By Kat Wootton
I’m at Butser Ancient Farm in Chalton, south of Petersfield just off the A3, on a hot and humid Sunday morning. Flying ant weather; and good drying weather for some daubing.
Wattle and daub – that ancient method of making walls – is basically a woven latticework of sticks with mud stuck on top to make it draught- and weather- proof.
I’m at the experimental archaeology site to volunteer my services in finishing a new roundhouse, built in the late Iron Age style. Unlike the large roundhouse next door, there’s no central circle of posts to hold the roof up, just a wattle circle wall using willow rather than the usual hazel to weave between the outer posts, a thatched straw roof and two layers of daub.
The inside walls had been daubed the week before by a group on a corporate team building day. Now the volunteers step up to do the outside.
Daub is a mixture of soil (which here contains a fair bit of chalk), cow dung, cow and horse hair, and straw, with water added until it’s the consistency of a wet cake mix. The aim is to splat it onto the wattle so that it coats it in an inch or two thick layer, squishing between the willow stems. Too wet and it won’t stay on, too dry and it won’t envelope the willow. It’s very therapeutic as we hurl clots of daub at the wall, before patting with the back of our hands to smooth it out and weld the blobs of daub together. When it’s dried a little, it can be smoothed with a plasterer’s tool. The bigger stones have to be picked out and we work in panels of three or four upright posts at a time, starting at the bottom and working our way up to the top under the eaves, which is tricky and usually results in a liberal amount of daub in the hair and down your top. It’s well rotted dung so it doesn’t smell. We convince ourselves it is conditioning our hair and skin…
Trevor, who is coordinating the small group of volunteers, gets stuck in too, under the watchful eye of David Freeman, resident archaeologist and proud builder of the roundhouse, as well as the stone age buildings at the other side of the Farm.
One little girl is so absorbed, she doesn’t want to stop even when the lunch call comes. Her younger brother isn’t so keen to get his hands dirty but once he plunges his hands into the bucket of gloop and realises he is actually allowed to sling mud, he gets to work with gusto, singing “splat splat splat” as he does so. There is lots of chat about how people would have built these houses, how long it might have taken them, how many people would have lived in it… a lesson in pre-history as we work. David explains that the walls would have been painted – he’s going for lime white and ochre red, with yellow bands top and bottom and swirling abstract designs painted on top.
Members of the Anglo Saxon reenactment group Herigeas Hundas walk past, eyeing the dirty work. We are coated in mud. We threaten to see them off by mudslinging and they head back to the Saxon hall, laughing.
Starting at 10am, with a squash and biscuit break and an hour for lunch, the daubing is done by teatime. I’m stiff and covered in dried mud, but I feel fantastic. I can say ‘I did that’ next time I see those bits of wall. I’m seriously considering creating my own garden roundhouse now…
If you’d like to volunteer or take one of the courses offered at the farm, see www.butserancientfarm.co.uk