wargames. Soldiers & Strategy Magazine Survey carried out last year is to be believed, with all the caveats of 'P Factors', Confidence Intervals, Self Selecting Groups and Size of Group assessed, it seems a large number of us over the age of 41, when it seems the interest in 'historical wargaming' kicks in, really like to research the information and knowledge that helps inform our games.

Great Wargaming Survey

I happen to be sadly well into that target age group but also in that school of thought that absolutely buys into this finding and anyone who has been following this daft blog for the last six years will know that I am a promoter of our hobby informing our understanding of history and occasionally the other way around, especially when we take into account that wargamers are also members of the human race and their behaviours when faced with similar challenges to their historical predecessors can be very enlightening.

One aspect of using the historical record to inform our games is to take the pleasurable time to walk battlefields and ancient monuments to better understand the look of terrain and buildings from the era we would want to present on the table.

The rewards this aspect of our hobby has to offer are huge in terms of the enjoyment in simply studying and understanding together with helping to produce our scenarios and tables.

With my focus and studying very much on the Early Imperial Roman army and the enemies it encountered, there are plenty of the kind of sites that can inform on this period in northern Europe and here in the UK and given the time separation between now and then it comprises a mixture of the then and now stuff with visits to the remains of the archaeology today but also the really interesting area of recreating the archaeology to better understand the look and use of buildings and weapons and how the people of those times may have lived.

Classic examples of these trips include the visits to Xanten and Haltern in Holland and Germany last year to look at Roman sites on the Rhine frontier to Mr Steve and my visit to two Iron age hill forts on our walk along The Ridgeway earlier this year.

Haltern-am-See (Aliso) - Holland-2017
Xanten-lvr-Archaeological Park Pt 2,
Xanten-lvr-Archaeological Park Pt 1
The Ridgeway-2018


Mesolithic c 8,000 to 5,000 BC


So with these Celtic- tribal sites in mind it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to spending a day at the Butser Ancient Farm, Waterlooville in deepest darkest Hampshire where reconstructions based on archaeological digs and using materials and techniques from the times these buildings were in use are on display to the public giving a fantastic opportunity to understand the scale of them and how the ancient sites visited may have looked at the time.

Butser Ancient Farm

Mesolithic Britain c 8,000 - 5,000 BC


So what exactly is 'experimental archaeology'?

The simple answer is that it picks up where conventional archaeology leaves off with its careful excavations, carbon dating and dendrochronology by bringing a scientific approach using full scale experiments to test the theories about how structures and processes may have worked.

Some classic examples of this work includes a better understanding of the roofs on the classical conical iron age round house that was originally thought to have had a hole in the top to allow smoke from the fire to be funnelled from the building.



The  work at Butser showed that with an open or drafty door the fire was easily whipped up by the updraft causing it to get hotter and send embers into the roof setting it alight.

By simply allowing the smoke to waft up into a closed conical roof it proved that insects within the reeds were killed off, thus putting off birds from picking it apart in their hunt for them and the low levels of oxygen in the top part of the roof easily extinguished any embers carried up into the upper levels.

The blackened interiors of the roofs pictured will demonstrate the efficacy of this theory.

The earliest type of shelter likely used in Britain in the Mesolithic era

Like wise many archaeological digs have uncovered bell-shaped pits in the excavations which were thought to have been used for the storage of grain.  Dr Peter Reynolds, the guiding founder of the Butser project, tested this theory with controlled experiments at Butser monitoring the control of the atmosphere within the sealed pits and showing that the grain was still viable.

As you will see by the pictures I have put in this rather long post, I was 'blown away' by the recreated structures and other displays set up at Butser and thought you might, like me, be interested in the attention to detail that they demonstrate.








If you have any modern books looking at Celtic Britain, particularly during the time of the Roman invasion or occupation you may well find amazing colour pictures of these equally amazing reconstructions and the opportunity to look inside them and experience the history close up is highly recommended.

The Butser Ancient Farm was established and run by Dr Peter J Reynolds in 1972 as a research site, to investigate life in Iron Age Britain through experimental archaeology to better understand how ancient peoples lived by experimenting with the techniques they were thought to have used.

Over time and a few sites the project has found its current home and grown to include the Roman, Saxon and much earlier Mesolithic and Neolithic periods with plans to include a look at the Bronze Age.

As the name implies this is a working farm with the husbandry of animals from the periods and early agriculture including ancient crop varieties.

The 'working' part of farm also includes produce and there is a chance to buy the meat produced by the animals bred here.

The site is very logically split into different time zones as far as the buildings are concerned and so I have followed that arrangement by organising my pictures in a similar manner starting with the earliest periods through to the Saxon era.

Neolithic c 5,000 to 2,500 BC

The Neolithic enclosure shows the types of habitation that were around in Britain towards the end of the Stone Age.


The Neolithic era is when Ancient Britons changed from a hunter-gatherer existence to become settled and farming the land developed with the cultivation of crops and keeping of livestock.


The Durrington 851 building revealed a chalk floor in its excavation together with furniture imprints, recreated here in this reconstruction.














The Llandygai long-house below forms the centre piece of the Neolithic enclosure and is constructed from a main-frame of ash and birch together with hazel wattle and roofed with water reeds, sympathetic to the area close to the wetlands of the Menai Strait  between Anglesey and mainland Wales where the original building was excavated.












The attention to detail is fantastic, but you have to smile when you see a 21st century fire extinguisher - health and safety wasn't quite the same in Neolithic times! 

Butser is home to the earliest forms of domesticated wheat strains including Einkorn and Emmer, the oldest wheat grown, where it is estimated that the first cereals were grown in the 'fertile crescent' (modern Iraq and eastern Turkey) about 11,000 years ago.


The struggle today is to protect these crops from creatures that were not around in the Iron Age, namely the rabbit and the pheasant, not to mention the ones that were such as the local deer.

The wheat has a much higher protein content than modern bread wheat and a surprisingly high yield that was only bettered by mechanised farming introduced in the 1950's.


The Iron Age 750 BC - 100 AD
I have to say, with my current project focused on the Early Imperial Romans of the Principate, I was really looking forward to seeing the Iron Age settlement along with the Roman villa building.

The sight of those conical thatched roofs peaking over the wattle fenced embankment and ditch just started to bring all those hill fort visits to life and I was really keen to see the interpretations of the archaeology.


Even the ditch is part of the study into this period as it has been constructed in an octagonal pattern to allow the team to study the effects of erosion on the bank and ditch according to the alignment of the sides to the compass.


The enclosure houses six roundhouses based on structures excavated around England and Wales together with smaller structures based on the discovery of smaller post holes suggesting ancillary buildings.


The original excavations have revealed the position of post holes for the timbers that would have supported the main structures and this together with other techniques that has revealed the positions of the hearth and the composition of the material used in the walls has enabled these stunning recreations of the original buildings.


Glastonbury M74

The two small roundhouses M74 and M59 are based on excavations on a lake side village near Glastonbury in Somerset.

The floors of the buildings revealed up to ten brushwood and clay layers showing that the floors were continually being re-laid as the previous one sank into the marshy ground.

To reflect the area in which they were constructed the wattle walls are made from willow and the thatch is composed of water reeds.


The daub used on the wattle walls has no fixed formula as anyone from Devon would know with their familiarity to the construction of Devon Long Houses and is often composed of soil, clay, straw, wool and animal dung.

Once dry, the walls are painted with liquid clay using natural pigments such as ochre and haematite.





The picture below reveals the testing of the fire theory, with the sooted rafters blackened but not burned.



Glastonbury M59

Pictured below, on the right, is the other Glastonbury roundhouse next door to the interestingly wooden planked walled Danebury CS1.








Danebury CS1

Danebury CS1 is based on a roundhouse excavated in the Danebury Hill Fort, just south of Andover, Hampshire.

Slot trenches revealed that the structure incorporated wooden planks for its walls rather than the more usual wattle and daub.







Little Woodbury

The largest of the roundhouses, Little Woodbury is based on an excavation just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire in the late 1930's

It has a diameter of fifty feet and is one of the largest buildings in a small settlement.

The experimental work of constructing these buildings has suggested that charring the ends of the main timbers before inserting them into the ground potentially reduces the decay at ground level and this technique was used on this building. This following having to develop techniques for replacing rotten timbers in other buildings on the site, which has been another proving ground, showing that it is possible to take out and put in new timbers when required.


Moel Y Gerddi

This house is based on one excavated near Harlech in North Wales and is unusual for having two doorways.

This building was the subject of discovering rotten timbers in the main posts and rather than rebuilding, a technique based on archaeological evidence was tried, with a slot dug into the floor leading to the original post hole that allowed the replacement to be slid into position.

As mentioned, the tips of each replacement post was charred on the below ground end to prevent rotting and the hole was back filled with large flints to secure the posts.

This has been a proving ground for showing that these buildings could be maintained over a considerable time using this process.


A poor photo, having discovered rain dots on my camera lens after downloading the pictures. I hope you can still get a good impression of the interior, illustrating the back door.







As mentioned at the start, excavations of Iron Age sites have revealed other smaller groups of post holes suggesting other structures within these communities and the Butser project has allowed for an interpretation of likely structures based on these finds.

A number of likely structures have been included such as a centre post for a haystack, a chicken house, a latrine and a granary.

I hope the chaps at Grand Manner have all these covered as any self respecting historical wargamer should be looking to sprinkle a few of these types of structures among their tribal enclosures.



Centre post for a haystack

The herb garden

In among the smaller structures the Celtic herb garden seen above was full of the examples of the many medicinal herbs used by people in the Iron Age.

Some of these herbal remedies are still turned to today and having a background in medicines myself had to smile when seeing St John's Wort known in modern medicine to just about interact with all modern medicine and very often not in a good way.





The Iron Age latrine, perhaps a little too public for modern tastes!

A chicken house


Danebury CS14

Danebury CS14 id the latest addition to Butser, built in 2017.

The original building was built on a chalk floor with stakes driven into the ground using a crowbar like implement between which a wattle wall was interwoven, possibly of willow given that the Danebury site is close to a river.










A part of the roof that would need some of the most upkeep would be the cone placed on the top and an example of a replacement was at ground level revealing, close up, the art involved in putting one of these structures together.




The remains of the storage pit experiment and the work that was done to uncover the secrets of ancient grain storage systems.








Roman Occupation
The Roman occupation of the islands commenced with the Claudian invasion in 43 AD and I have looked at several of the settlements and villas that sprung up afterwards, with most recently our trip to Cirencester, Chedworth and North Leigh back in February this year.

http://jjwargames.blogspot.com/2018/03/corinium-dobunnorum-cirencester.html
http://jjwargames.blogspot.com/2018/04/roman-villas-of-chedworth-and-north.html

We also took a look a the German interpretations of their Roman past with our visit to Xanten last year.

Xanten-lvr-Archaeological Park Pt 2,
Xanten-lvr-Archaeological Park Pt 1

These kind of visits really help inform the historical side of wargaming as you really get a feel for the structures you are attempting to model once you have walked around and in them, as well as seeing the actual sites themselves.

The building seen below is based on David Johnston's excavations of a Villa at Sparsholt, near Winchester.

The villa consisted of a number of buildings and this particular one is based on an interpretation of evidence from the Sparsholt site together with what we know from other such sites to fill in missing details such as the various types of windows incorporating grills and bars.

This detail included incorporating Roman window glass based on the large amounts of the stuff uncovered at Sparsholt.



Although the precise use of the rooms in each building at Sparsholt is uncertain the interpretation has included some likely examples with a bit of educated guesswork thrown in to base the kitchen on the only room with a hearth and the higher status room being the only one with a hypocaust heated floor.


This is the first Roman Villa building to be built in the country for over 1,600 years and the process of building it has informed greatly on the understanding of how these buildings were likely constructed and used.

This is still a new addition to the Butser collection and work continues on it to finish the floors and walls, with, as we discovered, the start of a new project to lay a mosaic in the main reception room based on the original discovered at Sparsholt.

The villa at Sparsholt was roofed with stone polygonal tiles as seen here on this section of recreated roofing


The new floor being 'mapped out' in preparation for laying the new mosaic
The Sparsholt mosaic design to be recreated here at Butser and accreditation to those involved 
Interestingly the teams helping in the recreated mosaic include those from Fishbourne Palace and Bignor Villa two sites we visited a couple of years ago.

http://jjwargames.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-romans-in-britain-part-one.html
http://jjwargames.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-romans-in-britain-part-two-bignor.html






Wondering around the rooms in this reconstruction really brought to vivid life the various villas Carolyn and I have visited and give a great feel for what life was like for these wealthy Roman citizens living on the frontier of the empire.




An example of a 'Roman Bathchair' made of marble originally but also possibly replicated in wood and discovered originally in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and thought to have been used as a latrine and for a lame bather to have had hot water poured over them with the conduit allowing it to drain away.







Times don't change and you might as well find a way of entertaining yourself whilst fulfilling the daily ablutions - fancy a quick game if your stopping?



The reconstructed hearth feeding the hypocaust system reminded me so much of the one seen at Chedworth earlier this year.

The Chedworth hypocaust hearth as a comparison to the Butser reconstruction seen below



The Roman villa also serves as an headquarters building for the Roman reenactment group who do a sterling job educating and informing the many school groups that use Butser to help bring history alive.

There were some pictures of this reconstructed Onager (catapult) being played with at some time but its state of repair suggested that that might have been some time ago.

Named the Onager, which is also the name for the Asiatic Wild Ass, it seems an apt name to describe the likely kick from this particular beast once the release lever was applied.




At the back of the building we took time to look at the Roman herb and vegetable patch which included some uses for various plants that I had never heard of.

Fennel, a contraceptive, really!



Nice to know that even Nero had one redeeming feature namely a love of leeks. Me to.





A really nice touch was this Roman style memorial stone in the garden to the founding inspiration of Butser, Dr Peter John Reynolds who passed away in 2001 and who I am sure would have been  pleased as punch to have seen the four classes of school kids wondering around and filling out their project books on the day we visited.


Saxon Britain
It would seem from the evidence that there is, Britain fell out of direct control by Rome sometime early in the 5th century into what is now described as the Sub-Roman period and by the middle of the century the process of Britain becoming a Germanic culture with the arrival of various tribes from that part of the continent had begun.

Over the next five centuries the Saxon and later Anglo-Saxon cultures would come to dominate the islands of mainland Britain as the Celtic and Romano-British peoples were either assimilated or driven to the extremes of the island with influences from Scandinavia adding to the mix.

The period of Anglo-Saxon domination ending in 1066 and the arrival of the Normans.


Excavations in the early 1970's revealed an Anglo-Saxon settlement at the village of Charlton close to Butser and in May 2015 work began reconstructing one of the main structures found there, a Saxon longhouse.




The longhouse is rectangular in shape with two opposing middle doors along each of its longer sides.




The construction of the house is primarily from English oak, sweet chestnut and hazel, sourced from local coppiced woodland. The roof was panelled with wattle hurdles into which the thatch was woven and held in place with hazel spars.


The construction process gave a great opportunity to test out Saxon wood working practises with all the timber beams hand hewn rather than machine sawn with no nails or screws used except in the hinge hung doors.

The beams seen below were fixed using dovetail joints and secured with trunnels which would have made my old woodwork teacher weep with delight.



You just have to imagine this building full to the rafters with the locals, their lord and his hearthguard all quaffing and feasting and looking forward to the next game of Saga or better still Dux Bellorum.




Butser serves as a great education centre for young and old and hosts facilities run by expert craftsmen and women able to instruct in the methods of construction used in times past.







As I mentioned Butser is indeed a working farm with animal husbandry focused on rearing rare breeds of livestock that would have been a common enough sight in ancient times.

It is unclear how and when wild pigs were first domesticated, but if the evidence of bones is a good indicator their meat was beloved by both Celts and Romans.

The pigs kept at Butser are probably not representative of the 'closer to wild pigs' kept by the ancients but periodically Butser is host to old and rare breeds such as Wessex Saddleback and Oxford Sandy and Black and as you can see they get names which must make it awfully hard when it comes to eating them!




The goats on display are the rare breed of English goats known for their docile, sensitive and inquisitive nature.

They are used for both meat and milk and we were able to watch a milking and manicure session while we were there.



The sheep held consist of three breeds, the Soay which are closely related to the earliest sheep in Britain and regarded as typical for the Bronze Age period.

The Soay get their name from the uninhabited islet of Soay in the St. Kilda archipelago, Scotland and which means 'island of sheep'.

They shed their wool naturally and although short can be spun. Their meat is described as tasty and low in fat.

Interestingly, the Soay are more like goats than sheep and cannot be worked by sheepdogs.

Soay (nearest camera) and Shetland sheep

The Manx Loaghtan are seen as the sheep of the Iron Age and originate from the Isle of Man where the Manx word 'loaghtan' means mousey brown a perfect description of their fleece.

The fleece is heavier than the Soay and much easier to spin and both ewes and rams have either two, four or six horns.


The last breed of sheep kept are the Shetland which are more typical of the late Iron Age and early Roman period, with heavier again fleece of much greater quality and length.

The predominant colour is white with both ewes and rams having horns.

The multi-horned Manx Loaghtan 

Shetland sheep looking rather hot on the day we visited and certainly in need of a good shear.
We had a great day out at Butser on a fantastically sunny day entertained by watching teachers trying to heard the cats that were the four classes from a school in Portsmouth out for the day. Its great to see that old teacher cliches from my day can still come in handy when trying to get a classes attention.

If you get the chance, Butser is well worth a visit and as well as normal visiting days they also arrange special events to coincide with ancient festivals such as Beltain and Imbolc plus warrior weekends and adult workshops where you can practise your flint knapping skills along with weaving, leatherwork. foraging and other such useful knowledge.

Next up - a bit of a Roman theme with trips to report on and some unit posts to come as the Romano-Dacian collection grows.

6 comments:

  1. An astoundingly informative post, excellent work thanks!

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  2. Brilliant stuff. I had no idea this place existed, but it's now on my "Things to do when I get across the Pond" list.

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  3. Thanks for your comments chaps, glad you enjoyed the read. I reccomended a visit should the opportunity arise.

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  4. Fantastic! They have obviously done a lot since I last went when I ran into Dave Bodley of Grand Manner taking pictures for his Celtic roundhouse model.

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    Replies
    1. Ah great, nice to have the confirmation, I rather hoped the Grand Manner models would have drawn inspiration from Butser.

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  5. 166 pictores !
    We have never seen an article with so many photos! Or may be for FiguresCon but not on one only subject !
    This place need to be visiting !
    Thanks for the free entrance... ;-)

    ReplyDelete