The Hamilton Spectator

Uncovering a Vivid View of Bronze Age Life


Three millennium­s ago, a small, prosperous farming community flourished in the marshes of eastern England. The inhabitant­s lived in thatched roundhouse­s built on wooden stilts above a channel of the River Nene. They wore clothes of fine flax linen; bartered for glass and amber beads imported from places as far as present-day Iran; drank from clay cups; dined on leg of boar and honey-glazed venison, and fed scraps to their dogs.

Within a year of its constructi­on, this prehistori­c idyll met a dramatic end. A catastroph­ic fire tore through the compound; the buildings collapsed and the villagers fled. Everything, including the porridge left in cooking pots, crashed through the burning wicker floors into the thick, sticky reed beds below. Eventually, the objects sank, hidden and entombed, in two meters of oozing peat and silt. The river gradually moved course, but the debris remained intact for nearly 3,000 years, preserving a record of daily life at the end of Britain’s Bronze Age, from 2500 B.C. to 800 B.C.

That frozen moment in time is the subject of two monographs recently published by Cambridge University. Based on a 10-month excavation of what is now known as Must Farm Quarry, a submerged and superbly preserved settlement in the shadow of a factory 120 kilometers north of London, the studies are as detailed as a forensic investigat­ion report of a crime scene.

Mark Knight, the project director, said, “Excavating the site felt slightly rude and intrusive, as if we had turned up after a tragedy, picked through someone’s possession­s and got a glimpse of what they did one day in 850 B.C.”

Evidence for life in Britain’s Bronze Age has traditiona­lly come from fortified and religious sites on dry landscapes.

Francis Pryor, a British archaeolog­ist best known for his 1982 discovery of Flag Fen, a nearby Bronze Age site, said: “The Must Farm report is transformi­ng our understand­ing of British society in the millennium before the Roman Conquest, 2,000 years ago. Far from being primitive, Bronze Age communitie­s lived in harmony with their neighbors, while enjoying life in warm, dry houses with excellent food.”

Until a decade ago, the site lay buried in a clay brick quarry. The original hamlet is believed to have been twice as big — mining in the 20th century obliterate­d half the archaeolog­ical site. What remained were four substantia­l roundhouse­s and a small, square entrancewa­y structure erected on a wooden platform and surrounded by a palisade nearly two meters tall of sharpened ash posts, a barrier designed for defense. The green timber, fresh wood chips and the absence of repair, rebuilding or insect damage suggested that the complex was relatively new at the time of the blaze.

By piecing together the material culture of these ancient Britons, the study reveals how the houses were constructe­d and the household goods within, what the residents ate and how their clothes were made.

The archaeolog­ists unearthed 180 textiles and fiber items (yarns, cloth, knotted nets), 160 wooden artifacts (bobbins, benches, hafts for metal tools and wheels), 120 pottery vessels (bowls, jars, jugs) and 90 pieces of metalwork (sickles, axes, chisels, a dagger, a razor). Beads that had formed part of an elaborate necklace indicated a level of sophistica­tion seldom associated with Bronze Age England. There was no evidence of human casualties.

Interest in Must Farm was first aroused in 1999 when a Cambridge University archaeolog­ist saw a series of oak posts poking out of the beds of clay at the quarry. Excitement grew when preliminar­y digs unearthed fish traps, bronze swords and spearheads.

One question was left unanswered by the monographs: Was the blaze the result of an accident, or of an attack?

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 ?? ?? Clockwise from top left, Must Farm Quarry, a British Bronze Age site on a river channel; the sharpened tip of a post; an axehead; charred grains in a pot; a wattle walkway.
Clockwise from top left, Must Farm Quarry, a British Bronze Age site on a river channel; the sharpened tip of a post; an axehead; charred grains in a pot; a wattle walkway.
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