If you like your history hands-on, this could be the place for you.
Situated about 5 miles south of Petersfield in Hampshire, England, Butser is an open air museum, a ‘living history’ experiment, that tries to re-create the bygone ways of life. It now has reconstructions of ancient homes from the stone age and includes Iron Age and Anglos Saxon dwellings, as well a Roman villa, all of which you can wander around.
Butser was originally funded in 1970 by the Council for British Archaeology, and was intended as a working archaeology experiment to learn more about the old ways of life, and to test theories on agriculture and domestic economy. Butser now has a number of rare breeds on site, such as Manx Loaghtan sheep from the Iron Age and Soay sheep from Scotland and these are said to be be typical of the sheep around in the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. These are very independent animals that cannot be worked by sheepdogs. Butser also has goats and, sometimes, pigs, although these are more seasonal to the site. Apparently the Celts regarded pigs in very high regard.
The site is open to the public most of the year, but check for times as the winter season has shorter hours. Butser gets a lot of school parties, and on occasion they do hire the venue out – not surprisingly a lot of filming has taken place here – and at certain times they run workshops and courses for visitors. Sadly there was none of these in operation when we visited, which was a little disappointing.
However, this made no difference to our enjoyment of the day. We visited on a glorious summer day – there was a school party but they didn’t really bother us and it was otherwise fairly quiet. It was quite amusing to watch the children encounter the various unfamiliar animals and dwellings, and in predictable child humour the outside loo created lots of ribald hilarity!
My favourite was the Saxon Longhouse, based on excavations of an Anglo-Saxon settlement found in the nearby village of Chalton. The archaeology discovered a large rectangular structure with opposing doors in the middle of the long sides of a dividing interior wall. The structure made at Butser is primarily of English oak, sweet chestnut and hazel, and has a thatched roof.
The building was really cosy inside, with an open fire on the left hand side when entering, and with benches huddled around on three sides. We were told that Butser sometimes has evenings with the public where everyone gathers here and tells stories. That sounded like huge fun and we were sad to have missed that – we would be tempted to go back to the village just to take part!
The work on all the buildings is ongoing, and we particularly noticed this at the villa. This was the first Roman villa to be built with authentic materials and techniques for over 1,600 years. Work on the floors began in 2017 and when we visited, they were installing a real mosaic floor. It looked intricate and fiddly and I’m sure it will be beautiful when its finished, and the process looked fascinating. Apparently Butser has its own Roman re-enactment society, and this makes the perfect headquarters for them!
All in all it was a really enjoyable day, and although the village was smaller than we’d expected, it was still really worth the journey to see it. I had hoped for more insight into the fashions and jewellery of the time, but there was very little on view for those. The location is very open and the view down over the surrounding countryside is lovely. Most of the village is fairly flat and would be fine for most people, and the management state that the site is completely wheelchair accessible. However, the area is pretty much all grass and I would imagine that on a very wet day, it could get very muddy and probably hard going for anyone with mobility issues.
A great day out for the family!