Must Farm Bronze Age settlement

The Must Farm Settlement excavation is an ongoing project being carried out by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit with funding from Historic England and Forterra. The project is investigating an exceptionally well preserved settlement dating to the Late Bronze Age (1000 – 800BC). The site itself sits on the edge of a working quarry at Whittlesey, just outside of Peterborough.

Discovery and Evaluation

The site was first discovered in 1999 when a local archaeologist noticed a series of wooden posts sticking out of the quarry’s edge. This initial discovery led to a small evaluation in 2004, before a larger one followed in 2006. This excavation not only revealed incredibly well preserved artefacts but gave us a real glimpse into life during the Bronze Age.

The 2006 evaluation only scratched the surface of the site but it provided some truly extraordinary discoveries. The settlement consisted of houses built on a series of piles, or stilts, sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built between 1000 – 800BC. Around the edge of the settlement a palisade, consisting of large ash posts, was constructed in situ, leaving the debris at the bottom of the slow-moving river. As the site is situated on the edge of a brick pit, some of the settlement has been historically quarried away at some time in the last century, leaving approximately half.

At some point, perhaps as little as six months, after the settlement was built a fire tore through it, causing the homes to collapse and drop into the river below where the flames were immediately quenched. As the material lay on the riverbed it was covered with layers of non-porous silt which helped to preserve everything from wooden utensils to textiles. It is this degree of preservation which makes the site fascinating and gives us an unprecedented insight into life during the Bronze Age.

Whilst pottery is a common find from almost any archaeological dig, the ceramics recovered from the 2006 evaluation were truly fantastic. There was a wide variety in form and function, from large storage vessels to beautiful, tiny “poppyhead” cups from the Late Bronze Age. There were also some exceptional discoveries, notably preserved pieces of clothing that had survived for 3,000 years. These textiles had survived as a consequence of the fire charring the fibres and water extinguishing them. Analysis has shown that rather than using animal fibres these fabrics were created from plant fibres.

Not only did the 2006 evaluation provide us with fascinating material culture it also gave us glimpses into specific moments of the fire that destroyed the settlement. A bowl was found that still contained the remains of a meal, complete with the spoon that was being used to eat it, which was most likely abandoned as the fire broke out. Similarly, some beautiful beads survived the fire but the temperatures of the blaze were so high that many had partially crystallised or shattered. It is these unique moments that open up a window directly into the past that help to make the Must Farm settlement truly exceptional.

The 2015 – 2016 Excavation

After the 2006 evaluation, it was agreed that the site would be preserved in situ as this was the best way to ensure the survival of the archaeology. However, routine monitoring of the ground conditions over the next few years raised some concerns over the preservation conditions. A decision was made to excavate and fully record the site, to ensure no information or material was lost. The excavation began in August 2015 and ran until August 2016, thanks to the financial support of both quarry owners Forterra and Historic England.

Excavation has revealed some of the most extraordinary Late Bronze Age archaeology ever discovered in Europe, with many unparalleled finds including textiles, wooden artefacts and metalwork. The settlement appeared to be the dwelling place of a number of families and the material left behind gives us an amazing insight into the everyday lives of people in the Fens, 3000 years ago.

The stilted structures that they lived in were round and raised above the river which would have run underneath them. The floors were likely springy and made from wattle panelling, similar to the walls of the buildings and their roofs were composite; made from a mixture of thatch, turf and clay. The palisade around the outside of the settlement was created using ash posts that likely came from managed woodland.

Inside, the homes would have been filled with artefacts ranging from carved wooden items and pots to metalwork and fabric. The pots are mostly complete and incorporate larger storage and cooking vessels alongside smaller and more delicate bowls and cups. The wooden artefacts are astonishing, including a miniature wooden box, two wheels and a plethora of platters and containers.

Must Farm also has the largest, and finest, collection of textiles from the British Bronze Age. These extremely delicate objects were preserved by the unique combination of charring and waterlogging resulting from the destruction of the settlement. The fibres and fabrics are incredibly useful to study as they reflect different aspects of the production of textiles, from the initial stages through to the finished objects.

The settlement yielded the largest assemblage of domestic metalwork from Britain, including axes, sickles, gouges and razors. Metalwork from the Bronze Age is rarely found associated with settlement, so these artefacts are particularly important in the study of household inventories. While domestic metal objects are the most common, weaponry has been found including swords and spears, some of which are still hafted.

During the excavation an earlier feature of the site was also discovered, a large timber causeway similar to the nearby Flag Fen. This raised wooden walkway pre-dates the settlement and one of its timbers was felled between 1290 – 1250BC. The causeway is made from enormous oak uprights, many of which have handles shaped into their sides. There is metalwork deposited alongside the wooden walkway, including swords and spears; a practice well known from the Bronze Age.


Bronze Age Settlement

Thanks to funding from Historic England and Forterra, in August 2015 we began a new project – Bronze Age Settlement. This was a 10-month excavation of a settlement at the site that was destroyed by fire, causing it to collapse into a river channel, preserving the contents in situ. Information on our progress and discoveries can be found in Bronze Age Settlement.

Bronze Age River

In 2011 the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, University of Cambridge, in collaboration with Forterra, began to unearth a series of extraordinary finds. What we found, what we learnt and what we know about the history, geology and archaeology of the area, can be explored in Bronze Age River.

Future Work

While the dig has finished, the lengthy task of post-excavation analysis is just beginning. We have a vast amount of information to examine and analyse, including records of thousands of pieces of wood, hundreds of finds and a wealth of environmental data to investigate. There are dozens of specialists working on the post-excavation process and we have a large number of questions to tackle.

Over the coming months, and years, we’ll be working to understand every aspect of the Must Farm settlement, from the activities that took place there to the events surrounding its destruction.

For the latest updates and information about the project, follow us on social media via our Facebook and Twitter pages.

We also regularly update our diary pages with more detailed posts describing different elements of the Must Farm project.

If you have any questions or enquiries you can find our contact details here.

Must Farm Bronze Age settlement
Must Farm CL3 4817 (26447110732).jpg
Location Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, England
Coordinates 52.562°N 0.184°WCoordinates: 52.562°N 0.184°W
History
Material Wood
Periods Bronze Age
Site notes
Archaeologists Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Public access No
Website www.mustfarm.com

Part of a Bronze Age settlement was uncovered at Must Farm quarry, at Whittlesey, near Peterborough, in Cambridgeshire, England. The site has been described as “Britain’s Pompeii” due to its relatively good condition, including the “best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found” there, which all appear to have been abandoned suddenly following a catastrophic fire.[1] The site is on a former river, inside Flag Fen basin,[2] around 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) south of Flag Fen itself. Must Farm was named Best archaeological project and Best archaeological discovery[3] at the 2012 British Archaeological Awards, and Best Discovery at the 2016 Awards.[4]

Early excavations

Wooden posts were first recognised there in 1999, leading to preliminary excavations in 2004 and 2006.[5] Early finds at the site include a rapier and a sword in 1969. Between 2011 and 2012, eight Bronze Age log boats were discovered.[2] The boats were found in a small freshwater palaeochannel and were preserved due to waterlogging.[6] Radiocarbon dating has indicated that the ages of these boats spanned a period of about 1,000 years, with the earliest examples dating to around 1750–1650 BCE.[7] Some of the boats may have been deliberately sunk.[8] They are now preserved at Flag Fen and are available to view on guided tours.[9]

Bronze Age woven wooden fish traps and wattle-hurdle fish weirs were found in the same channel, together with metalwork including swords and spears.[6]

2015/2016 excavation

Simplified excavation site plan[10]

 

Remains of a house at Must Farm showing the unburnt stumps of posts under the waterline during the fire (top-right) and collapsed joists (bottom-left)

Simplified elevation cross-section of a typical house at Must Farm[11]

In September 2015,[6] the University of Cambridge‘s Cambridge Archaeological Unit began a dig, eventually covering 1,100 square metres (1,300 sq yd),[2] the details of which were publicly disclosed in January 2016.[citation needed] Historic England have funded a £1.1 million project to excavate the site to gain as much knowledge of Bronze Age life in Britain as possible.[1] Archaeologists found two circular wooden houses, from about 1000–800 BCE, and concluded that they were damaged by fire and that the platform on which they sat then slid into the river, where the fire was extinguished and the buildings and objects within them were preserved in the silt.[1][2][12] About half of the settlement is thought to have been lost due to modern-day quarrying.[5]

Objects recovered include pots still containing food, textiles woven from lime tree bark and other plant fibres, sections of wattle walls, and glass beads.[1]

In 2016, a large wooden wheel of about 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter was uncovered at the site. The specimen, dating from 1,100–800 years BCE, represents the most complete and earliest of its type found in Britain. The wheel’s hub is also present. A horse’s spine found nearby suggests the wheel may have been part of a horse-drawn cart. The find “expands our understanding of late Bronze Age technology”, said Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, which is co-funding the project. The team have until July 2016 to excavate the site before the quarry owners require the land back.[13]

Dig Diary 21: A Tour of the Excavation: Part One

March 14, 2016

A Virtual Guide to the Site

Since the beginning of the excavation we have always wanted to show as many people as possible around the site and share its archaeology. However, the location of the site in a working quarry and a small excavation team means we are only able to offer a set number of group visits. While this will never match the full impact of seeing the site in person, we hope it can provide a better sense of the settlement and its preservation.

Introduction

Simplified site plan showing the overall excavation. Areas marked in green are roundhouses, the palisade enclosing the settlement is marked in red and the earlier timber causeway is highlighted in grey. The dot-dash line closest to the top of the image (north) shows the edge of the quarry where more of the settlement would once have been.

The most immediate aspect of the site to make clear is that it is not complete. Quarrying work in the 20thCentury seems to have removed approximately half of the settlement: an approximation based on the shape of the remainder of the exterior palisade. The area on the plan, close to RH3, running north to south is a drainage channel which removed a portion of the site when it was dug, again in the mid-20th Century. While this is unfortunate, it is only due to the remains of the quarrying activity from this period that the site was even identified in the first place. Thankfully, this modern intrusion missed the largest roundhouse, leaving us with at least one, large well-preserved structure.

The section on the plan running north-south with straight edges, close to RH5, shows the outline of our initial work in 2006 when we evaluated the material from the site. It shows how small an area we were initially working on, which is relatively common for archaeological evaluations. From this we had to try and predict what we would discover when opening up a larger area. Given the incredible density of wood it would have been hard to guess that it could be so full of material, even in our most optimistic estimations!

The Western Area – Palisade, Wheel and a House?

Overview of Western Area with the team working on the wheel

Looking at the western area of site highlights several points. The first of which is the preservation conditions here. The close proximity to the historical quarry edge seems to have had an effect on the waterlogging here, as the wood is more degraded than other areas of the site. Thankfully the condition of the wood is still good enough to be able to examine and record. This is one of the reasons we are excavating the site, to ensure that important environmental and archaeological information is not lost to decay resulting from changes to the water levels.

It’s from this area that our wheel emerged giving us a number of interesting issues to consider. Firstly, that it sits in the sediment of the river channel, contemporary with burnt debris from the fire that marked the end of the settlement. The radiant charring on the surface of the wheel strongly implies it was close to the fire that burnt down the houses. Crucially, this charring suggests it was not actually in the blaze. Perhaps the most pressing, and elusive, question is simply “Why is the wheel in a river channel?”. We have had a number of different theories and suggestions but, so far, none of them seems especially probable. We’re hoping that more information might come to light as we excavate more of this western portion of the settlement.

Western Area: patches of burnt clay with remains of ceramic vessel that seem associated with RH3

Finally, there seems to be the remains of a house in this area. It is not particularly easy to identify but a small area of upright posts and clusters of charred timbers suggest that a roundhouse was present. It is likely that the drainage channel has remove some of the structure, making it less noticeable than some of our larger, intact buildings. We’ll find out more about this stilted roundhouse as we work on the area and start to take a closer look at the timbers associated with it.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be exploring the deposits beneath the wheel, recording and removing the timbers and examining patches of burnt clay along the edge of the drainage channel.

The Eastern Area – Palisade and Timbers

Eastern Area: Uncovering wattle sheets most likely related to RH5

We have just begun to open up this area of the excavation, located to the right of RH5, which is one of the smallest segments of our project. The southern area, outside the extent of the palisade doesn’t seem to have much timber associated with it, although we need to remove more sediment to check it more thoroughly. Inside the palisade in this area, even though it is relatively tiny, is very busy with archaeology.

There are the remains of a wattle sheet which is slightly decayed alongside several larger timbers. One particularly interesting timber has three mortice holes located very close to one another. It is likely that these timbers belonged to a structure that was partially excavated in the 2006 evaluation trench nearby. It also seems that the footprint of the raised roundhouse extends slightly into the central eastern area close-by, with a few of the posts from the outer ring still visible in place.

Eastern Area: Footprints emerging outside the palisade as it curves

We knew there was some form of structure present in the 2006 trench, however given the small insight this narrow slot provided into the entire settlement, it would have been almost impossible to have identified it as a stilted house. It was initially interpreted as a “timber platform”, which is where the project derives its name from. This goes to show the importance of being able to carry out an open area excavation and how that extra visibility makes interpretation and understanding easier.

We are still at a fairly early stage of excavating the eastern portion of the settlement. Our next plans for this area are to continue to remove the sediment and to clean and record the emerging timbers.

Southern Extension – Timber Causeway and Footprints

Southern Extension: Large oak causeway uprights emerging from the sediment

To the south of the central area of the excavation, at the end of the highlighted grey causeway, we carried out a small extension to explore a series of very substantial, oak posts. Several of these enormous timbers were discovered during the evaluation and it became apparent that they ran across the settlement, continuing beyond the extent of the palisade. Dating evidence from 2006 revealed that these large oaks were early in date with dendrochronology giving a feeling date of 1292BC, whereas the palisade was radiocarbon dated to between 1000 – 800BC.

As we uncovered and cleaned the palisade it became clear that the large oaks continued we took the decision to extend the excavation area slightly. This proved very worthwhile and revealed five more oak uprights alongside some other wooden debris. These oaks seem to have formed a wooden causeway that would have run across the landscape in a similar manner to the Flag Fen causeway. The dates of the earliest timbers at Flag Fen and Must Farm are only a few years apart, suggesting timber construction on a landscape scale.

Southern Extension: cleaning footprints in the sediment outside the palisade

This extension also revealed footprints pressed into the soft sediments of what would have been the edge of the river during the Bronze Age. We found areas of footprints outside the palisade during the evaluation and these most recent ones are of similar quality. They are preserved when the indentations of the footprint are filled with the shelly river silts. This keeps the shape very well allowing us to remove the shell-rich silt and reveal whole areas of activity. We’ve got a nice variety of different impressions: including sheep and cows as well as human footprints.

In the next part of the tour we’ll be discussing the archaeology of the central areas and more information about the stilted roundhouses we’re beginning to explore.

References

  1. a b c d “Bronze Age houses uncovered in Cambridgeshire are Britain’s ‘Pompeii'”. BBC Online. 12 January 2016. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  2. a b c d “Bronze Age Homes Unearthed in East Anglia”. Historic England. 12 January 2016. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  3. “British Archaeological Awards 2012”. Council for British Archaeology. 9 July 2012. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  4. “‘Britain’s Pompeii’ was ‘Bronze Age new build’ site”. BBC News. 14 July 2016. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  5. a b “About”. mustfarm.com. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  6. a b c “Must Farm”. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  7. “BBC News Cambridgeshire Flag Fen Bronze Age boats older than was first thought”. 8 September 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  8. Kennedy, Maev (4 June 2013). “News Science Archaeology Eight bronze age boats surface at Fens creek in record find”. The Guardian. London. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  9. “Discover the Must Farm boats at Vivacity”. Retrieved 13 January 2016.
  10. “Site Diary 21: A Tour of the Excavation: Part One”. Must Farm. Retrieved 25 August 2016.
  11. “Latest archaeological finds at Must Farm provide a vivid picture of everyday life in the Bronze Age”. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
  12. Must Farm Project [MustFarm] (13 January 2016). “…we have two buildings so far…” (Tweet). Retrieved 13 January 2016 – via Twitter.
  13. “Bronze Age wheel at ‘British Pompeii’ Must Farm an ‘unprecedented find'”. BBC News. UK: BBC. Retrieved 2016-02-18.

Bronze Age Homes Unearthed in East Anglia

  • Large circular wooden houses built on stilts collapsed in a dramatic fire 3,000 years ago and plunged into a river, preserving their contents in astonishing detail
  • ‘Best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain’ provide an extraordinary time capsule of everyday life
  • Pots with meals inside and finely woven clothing have been found
  • Preserved in river silts items, which would normally have long-since decomposed, have been unearthed in pristine condition by archaeologists
  • £1.1 million four-year project funded by Historic England and Forterra sheds new light on day to day lives of our Bronze Age ancestors

Archaeologists have revealed incredibly well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings during an excavation at Must Farm quarry, Whittlesey, in the East Anglian fens that is providing an extraordinary insight into domestic life 3,000 years ago. The settlement, dating to the end of the Bronze Age (1200-800 BC), would have been home to several families who lived in a number of wooden houses on stilts above water.

Time capsule of Bronze Age life

 

A fire destroyed the settlement causing the dwellings to collapse into the river, preserving the contents in the river bed. The result is an extraordinary time capsule containing exceptional textiles made from plant fibres such as lime tree bark, rare small cups, bowls and jars complete with past meals still inside.

The archaeologists have also found exotic glass beads forming part of an elaborate necklace, hinting at a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age. We believe the exposed structures are the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain and the finds, taken together, provide a fuller picture of prehistoric life than we have ever had before.

Whole pots and from the timber dwelling at Must Farm after the structure was destroyed by fire
Whole pots, fragments of textiles and other material from the timber dwelling after the structure was destroyed by fire. Our analysis found there was still food in some of them. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said:

“A dramatic fire 3,000 years ago combined with subsequent waterlogged preservation has left to us a frozen moment in time, which gives us a graphic picture of life in the Bronze Age. We are learning more about the food our ancestors ate, and the pottery they used to cook and serve it. We can also get an idea of how different rooms were used. This site is of international significance and its excavation really will transform our understanding of the period. “

Homes abandoned in haste

Clearly visible are the well-preserved charred roof timbers of one of the roundhouses, timbers with tool marks and a perimeter of wooden posts known as a palisade which once enclosed the site.

It is possible that those living in the settlement were forced to leave everything behind when it caught on fire. Such is the level of preservation due to the deep waterlogged sediments of the Fens, the footprints of those who once lived there were also found.

Archaeologists at Must Farm have uncovered the charred wooden roof structure of a 3,000 year old round house
Archaeologists at Must Farm have uncovered the charred wooden roof structure of a 3,000 year old round house © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Excavation continues

The finds suggest there is much more to be discovered in the rest of the settlement as the excavation continues over the coming months.

After the excavation is complete, the team will take all the finds for further analysis and conservation. Eventually they will be displayed at Peterborough Museum and at other local venues. The end of the four year project will see a major publication about Must Farm and an online resource detailing the finds.

An important wetland site

The site, now a clay quarry owned by Forterra, is close to Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire and sits astride a prehistoric watercourse inside the Flag Fen basin. The excavation site is two metres below the modern ground surface, as levels have risen over thousands of years and archaeologists have now reached the river bed as it was in 1000-800BC. The site has produced large quantities of Bronze Age metalwork, including a rapier and sword in 1969, and more recently the discovery of nine pristinely preserved log boats in 2011.

Wood specialist Mike Bamforth examining the base of a Bronze Age wooden bucket
Wood specialist Mike Bamforth examining the base of a Bronze Age wooden bucket © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

These discoveries place Must Farm alongside similar European Prehistoric Wetland sites; the ancient loch-side dwellings known as crannogs in Scotland and Ireland; stilt houses, also known as pile dwellings, around the Alpine Lakes; and the terps of Friesland, man-made hill dwellings in the Netherlands.

Project partners

The major project is being funded by Historic England (formerly known as English Heritage) and building products manufacturer Forterra, which owns the Must Farm quarry. It is happening because of concern about the long-term preservation of this unique Bronze Age site with its exceptional remains.

The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge is carrying out the excavation of 1,100 square metres of the Must Farm site in Cambridgeshire, and is now half way through the project.

David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge said:

“Usually at a Later Bronze Age period site you get pits, post-holes and maybe one or two really exciting metal finds. Convincing people that such places were once thriving settlements takes some imagination. But this time so much more has been preserved – we can actually see everyday life during the Bronze Age in the round. It’s prehistoric archaeology in 3D with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity. “

Mark Knight, Site Director of the excavation, said:

“Must Farm is the first large-scale investigation of the deeply buried sediments of the fens and we uncover the perfectly preserved remains of prehistoric settlement. Everything suggests the site is not a one-off but in fact presents a template of an undiscovered community that thrived 3,000 years ago ‘beneath’ Britain’s largest wetland.”

Brian Chapman, Head of Land and Mineral Resources at Forterra, said:

“We’re delighted to be part of this incredible project which demonstrates our commitment to preserving the unique history of the site and look forward to working closely with our partners over the coming months and years.”

County Councillor Ian Bates, Chairman of the Environment and Economy Committee at Cambridgeshire County Council, said:

“We recognised early on the significance of the site and worked closely with partners to ensure the safe recovery of the archaeology found there. The Bronze Age finds really are of national prominence and it is important that it is preserved as a local legacy and for national audiences.”

Detail of preserved Bronze Age textile made from plant fibres
Detail of preserved Bronze Age textile made from plant fibres © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

 

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