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A bronze socketed ax was one of many Bronze Age tools found at Must Farm, a site that dates back about 3,000 years and is the finest site of that era ever found in Britain and one of the finest in Europe.

Burned 3,000-Year-Old Settlement Frozen in Time May Have Been Torched by Raiding Party

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Archaeologists speculate that a raiding party torched a Bronze Age settlement on stilts that was well-preserved in the silt of the river it fell into about 3,000 years ago. A number of hints at the site, which is just east of Petersborough, England, including palisades made of new wood, indicate the people had lived there just a short time before it burned.

The site is at a quarry about 120 km (74.5 miles) north of London called Must Farm. An archaeologist discovered it in 1999 when he saw wooden stakes or palisades sticking out of the mud and silt, which preserved them and many other artifacts as well. Scorching and charring of the wood also helped to preserve some of the material.

Preserved wood at Must Farm by Dr Colleen Morgan

Preserved wood at Must Farm by Dr Colleen Morgan (public domain)

A website about the site and excavations there states: “At some point after the palisade was created a fire tore through the settlement, causing the platform to 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 clothing. It is this degree of preservation which makes the site fascinating and gives us hundreds of insights into life during the Bronze Age.”

The ancient people built the roundhouses over the water and encircled them with a possibly defensive palisade.

The ancient people built the roundhouses over the water and encircled them with a possibly defensive palisade. Drawing by Vicki Herring for Cambridge Archaeological Unit

While the entire site is fantastic, with its nine log boats found nearby, nine roundhouses and many important artifacts, two of the most important finds were textiles and vitrified foods. Also, beads, likely from the Balkans and the Middle East, showed there was long-distance trade in Britain, where the Bronze Age began about 4,000 to 4,500 years ago.

The purpose of the textiles has not been discovered because there are no telltale clues such as cuffs to say whether it was used for clothing or other purposes. However, one of the team members, Susanna Harris of Glasgow University, said they have found fine linen with thread counts of 30 per centimeter, as fine as any cloth known from Europe of the time. “I counted them several times, thinking ‘This can’t be right,’” Harris told ScienceMag.org. The team has also found hanks of yarn and balls of thread.

This photo may not look like much, but it is a fantastically preserved specimen of a 3,000-year-old textile piece from the Must Farm site. An expert says some of the textiles at the site are as fine as any of Europe at that time.

This photo may not look like much, but it is a fantastically preserved specimen of a 3,000-year-old textile piece from the Must Farm site. An expert says some of the textiles at the site are as fine as any of Europe at that time. Photo by Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Archaeologists working on Must Farm revealed some of their findings to the media this week. Now they intend to retreat into the laboratory to more closely examine and analyze the many artifacts they have discovered at this site.

It’s the best Bronze Age settlement ever found in the United Kingdom,” said Mark Knight, project manager with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, a private company that is in charge of the excavations. “We may have to wait a hundred years before we find an equivalent.”

The archaeologists say the roundhouses were about 8 meters (26.25 feet) in diameter. They were built above the water as a defense and to facilitate trade on the river, which led to the North Sea and other farms in the area.

Each house had woodworking tools, including chisels, axes and gouges. They also had sickles to reap grain, spears for hunting and perhaps fighting, and sets of ceramics that contained tiny cups, fine bowls and storage jars.

In the northeast sector of each house were butchered lambs. Dumped into the river were parts of deer and wild pigs. The archaeologists speculate the inhabitants may have had a taboo against butchering wild game indoors.

A bowl with a woodchip.

A bowl with a woodchip. Photo by Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Several food vessels contain charred, wheat, barley and residues of food that had already been cooked. One bowl of stew had a spoon in its burned crust. Experts hope to get Bronze Age recipes from the prehistoric smorgasbord.

Tree rings from wood used to construct the roundhouses and palisade were from about 1290 to 1250 BC and were all green and undisturbed by insects. That, plus wood chips found there, tell archaeologists it was a new settlement when it burned.

Archaeologist Karl Harrison of Cranfield University has been analyzing the fire damage and scorch marks to determine if the fire started in a house or outside. If it started inside, it may have been from a cook fire. If the blaze started outside, it might have been a case of arson. “It was rapid, smoke-filled, and incredibly destructive,” he told ScienceMag.org. “You’d have a couple of minutes to scrabble around.”

The people never returned to the site, which ensured it was well-preserved for modern archaeologists to discover and analyze.

Top image: A bronze socketed ax was one of many Bronze Age tools found at Must Farm, a site that dates back about 3,000 years and is the finest site of that era ever found in Britain and one of the finest in Europe. Photo by Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

By Mark Miller

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