Butser: the future of education?

3 mins read

How do you run an experimental Iron Age Farm, or indeed a museum in these days of cuts to the government budget? The answer can be seen at the Butser Ancient farm on the South Downs near Petersfield, which I heard all about at the Archaeology Fair, at our Archaeology Live Conference in February 2018.

Butser Iron Age round houses
Iron Age round houses, reconstructed at Butser

The Butser Experimental Farm is an old friend of Current Archaeology.  I visited it several times in the good old days when I was still travelling round and I admired and enjoyed the enthusiasm of Peter Reynolds who set it up and established the idea of running an experimental farm to see how farming was carried out in the Iron Age, growing Iron Age wheat, keeping Iron Age animals and building Iron Age round houses.

The farm is in a superb position on the South Downs, just off the A3 road to Portsmouth very easy to reach by road transport. But Peter sadly died young at the age of 62 and it looked as if the whole idea would collapse.  However, after a few wobbly years Butser has come triumphantly through.  It has become a little more – dare we say – commercial.  Peter was never really very happy having visitors – at least not too many visitors.  He welcomed me warmly enough, but he was first and foremost an experimental farmer, keen to find out just how Iron Age agriculture worked.  But now under the leadership of the current generation, they have become a model for experimental farms and indeed for museums generally.  They specialise in school visits.  They charge £9.25 per child for a full day’s visit which includes four ‘activities’ and a talk with a minimum cost of £185 + VAT for 20 children.  It is a bargain for schools, and on some days they have eight or nine coaches in their coach park.

Beltane wicker man being burnt at Butser
Beltane wicker man being burnt at Butser

They have entertainments for adults and families too.  The highlight is the old Celtic festival of Beltane at the beginning of summer.  This year it is on Saturday 5th May when a giant wicker-man 20ft high will be burnt.  There will be music and dancing with real ale and Celtic mead to keep people happy all for the cost of £18 a head.  For children there are warrior camps for three days including one night spent sleeping in tents and learning to become a hardened warrior.  The cost is £180 for three days.

The Butser Experimental Farm is very popular and profitable too, if that is the right word for a non-profit making business – a Community Interest Company.  But they not only cover the costs of running the experimental farm but are expanding too.  They moved to a new site in 1991 which covers 17 acres and they are now hoping to add 17 more acres to the farm. Butser began in the Iron Age, but since then, it has been branching out.

Butser Roman villa
The Butser Roman villa
Anglo-Saxon longhouse at Butser
The Butser Anglo-Saxon longhouse

In 2002, a Roman villa was built with the help of the TV Discovery Channel – the problems were charted by Nadia Durrani in CA 188. Then a Neolithic longhouse was added as recorded in CA 306: the National Curriculum had a course from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, so a Neolithic longhouse seemed to be a good addition. Since then, an Anglo-Saxon longhouse has also been added.

But the big surprise to me is that schools are willing and able to pay for pupils in a way that not only covers costs, but also allows a self standing independent enterprise like Butser to pay its way and flourish. Perhaps one day we may see a voucher system for education, where schools receive a voucher for each pupil, and can buy in education tailored to the individual. I always dream that one day every town will have a Latin teacher who will be able to teach pupils from a range of different schools. And why not make museums the place where history is taught, where one day a week, those who wish to learn history can do so in the best possible surroundings? This is no doubt merely a day dream, but wouldn’t it be nice if enterprises such as Butser could form part of every education?

Andrew Selkirk, 26th February 2018

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