Butser Ancient Farm mark fifty years of uncovering the past with multitude of workshops and events

It’s a bit like an open air Tardis or a time tunnel that tumbles you back through five distinct periods of our history.Butser Ancient Farm itself is also knocking on now, 50 years of bringing the past to life in a very tangible way.

By Elsa Waterfield
Friday, 29th April 2022, 10:22 am

It’s an award-winning community enterprise which in this celebratory year is offering workshops, competitions and events in pottery, metalwork, chalk carving, wood wattling, ancient skills and more as it reflects on the past half-century.

The farm, nestling in beautiful folds of the South Downs near Clanfield relies on a team of 12 core workers alongside about 30 members of the education team and more than 100 volunteers allowing for the smooth running of the farm and so it may open to the public on special dates throughout the year.

The farm welcomes more than 35,000 schoolchildren each year to learn about life in the past, showing a range of reconstructed buildings spanning the Stone Age, Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon periods.

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Butser Ancient Farm in Chalton are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Picture: Sarah Standing (260422-2621)

One key member of the team is Rachel Bingham, 31, from Havant.

Rachel studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge and has been creative developer at the farm for four years, she even remembers coming on trips as a child herself.

She says: ‘I have a vivid memory of wandering through the roundhouses in the Iron Age Village, the re-enactors, having my face painted and seeing hares running across the field and smoke from the fire.’

The site started in 1972 as an experimental research site exploring prehistoric and Roman agriculture and building techniques, as an initiative developed by the Council for British Archaeology. The first director was Peter Reynolds.

Butser Ancient Farm in Chalton are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Pictured is: Simon Jay, co director of Butser Ancient Farm. Picture: Sarah Standing (260422-2639)

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‘It’s unique, particularly in the 1970s when it started. It was really one of a kind and it has had a big impact on archaeology and the way that we perceive pre-history,’ says Rachel.

So far in 2022 a second Anglo-Saxon hall has been opened and the construction of a new metalworking, pottery and hot technology building has just begun. It aims to provide a bespoke location for experiments into ancient technology.

The site has hosted an array of colourful visitors including British field archaeologist Phil Harding, a familiar face on Channel 4’s Time Team, and the BBC’s Horrible Histories.

Butser Ancient Farm in Chalton are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Pictured is: Paul Corry, farm assistant. Picture: Sarah Standing (260422-5071)

Beatrice Helme, the environmental and finds processor at the Museum of London Archaeology, now volunteers as a Saxon re-enactor at Butser and shares her first memories of coming to the farm aged seven.

She says: ‘We helped to daub the walls of a roundhouse. We also made jewellery with copper wire and had a go at making a wattle fence.

‘This was one of two school trips to historical places that helped cement my love of history and my interest in becoming an archaeologist.

‘I adore my time at Butser during long summer days, wandering around in my Saxon kit and waking up in the Saxon hall with light streaming through the rafters.’

Butser Ancient Farm in Chalton are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Pictured is: Rachel Bingham, creative developer. Picture: Sarah Standing (260422-2563)

To celebrate 50 years of creation and reopening their doors to the public after lockdown, Butser is holding a variety of special events, starting with their biggest yearly fundraising event, the Beltane Festival, tonight (Saturday) from 4.30pm until 10pm.

Beltane is the ancient Celtic celebration marking the beginning of summer, with music, dancing and the burning of the giant Wicker Man. This event sold out in February as keen festivalgoers prepared for their first return to the farm since 2019.

‘We’re just really looking forward to being able to share the site and celebrate again with people after such a long absence.

‘It's a momentous thing to be able to once again have people back on the site in those numbers,’ Rachel says.

The farm’s 50th year is proving to be a busy one, having already built a second Anglo-Saxon hall and started construction of a new metalworking, pottery and hot technology building, to provide a bespoke location for experiments into ancient technology.

‘To kick start the summer holidays there’ll be various archaeological experiments and building projects and some other fun stuff we’re keeping under wraps,’ says Rachel.

Butser Ancient Farm in Chalton are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Picture: Sarah Standing (260422-5127)

‘At Butser, you can touch and feel the past in a way you can’t in other museums,’ she adds.

While semi centennial events will take place over the course of the year, the first anniversary event to get celebrations under way is an experimental archaeology evening tour, taking place on June 22 from 6.30 to 8pm.

This is a chance for visitors to delve deeper into the important research work that goes on at the farm, on an exclusive out of hours evening tour.

To help mark their legacy, Butser has opened its archives to the public, welcoming you to share your own memories, stories and photos of the farm.

Rachel says: ‘Whether it’s a memory from the ’70s or a memory from last year, it would be lovely to hear about the impact we’ve had on people and commemorate the many people and projects that have made Butser.’

A display of the archives and photos received will go on show later in the year to celebrate the anniversary and also the Festival of Archaeology.

This an annual event held in the last two weeks of July over the whole of the UK which is organised by the Council for British Archaeology.

Simon Jay, 44, started work at Butser Ancient Farm in 2001, and became site director along with colleague Maureen Page in 2007.

Simon says: ‘Fifty years is just fantastic.

‘It’s a nice feeling to know we’ve been inspiring the next generation of archaeologists and educating hundreds and thousands of schoolchildren for all that time.’

‘Here’s to the next 50.’​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

1977 roundhouse Credit: Victor Dunn
2003 school trip wood wattling Credit: Beatrice Helme