Butser Ancient Farm brings the past to life

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Standing under a thatched roof among oak timbers, scattered animal hides and ancient wall paintings, children chatter excitedly about the distant past.

The group of eight-year-olds are in the sort of simple roundhouse that would have been home to a family of Celts more than 2,000 years ago.

Ryan Watts (25) using an Adze to shape the hull of the boat''''Picture: Malcolm Wells (131997-2829)

Ryan Watts (25) using an Adze to shape the hull of the boat''''Picture: Malcolm Wells (131997-2829)

They’ve been wandering around this ‘ancient’ building, making jewellery, getting their hands muddy in excavation pits and all the time learning how our ancestors might have lived.

This is Butser Ancient Farm, where the country’s archaeological discoveries are brought to life with reconstructed buildings, clothing and tools.

‘We’re an experimental archaeological site,’ explains director Maureen Page. ‘Archaeologists go out on digs and find things, but then we need to interpret what these things are and how they must be used.

‘They have all kinds of theories, what we do is try and test those theories to find out how people might have lived.’

The ancient farm has reconstructed Iron Age roundhouses in the style that would have existed from about 2,800 years ago, and a Roman villa.

Inside the roundhouses are central hearths, cooking pots, wooden benches and pigment art on the walls.

Here theories are tested. For example, it was originally thought roundhouses would have had holes in the thatched roofs to let out smoke, but it was discovered that the smoke could filter through the thatch anyway.

Now the roofs are complete and it is thought this is how our ancestors would have lived.

University students have access to the site to carry out experimental projects, but it is also a fun place to visit and a valuable educational tool for schoolchildren.

The farm’s ethos of discovery and education is central to the purpose of the Festival of Archaeology (July 13-28).

Co-ordinated by the Council for British Archaeology, the festival offers thousands of events across the country.

One of these is Dig It – a family day at Butser Ancient Farm, which can be found just off the A3 at Chalton. Visitors will be able to see demonstrations and learn excavation techniques.

But before that, the last of this term’s school visits are taking place. Youngsters from Fairfields Primary School in Basingstoke have been learning about the Celts and the Romans.

At Butser Ancient Farm, the eight-year-olds have been looking at the roundhouses and villa. They’re keen to talk about their visit and show off the Iron/Bronze Age jewellery they’ve been making, as well as their clay pots and some very dirty hands.

‘It feels like you’re in Roman and Celtic times,’ says pupil Florence Neller, while Reuben Shepherd declares that his favourite part of the trip was making a mosaic in the Roman villa.

Director Simon Jay says: ‘Our work in experimental archaeology is very imp-ortant but we can also take what we have learned over the last 40 years and try to inspire the next generation of archaeologists.

‘It’s fantastic that children come here and go away smiling and muddy. We believe they learn a lot through hands-on activities.’

Youngsters can learn archaeological techniques at the site’s educational dig pits and have a go at Iron Age craft-making.

More than 15,000 pupils from local schools and those as far away as London and the New Forest visit the farm every year. And visitors enjoy the attraction at weekends and through the school holidays.

Just as Butser Ancient Farm gathers evidence of bygone ages, it can prove the impact it has on young minds.

Hannah Fluck, Senior Archaeologist for Hampshire County Council, first visited when she was about five and from that point knew what she wanted to do with her life.

It’s easy to see how Butser Ancient Farm inspires people young and old.

Nestled in the South Downs, its location is beautiful and the buildings are simple but striking.

As well as buildings, reconstructed from the evidence of archaeological digs across the country, there is an ancient breed of sheep.

The Manx Loaghtan is smaller than modern breeds, has a mouse-brown fleece and some of the rams have four horns!

The Iron Age round-houses are built from wattle and daub, a mud mixture bound with hazel. Digs around the country uncovered evidence of the posts around this 2,800-year-old style of construction, as well as the central fireplaces. Archaeologists could see evidence of charred areas in the earth.

Experiments give researchers ideas of how tools would have been used.

Ryan Watts, an experimental archaeologist, is creating a replica dugout canoe. By making the boat, he’s looking for information about the techniques our Bronze Age ancestors might have used.

From detailed research to education, from fun activities to fascinating finds, Butser Ancient Farm continues to be an important facility for the experts of today and tomorrow.

The Festival of Archaeology, co-ordinated by the Council for British Archaeology, offers more than 1,000 events nationwide, organised by museums, heritage organisations, national and country parks and local societies.

Local events include:-

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash: The Mary Rose and Maritime Portsmouth Study Day (July 22). A chance to visit the newly re-opened Mary Rose Museum with a naval expert. Britain has always been a maritime nation in one way or another and Portsmouth has the oldest operational naval base in the world, dating back to 1495. Learn more about Portsmouth’s role from Dr Ian Friel, expert in maritime history. Go behind the scenes at the Royal Naval Museum, view the newly-restored Mary Rose Museum and have a guided tour of HMS Victory. Go to http://www.andantetravels.com/andante-travels-study-days/study-days-3/maritime-portsmouth-2.html

Hayling Island Pop-up Museum (July 27 and 28). The museum at Northney Farm tea rooms will showcase the archaeology of North Hayling and in particular the Hayling Island Roman temple site, which is located less than a mile from the site of the museum. Go to http://www.lparchaeology.com/hipum/

Digging at the Palace (July 23-August 2). Become an archaeologist for a day at Fishbourne Roman Palace. Experience hands-on excavation, finds cleaning, recording and conservation. Event inclusive of Palace entry.

Go to http://sussexpast.co.uk/properties-to-discover/fishbourne-roman-palace.

Saxon Invasion! (July 27 and 28). Two-day free event at Portsmouth City Museum. Living history group Weorod give the opportunity to meet the first Germanic settlers of

the Meon Valley, the Meonwara. There will be displays and timed demonstrations. The action is closely linked to some of the artefacts on display in the museum. The local finds liaison officer will be there on the Sunday to identify your archaeological finds.Visit www.portsmouth citymuseums.co.uk.

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