Stepping Back in Time Again

Iron Age roundhouseChristina here and I’ve been out and about again doing some research for the story I’m working on. As I think we’ve mentioned before on this blog, there really is nothing better for an author than being able to actually see or experience something for real. One of the best places to do that is at an outdoor museum, where they have reconstructed old buildings and environments so that the visitor can really experience what it would have been like to live there. Going to places like that feels like stepping back in time. Last week I found an excellent one – Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire here in the UK – and took a day trip to see it. Well worth a visit!

Low hangingButser features experimental archaeology with reconstructions of buildings from various different periods of early history in Britain. It was started on a different site in 1972 with the aim of setting up a working ‘ancient farm’ so that archaeologists could test out their theories as to how people lived and farmed in the Iron Age. There are different varieties of ancient crops grown, and they have rare animal breeds. The focus is on education and research, and loads of people visit every year, especially school children coming to learn about the past.

The buildings are all based on findings from various archaeological digs, trying out different techniques to see what would work and what didn’t. For example – would the thatched roofs of roundhouses have had a hole to let out the smoke or not? (The answer was NOT, as apparently when they tried that the roof caved in!). The site eventually expanded and was moved to its current location in 1991. And unlike the outdoor Viking museums I’ve visited in the past, Butser doesn’t restrict itself to just one period in history. Instead, they cover the time from the Stone Age up to and including Anglo-Saxon times.

Stone AgeThe area is divided into plots according to the age represented, starting with the Stone Age. As a guide told us, no one really knows what kind of dwellings the people back then lived in, but the archaeologists had taken guess based on a site from 3800 BC. The result was pretty impressive and the building definitely more advanced than I had imagined. The whole idea with Butser is taking the knowledge available from archaeological digs and trying to build something that suits the footprint left behind. Since most houses were probably made from materials that decompose, all that’s left to see are things like postholes. The rest is pure guesswork, but it helps to try things out to see what is feasible.

Bronze AgeNext came a compact little roundhouse from the Bronze Age. I really liked this one and it felt very cozy. It was based on excavations on Salisbury Plain. The roof reached almost all the way down to the ground and the walls were made with wattle and daub, and painted white inside with various motifs. I would imagine it was warm and snug, protecting the people from the British weather. I was fascinated to see a Bronze Age loom as well – it was rather crude and very obviously a precursor to the Viking ones I’ve been looking at recently.

Bronze Age loom

Iron Age insideThe area I particularly wanted to see, however, was the Iron Age compound, as that was what I needed for my story. This consisted of a range of different buildings, the main one a roundhouse that was a whopping 50 ft (15m) in diameter and 30ft (9m) high. I had heard that these dwellings could be large, but seeing one this size for myself was quite an eye-opener. I felt very small as I sat on a log inside it, the roof soaring above me, and by my reckoning it could have seated about 40 people around the perimeter.

I was surprised to find the central hearth on stone slabs directly on the floor, rather than raised up. The smoke rose straight up into the rafters and thatch, and because there was no smoke hole, the fire burned quietly without giving off too many sparks. Learning things like that is invaluable for research purposes, as was the way I felt slightly choked by the smoky interior at first, but then got used to it. It helped that the seats were not too close to the fire. Another great thing about the smoke making its way into the thatch is that it deters insects from living there. That, in turn, means birds are not tempted to root around in the thatch and pull it apart. A win-win situation!

Possible bedThe inside of the roundhouse had a second circle of timber upright posts about 1 ½ metres apart, and the inhabitants probably slept on straw mattresses or beds/benches along the walls. Obviously, no one knows for certain, but archaeologists guess they might have looked something like this (see photo), and were covered with furs and blankets. For privacy, drapes or skins could be hung up between the posts, or perhaps partition walls constructed. As I was visiting in the summer time, it was warm and dry inside the house, but I’m guessing it could be a bit damp in winter, although the wattle and daub walls are very effective at keeping out the cold.

Thatched roofBuilding a house like this must have been quite an undertaking, with lots of trees needed for the frame and posts (mainly oak), huge amounts of thatch (made of wheat straw, water reed or heather), hazel for the wattle walls, and daub made of mud, straw, clay, hair, water and dung. The archaeologists found that the dung was a vital ingredient as the walls cracked if that wasn’t included – another useful experiment. Luckily it doesn’t smell once it has dried out.

The whole Iron Age area was enclosed by a ditch, bank and fence and there was a storage pit for grain. While grain for eating was stored in granaries on poles/legs with flat discs at the top to stop rats and mice from getting inside, the pit was for grain that was to be used for next year’s planting. It would have had a clay or dung lid to seal it. Experiments have shown that this keeps the grain from germinating for over a year. I wonder who came up with that idea? Pretty ingenious.

Roman VillaNext came a small Roman villa, which I was also very interested in seeing. It was surrounded by a pretty garden that included fruit trees, flowers and herbs. Inside were authentic-looking rooms complete with furniture and decorated walls, as well as lots of accessories. I loved the mosaic floor in the main room, and the way the whole house had been set up so that you felt you were in someone’s home. I couldn’t resist trying out a beautiful bed/daybed to see what it would have been like to be the lady of the house.

Roman interior

Roman lady

Finally, there were two Saxon hall houses, roughly from the same period but built in two different styles. They were based on similar archaeological footprints, but reconstructed using different techniques to test what could be done. To me, these looked very similar to later Viking longhouses, with raised hearths and plank flooring, and showed the link between the Saxons and the Vikings. Fascinating!

Saxon houses

Have you ever visited an open-air museum? If so, which one, and what did you like about it? It really is like travelling back in time, isn’t it!

76 thoughts on “Stepping Back in Time Again”

  1. What a brilliant place for you to do research! I remember visiting this place with my university archaeology class many years ago and just loving the way it bought the past back to life.

    Reply
  2. What a brilliant place for you to do research! I remember visiting this place with my university archaeology class many years ago and just loving the way it bought the past back to life.

    Reply
  3. What a brilliant place for you to do research! I remember visiting this place with my university archaeology class many years ago and just loving the way it bought the past back to life.

    Reply
  4. What a brilliant place for you to do research! I remember visiting this place with my university archaeology class many years ago and just loving the way it bought the past back to life.

    Reply
  5. Indeed Rebecca, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Such a fabulous place and I really felt as though I’d stepped back in time. So glad you got to see it too!

    Reply
  6. Indeed Rebecca, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Such a fabulous place and I really felt as though I’d stepped back in time. So glad you got to see it too!

    Reply
  7. Indeed Rebecca, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Such a fabulous place and I really felt as though I’d stepped back in time. So glad you got to see it too!

    Reply
  8. Indeed Rebecca, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Such a fabulous place and I really felt as though I’d stepped back in time. So glad you got to see it too!

    Reply
  9. Wow, Christina, what an amazing museum! A pity it’s 3000 miles away from me, but I can see how perfect it is for your research. The features you mentioned about these structure is a good reminder of how smart our ancestors were and how well they understood their environment.

    Reply
  10. Wow, Christina, what an amazing museum! A pity it’s 3000 miles away from me, but I can see how perfect it is for your research. The features you mentioned about these structure is a good reminder of how smart our ancestors were and how well they understood their environment.

    Reply
  11. Wow, Christina, what an amazing museum! A pity it’s 3000 miles away from me, but I can see how perfect it is for your research. The features you mentioned about these structure is a good reminder of how smart our ancestors were and how well they understood their environment.

    Reply
  12. Wow, Christina, what an amazing museum! A pity it’s 3000 miles away from me, but I can see how perfect it is for your research. The features you mentioned about these structure is a good reminder of how smart our ancestors were and how well they understood their environment.

    Reply
  13. Thank you! Yes I was completely in awe at their building skills. The Romans were way ahead but the Celts didn’t do too badly either. Fabulous place!

    Reply
  14. Thank you! Yes I was completely in awe at their building skills. The Romans were way ahead but the Celts didn’t do too badly either. Fabulous place!

    Reply
  15. Thank you! Yes I was completely in awe at their building skills. The Romans were way ahead but the Celts didn’t do too badly either. Fabulous place!

    Reply
  16. Thank you! Yes I was completely in awe at their building skills. The Romans were way ahead but the Celts didn’t do too badly either. Fabulous place!

    Reply
  17. Thank you for a fascinating post, Christina, and for sharing your photos. I enjoy all the travels I get to experience with the Wenches.

    Reply
  18. Thank you for a fascinating post, Christina, and for sharing your photos. I enjoy all the travels I get to experience with the Wenches.

    Reply
  19. Thank you for a fascinating post, Christina, and for sharing your photos. I enjoy all the travels I get to experience with the Wenches.

    Reply
  20. Thank you for a fascinating post, Christina, and for sharing your photos. I enjoy all the travels I get to experience with the Wenches.

    Reply
  21. Wow – how neat. I’d love to visit there. I’ve toured a lot of places where they try to recreate the past but never one where they really try to if you know what I mean – like this place. We toured an American Indian village once. That might have come the closest.

    Reply
  22. Wow – how neat. I’d love to visit there. I’ve toured a lot of places where they try to recreate the past but never one where they really try to if you know what I mean – like this place. We toured an American Indian village once. That might have come the closest.

    Reply
  23. Wow – how neat. I’d love to visit there. I’ve toured a lot of places where they try to recreate the past but never one where they really try to if you know what I mean – like this place. We toured an American Indian village once. That might have come the closest.

    Reply
  24. Wow – how neat. I’d love to visit there. I’ve toured a lot of places where they try to recreate the past but never one where they really try to if you know what I mean – like this place. We toured an American Indian village once. That might have come the closest.

    Reply
  25. I hope you get to go sometime Jeanne, it’s definitely worth a visit! The American Indian village sounds cool too.

    Reply
  26. I hope you get to go sometime Jeanne, it’s definitely worth a visit! The American Indian village sounds cool too.

    Reply
  27. I hope you get to go sometime Jeanne, it’s definitely worth a visit! The American Indian village sounds cool too.

    Reply
  28. I hope you get to go sometime Jeanne, it’s definitely worth a visit! The American Indian village sounds cool too.

    Reply
  29. I like exploring iron age hill forts around Britain. British Camp (Malvern) is a favourite as the views are so spectacular and must have provided the ancient Brits a panoramic view of approaching agressors. Standing on the summit certainly fires the imagination! None of the original buildings survive of course so museums provide invaluable reconstructions. The open air museum at Avencroft also has an iron age project, related to Butser I think, though I haven’t visited recently. Are you time travelling back to iron age Britain in the new project? I am intrigued!

    Reply
  30. I like exploring iron age hill forts around Britain. British Camp (Malvern) is a favourite as the views are so spectacular and must have provided the ancient Brits a panoramic view of approaching agressors. Standing on the summit certainly fires the imagination! None of the original buildings survive of course so museums provide invaluable reconstructions. The open air museum at Avencroft also has an iron age project, related to Butser I think, though I haven’t visited recently. Are you time travelling back to iron age Britain in the new project? I am intrigued!

    Reply
  31. I like exploring iron age hill forts around Britain. British Camp (Malvern) is a favourite as the views are so spectacular and must have provided the ancient Brits a panoramic view of approaching agressors. Standing on the summit certainly fires the imagination! None of the original buildings survive of course so museums provide invaluable reconstructions. The open air museum at Avencroft also has an iron age project, related to Butser I think, though I haven’t visited recently. Are you time travelling back to iron age Britain in the new project? I am intrigued!

    Reply
  32. I like exploring iron age hill forts around Britain. British Camp (Malvern) is a favourite as the views are so spectacular and must have provided the ancient Brits a panoramic view of approaching agressors. Standing on the summit certainly fires the imagination! None of the original buildings survive of course so museums provide invaluable reconstructions. The open air museum at Avencroft also has an iron age project, related to Butser I think, though I haven’t visited recently. Are you time travelling back to iron age Britain in the new project? I am intrigued!

    Reply
  33. I, too, love archeological/architectural rabbit holes. I live in Arizona in the US, where we have a considerable number of Native American sites to explore. My favorite are the cliff dwellings, carved out of rock, but I also remember an eight-sided Navajo hogan that looked a lot like a miniature of the big house shown above.
    When I was still traveling, I went to a historical community in Wales, near Cardiff I think, that included a row of what I’d call small apartments strung together, refurbished in the various time periods over which they’d been occupied starting with maybe the early 1800s through the early 21st century. What really impressed me, though, was a superseding–maybe early 1700s?–free-standing, two story house that may have been all of 12ft x 12ft–and around 10 people had lived there. Practicing introvert me fairly shuddered at the thought! But it was efficiently equipped and probably pretty cozy with all that body heat, I imagine.

    Reply
  34. I, too, love archeological/architectural rabbit holes. I live in Arizona in the US, where we have a considerable number of Native American sites to explore. My favorite are the cliff dwellings, carved out of rock, but I also remember an eight-sided Navajo hogan that looked a lot like a miniature of the big house shown above.
    When I was still traveling, I went to a historical community in Wales, near Cardiff I think, that included a row of what I’d call small apartments strung together, refurbished in the various time periods over which they’d been occupied starting with maybe the early 1800s through the early 21st century. What really impressed me, though, was a superseding–maybe early 1700s?–free-standing, two story house that may have been all of 12ft x 12ft–and around 10 people had lived there. Practicing introvert me fairly shuddered at the thought! But it was efficiently equipped and probably pretty cozy with all that body heat, I imagine.

    Reply
  35. I, too, love archeological/architectural rabbit holes. I live in Arizona in the US, where we have a considerable number of Native American sites to explore. My favorite are the cliff dwellings, carved out of rock, but I also remember an eight-sided Navajo hogan that looked a lot like a miniature of the big house shown above.
    When I was still traveling, I went to a historical community in Wales, near Cardiff I think, that included a row of what I’d call small apartments strung together, refurbished in the various time periods over which they’d been occupied starting with maybe the early 1800s through the early 21st century. What really impressed me, though, was a superseding–maybe early 1700s?–free-standing, two story house that may have been all of 12ft x 12ft–and around 10 people had lived there. Practicing introvert me fairly shuddered at the thought! But it was efficiently equipped and probably pretty cozy with all that body heat, I imagine.

    Reply
  36. I, too, love archeological/architectural rabbit holes. I live in Arizona in the US, where we have a considerable number of Native American sites to explore. My favorite are the cliff dwellings, carved out of rock, but I also remember an eight-sided Navajo hogan that looked a lot like a miniature of the big house shown above.
    When I was still traveling, I went to a historical community in Wales, near Cardiff I think, that included a row of what I’d call small apartments strung together, refurbished in the various time periods over which they’d been occupied starting with maybe the early 1800s through the early 21st century. What really impressed me, though, was a superseding–maybe early 1700s?–free-standing, two story house that may have been all of 12ft x 12ft–and around 10 people had lived there. Practicing introvert me fairly shuddered at the thought! But it was efficiently equipped and probably pretty cozy with all that body heat, I imagine.

    Reply
  37. Thank you Quantum, I’ll have to check out Avencroft! Hadn’t heard about that. I’m planning a sequel to my next book (Shadows in the Ashes which is set in Pompeii in 79 AD) and it will be in 80 AD Britain so the native population still lived in Iron Age roundhouses. Hence the research.

    Reply
  38. Thank you Quantum, I’ll have to check out Avencroft! Hadn’t heard about that. I’m planning a sequel to my next book (Shadows in the Ashes which is set in Pompeii in 79 AD) and it will be in 80 AD Britain so the native population still lived in Iron Age roundhouses. Hence the research.

    Reply
  39. Thank you Quantum, I’ll have to check out Avencroft! Hadn’t heard about that. I’m planning a sequel to my next book (Shadows in the Ashes which is set in Pompeii in 79 AD) and it will be in 80 AD Britain so the native population still lived in Iron Age roundhouses. Hence the research.

    Reply
  40. Thank you Quantum, I’ll have to check out Avencroft! Hadn’t heard about that. I’m planning a sequel to my next book (Shadows in the Ashes which is set in Pompeii in 79 AD) and it will be in 80 AD Britain so the native population still lived in Iron Age roundhouses. Hence the research.

    Reply
  41. Cliff-dwellings sound awesome Mary! And I’d love to visit a Navajo structure some time. The Cardiff museum would be interesting too – I think a lot of our ancestors lived in very cramped conditions!

    Reply
  42. Cliff-dwellings sound awesome Mary! And I’d love to visit a Navajo structure some time. The Cardiff museum would be interesting too – I think a lot of our ancestors lived in very cramped conditions!

    Reply
  43. Cliff-dwellings sound awesome Mary! And I’d love to visit a Navajo structure some time. The Cardiff museum would be interesting too – I think a lot of our ancestors lived in very cramped conditions!

    Reply
  44. Cliff-dwellings sound awesome Mary! And I’d love to visit a Navajo structure some time. The Cardiff museum would be interesting too – I think a lot of our ancestors lived in very cramped conditions!

    Reply
  45. Many years ago, a stitching conference was held at Conner Prairie, which is just north of Indianapolis. Back then it was an indoor museum building (where our classes were held) and an outdoor experience: a 1836 prairie village. The folks working in the village were very much in their setting; dressed appropriately & talking to you in terms, etc that reflected 1836 lifestyle. I had one woman offer to have her man show my man how to carve a yoke for me to help me carry water (it was a long ways up the bluff from that creek!) We attended “loud” school; where the kids learned by reciting their lessons: divided the group into the various groups & each group recites their lesson aloud. I found you really have to focus to keep on track with your lesson–I guess that helps!
    Conner Prairie is one of the top “living” museums in the country & they’ve added so many more “experiences” including an 1816 Lenape Indian village and an 1859 balloon voyage. Also, they’re developing other areas for environmental and cultural learning. It’s quite something! Yep, as you might guess, I do recommend it!

    Reply
  46. Many years ago, a stitching conference was held at Conner Prairie, which is just north of Indianapolis. Back then it was an indoor museum building (where our classes were held) and an outdoor experience: a 1836 prairie village. The folks working in the village were very much in their setting; dressed appropriately & talking to you in terms, etc that reflected 1836 lifestyle. I had one woman offer to have her man show my man how to carve a yoke for me to help me carry water (it was a long ways up the bluff from that creek!) We attended “loud” school; where the kids learned by reciting their lessons: divided the group into the various groups & each group recites their lesson aloud. I found you really have to focus to keep on track with your lesson–I guess that helps!
    Conner Prairie is one of the top “living” museums in the country & they’ve added so many more “experiences” including an 1816 Lenape Indian village and an 1859 balloon voyage. Also, they’re developing other areas for environmental and cultural learning. It’s quite something! Yep, as you might guess, I do recommend it!

    Reply
  47. Many years ago, a stitching conference was held at Conner Prairie, which is just north of Indianapolis. Back then it was an indoor museum building (where our classes were held) and an outdoor experience: a 1836 prairie village. The folks working in the village were very much in their setting; dressed appropriately & talking to you in terms, etc that reflected 1836 lifestyle. I had one woman offer to have her man show my man how to carve a yoke for me to help me carry water (it was a long ways up the bluff from that creek!) We attended “loud” school; where the kids learned by reciting their lessons: divided the group into the various groups & each group recites their lesson aloud. I found you really have to focus to keep on track with your lesson–I guess that helps!
    Conner Prairie is one of the top “living” museums in the country & they’ve added so many more “experiences” including an 1816 Lenape Indian village and an 1859 balloon voyage. Also, they’re developing other areas for environmental and cultural learning. It’s quite something! Yep, as you might guess, I do recommend it!

    Reply
  48. Many years ago, a stitching conference was held at Conner Prairie, which is just north of Indianapolis. Back then it was an indoor museum building (where our classes were held) and an outdoor experience: a 1836 prairie village. The folks working in the village were very much in their setting; dressed appropriately & talking to you in terms, etc that reflected 1836 lifestyle. I had one woman offer to have her man show my man how to carve a yoke for me to help me carry water (it was a long ways up the bluff from that creek!) We attended “loud” school; where the kids learned by reciting their lessons: divided the group into the various groups & each group recites their lesson aloud. I found you really have to focus to keep on track with your lesson–I guess that helps!
    Conner Prairie is one of the top “living” museums in the country & they’ve added so many more “experiences” including an 1816 Lenape Indian village and an 1859 balloon voyage. Also, they’re developing other areas for environmental and cultural learning. It’s quite something! Yep, as you might guess, I do recommend it!

    Reply
  49. We have a living museum like this one in Co. Wexford which is about an hour away from where I live. It’s fascinating!! We visited many times when the children were small and my daughter and I have been since.
    There is also a famous one at Bunratty Castle in Co Limerick. Again we’ve been many times over the years and I would love to go again. You can tour the castle and then there is a village as it was back in the day, laid out around it. I LOVE this one.
    Looking at your pictures I think you would enjoy the ones here in Ireland.
    Great post Christina.

    Reply
  50. We have a living museum like this one in Co. Wexford which is about an hour away from where I live. It’s fascinating!! We visited many times when the children were small and my daughter and I have been since.
    There is also a famous one at Bunratty Castle in Co Limerick. Again we’ve been many times over the years and I would love to go again. You can tour the castle and then there is a village as it was back in the day, laid out around it. I LOVE this one.
    Looking at your pictures I think you would enjoy the ones here in Ireland.
    Great post Christina.

    Reply
  51. We have a living museum like this one in Co. Wexford which is about an hour away from where I live. It’s fascinating!! We visited many times when the children were small and my daughter and I have been since.
    There is also a famous one at Bunratty Castle in Co Limerick. Again we’ve been many times over the years and I would love to go again. You can tour the castle and then there is a village as it was back in the day, laid out around it. I LOVE this one.
    Looking at your pictures I think you would enjoy the ones here in Ireland.
    Great post Christina.

    Reply
  52. We have a living museum like this one in Co. Wexford which is about an hour away from where I live. It’s fascinating!! We visited many times when the children were small and my daughter and I have been since.
    There is also a famous one at Bunratty Castle in Co Limerick. Again we’ve been many times over the years and I would love to go again. You can tour the castle and then there is a village as it was back in the day, laid out around it. I LOVE this one.
    Looking at your pictures I think you would enjoy the ones here in Ireland.
    Great post Christina.

    Reply
  53. Thank you so much for the recommendation KC it sounds wonderful! I hope I get to go there one day.

    Reply
  54. Thank you so much for the recommendation KC it sounds wonderful! I hope I get to go there one day.

    Reply
  55. Thank you so much for the recommendation KC it sounds wonderful! I hope I get to go there one day.

    Reply
  56. Thank you so much for the recommendation KC it sounds wonderful! I hope I get to go there one day.

    Reply
  57. I will definitely put those on the itinerary if I ever make it over to Ireland Teresa – thank you!

    Reply
  58. I will definitely put those on the itinerary if I ever make it over to Ireland Teresa – thank you!

    Reply
  59. I will definitely put those on the itinerary if I ever make it over to Ireland Teresa – thank you!

    Reply
  60. I will definitely put those on the itinerary if I ever make it over to Ireland Teresa – thank you!

    Reply
  61. The Museum near Cardiff is St Fagans and in addition to the housing it also has a Church that used to be on marshland near where I live. While reconstructinf it after moving it there they found Medieval Frescos that has been covered with paint. These have now been preserved for visitors to enjoy. The most recent rebuilt was as old Public house that they are hoping to have a drinks licence for and for a brewery to take it on to open again.

    Reply
  62. The Museum near Cardiff is St Fagans and in addition to the housing it also has a Church that used to be on marshland near where I live. While reconstructinf it after moving it there they found Medieval Frescos that has been covered with paint. These have now been preserved for visitors to enjoy. The most recent rebuilt was as old Public house that they are hoping to have a drinks licence for and for a brewery to take it on to open again.

    Reply
  63. The Museum near Cardiff is St Fagans and in addition to the housing it also has a Church that used to be on marshland near where I live. While reconstructinf it after moving it there they found Medieval Frescos that has been covered with paint. These have now been preserved for visitors to enjoy. The most recent rebuilt was as old Public house that they are hoping to have a drinks licence for and for a brewery to take it on to open again.

    Reply
  64. The Museum near Cardiff is St Fagans and in addition to the housing it also has a Church that used to be on marshland near where I live. While reconstructinf it after moving it there they found Medieval Frescos that has been covered with paint. These have now been preserved for visitors to enjoy. The most recent rebuilt was as old Public house that they are hoping to have a drinks licence for and for a brewery to take it on to open again.

    Reply

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