Best preserved Bronze Age finds in Britain reveal vivid details of lives
Excavation of a site in the Cambridgeshire fens reveals a Bronze Age settlement with connections far beyond its watery location. Over the past ten months, Must Farm has yielded Britain’s largest collections of Bronze Age textiles, beads and domestic artefacts. Together with timbers of several roundhouses, the finds provide a stunning snapshot of a community thriving 3,000 years ago.
Archaeologists have made remarkable discoveries about everyday life in the Bronze Age during their ten-month excavation of 3,000-year-old circular wooden houses at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, a site that has been described as the ‘Pompeii of the fens’.
Believed to be the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain, the houses were destroyed by a fire that caused the settlement, which was built on stilts, to collapse into the shallow river beneath. The soft river silt encapsulated the remains of the charred dwellings and their contents, which survive in extraordinary detail.
The range and quality of the many finds have astonished members of Cambridge Archaeological Unit and colleagues at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Division of Archaeology. The fire is thought to have happened soon after the construction of the roundhouses.
“The excellent preservation of the site is due to deposition in a water-logged environment, the exclusion of air and the lack of disturbance to the site. The timber and artefacts fell into a partly infilled river channel where they were later buried by more than two metres of peat and silt,” said Professor Charles French from the Division of Archaeology. “Surface charring of the wood and other materials also helped to preserve them.”
Now the excavation is coming to an end, archaeologists are able to build a near complete picture of domestic life in a Bronze Age house: where activities happened, what the roof was made of, what people were wearing, and how their clothes were produced. The materials found provide evidence of farming, crafts and building technologies.
The site has revealed the largest collections in Britain of Bronze Age textiles, beads, domestic wooden artefacts (including buckets, platters, troughs, shafts and handles) and domestic metalwork (axes, sickles, hammers, spears, gouges, razors, knives and awls). It has also yielded a wide range of household items; among them are several complete ‘sets’ of storage jars, cups and bowls, some with grain and food residues still inside. Most of the pots are unbroken and are made in the same style; this too is unprecedented. The community living in these roundhouses made their own high-quality textiles, like linen. Some of the woven linen fabrics are made with threads as thin as the diameter of a coarse human hair and are among the finest Bronze Age examples found in Europe.
“Perhaps uniquely, we are seeing the whole repertoire of living at Must Farm – from food procurement to cooking, eating and waste and the construction and shaping of building materials,”
said Professor French. “We see the full tool and weapons kits – not just items that had been lost, thrown away or deposited in an act of veneration – all in one place.”
The excavation has been funded by Historic England and Forterra. The work on the site has been carried out by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Further work on the finds is taking place at the McDonald Institute and other centres.
Top: Pots stacked together Middle: Excavation of a Bronze Age tripartite wheel shows life went on beyond the fens Bottom: The inhabitants of Must Farm had the finest woven garments ever seen