Living in the Past (TV series)

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Living in the Past was a fly on the wall documentary programme aired by the BBC in 1978 which followed a group of fifteen young volunteers, six couples and three children, recreating an Iron Age settlement, where they sustained themselves for a year, equipped only with the tools, crops and livestock that would have been available in Britain in the 2nd Century BC.[1]

Produced at BBC Bristol by John Percival for BBC Two it consisted of twelve fifty-minute episodes airing from 23 February to 11 May 1978.[1]

Events during series[edit]


The series began with the group building its Iron Age settlement with a hybrid of modern work tools and ancient tools, giving them time to adjust and get their bearings for living in an ancient time. The settlement they built was based on a nearby archaeological site dated to around the same time in the Iron Age as the series took place. The group began to phase out the modern tools and began only using ancient tools and techniques.


For the first ten weeks the group survived on food and supplies from supermarkets. But once the harsh weather relented and the settlement was self-sufficient, the group grew its own crops and used domesticated animals for dairy and meat. The settlement had several goats, pigs, and chickens for the group's use. Breakfast almost everyday consisted of porridge of boiled wheat with milk and, if any was present, honey. On Sundays they treated themselves to bread with smeared honey and perhaps butter.

One of the daily tasks for the entire group was milling corn and wheat for bread on small millstones. They also made cheese out of goat milk almost daily. They also had fish at various times and occasionally had eggs from their chickens. At times, they slaughtered their animals for larger quantities of meat, although some group members were vegetarians.


The group washed with water and clay, which didn't disinfect, but, as they found, was suitable to remove dirt and other impurities from their skin and hair.


The group spent about six weeks slashing hay to stock up for the coming winter to keep the animals supplied and also for insulating material.

The villagers also had to learn how to fish and had success setting up a large fish traps in a nearby stream.

Pagan ritual[edit]

The group reenacted Pagan Celtic festivals and erected a fifteen-foot wicker man that they burned one night. The group foraged elderberries from nearby plants and had fermented elderberry wine to drink during the festival.


One couple decided to leave the settlement early in November when one of their children became ill. Although the child was not seriously ill, the parents felt more comfortable taking him home.

When the year was up the rest of the group celebrated with champagne brought in from the outside world. They took several possessions they had made during the year with them and were taken to a luxury hotel in Bath, Somerset.

To this day the group maintains that the experiment was paramount in teaching them to be self-sufficient and be able to survive like an Iron Age man if need be.

To stop the area from becoming a tourist attraction in the quiet section of woods it was located in, the settlement was burned down.

Follow-up programmes[edit]

A follow-up programme aired in the same year, Living in the Present, discovered what the participants had thought of the experiment and how they were adjusting back to modern day living.[2]

In 2001 the BBC repeated the experiment with Surviving the Iron Age, which included three children of Living in the Past's castmembers.

In 2008, BBC Four's What Happened Next? revisited participants of the original series thirty years after their year living together.


  1. ^ a b "Living in the Past". screenonline. British Film Institute (BFI). 
  2. ^ "Living in the Present". British Film Institute (BFI). 

External links[edit]