Back at Butser Ancient Farm

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Reconstructing the past and safeguarding its future

The new Neolithic: Butser Ancient Farm’s latest reconstructed building is based on the remains of a nearly 6,000-year-old house that was excavated by Wessex Archaeology in Berkshire. CREDIT: Butser Ancient Farm

In mid-April, CA travelled to Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire – our first site visit of 2021! – to catch up with what’s new at the recently reopened experimental archaeology centre. The site has just unveiled an immersive reconstructed Neolithic house, as well as an innovative new online offering to share the team’s research more widely. Carly Hilts reports.

Inside the Neolithic house, flames crackle softly in the hearth, filling the high-peaked space with flickering light and the sweet smell of woodsmoke. Animal skin-draped benches provide a comfortable seat around the fire, while typical household items such as wooden ladles, bowls, and stone tools lie conveniently to hand. This atmospheric scene comes from the modern day, however, the prehistoric structure is in fact the latest of Butser Ancient Farm’s immersive reconstructed buildings, and its design is based on the remains of a nearly 6,000-year-old house excavated by Wessex Archaeology eight years ago.

The Neolithic period is when hunter-gatherer communities are believed to have settled down to farm the land, domesticate animals, and create lasting homes – but the physical traces of the structures that made up these settlements are rarely found in Britain. The discovery of a cluster of four Neolithic houses during Wessex Archaeology’s investigations at a CEMEX UK quarry site near Horton in Berkshire was, then, truly exceptional (see CA 292). These buildings survived only as rectangular footprints preserving a pair of quite different designs: two were smaller, their outlines picked out in post-holes, while the other two were larger, more-elaborate creations combining postholes with foundation trenches that may have held upright timbers or planks, and preserving hints of some kind of internal division.

The largest of these, ‘Horton 2’, has now been recreated at Butser Ancient Farm – an experimental archaeology site nestled in the South Downs, which reopened to the public in mid-April. It replaced a predecessor based on the Neolithic longhouse found at Llandygai (see CA 203 and 306), which had reached the end of its working life. The Farm’s staff and volunteers have worked closely with Wessex Archaeology in all aspects of the house’s design and construction to ensure that it reflects the archaeology as accurately as possible. The result is an imposing trapezoidal structure measuring 15m by 7.5m, with a double door located towards one end of its southern wall. True to the excavated remains, its frame is dominated by six large posts – one in each corner, with the remaining timbers dividing the internal space into two chambers and helping to support the roof.

The presence of so few posts in such a large building posed quite the architectural challenge for the team, Butser archaeologist Claire Walton told CA during our visit to the site, particularly as no above-ground aspect of the Horton house had survived to indicate how it should look. The resulting reconstruction is therefore just one interpretation of what may have stood above the original outline, but it is based as far as possible on excavated evidence, combined with environmental data from the site and additional details based on information from other sites.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 375. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.

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