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Archaeologists work from scaffolding to excavate a roundhouse that collapsed into the river after a fire.

Houses from 3,000 Years Ago Are Among Best-Preserved of the Era in Britain

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Archaeologists in England are making headway excavating two remarkably well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings that were burned in a fire and collapsed from their stilts into a river below about 3,000 years ago. Some news reports are calling the site England’s Pompeii, but it has none of the spectacular stone-hewn architecture and dramatic tableaus frozen by the Italian volcano that erupted in 79 AD.

However, researchers have found contents of the houses preserved in “astonishing detail” in the fen (a type of wetland). The houses themselves are among the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain. A press release from Cambridge University describes the scene :

Archaeologists have revealed exceptionally well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings during an excavation at Must Farm quarry 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.

The settlement was destroyed by fire that caused the dwellings to collapse into the river, preserving the contents in situ. 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. Also found are exotic glass beads forming part of an elaborate necklace, hinting at a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age.

A late Iron Age baldric ring with La Tène style decoration that was probably part of a shoulder belt for carrying a sword.

A late Iron Age baldric ring with La Tène style decoration that was probably part of a shoulder belt for carrying a sword. ( Cambridge University )

The team of archaeologists, led by Cambridge Archaeological Unit’s Mark Knight, are digging 2 meters (6 feet) below the surface of the ground. Three thousand years ago, that was ground level and at the river bed.

They have exposed charred roof timbers of a roundhouse, timbers with tool marks and a palisade of wooden posts that enclosed the settlement. The preservation of the site is so good that researchers have even found footprints of the prosperous people who lived there.

Cambridge press says it’s possible the inhabitants of the settlement had to quit the site in a hurry and leave everything behind when it collapsed into the river.

The site is now a clay quarry and is near Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire. The settlement was on a river in the Flag Fen basin. In the past the site has given up large quantities of Bronze Age metalwork, including a sword and rapier in 1969. In 2011, researchers found nine log boats in pristine condition.

Three glass beads were found that the site; researchers think they were part of a necklace.

Three glass beads were found that the site; researchers think they were part of a necklace. ( Cambridge University )

In June Ancient Origins featured a story about how researchers were calling the site a time capsule, as vitrified food—meaning it has become like glass—was found in jars at the site. Dr. Knight told Cambridge Press:

“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.”

The settlement was buried in the wet fens but is being excavated using earth-moving machinery. Previously in fens, archaeological work was done only in shallow areas or near the edges of the wetlands, says MustFarm.com . They call it “deep space archaeology” because the remnants of the community are buried so deeply in the mire. MustFarm.com also calls it one of the most important European Bronze Age sites.

Excavating animal bones found buried in the muck at the site.

Excavating animal bones found buried in the muck at the site. ( Must Farm )

The researchers said the site ranks with other important prehistoric wetland sites, including the loch-side dwellings known as crannogs in Ireland and Scotland; stilt houses around the Alpine Lakes; and the terps of Friesland, manmade hill dwellings in the Netherlands.

Featured image: Archaeologists work from scaffolding to excavate a roundhouse that collapsed into the river after a fire. Source: Cambridge University Press

By: Mark Miller

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