Bronze Age settlement is ‘amazing time capsule of a site’, says archaeologist

Remains of dwellings were discovered at Must Farm quarry in Whittlesey, in the East Anglian Fens.

The Must Farm excavation site in Cambridgeshire
The Must Farm excavation site in Cambridgeshire

A prehistoric settlement dubbed Peterborough’s Pompeii was occupied for less than a year before it burned down, leaving a wealth of well-preserved artefacts, an archaeologist said.

The Bronze Age homestead of around 10 circular wooden houses on stilts, above a river, could potentially have had 50 to 60 people living there, said Chris Wakefield of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

The cause of the blaze in 850BC is not known but could have been an attack or started accidentally and quickly spread between the closely packed homes, Mr Wakefield said.

Remains of dwellings were discovered at Must Farm Quarry in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire in the East Anglian Fens and analysis gives insight into everyday life almost 3,000 years ago.

The Must Farm excavation site.
The Must Farm excavation site.

The dig has drawn comparisons with the Roman city of Pompeii as it provides a “time capsule” into Bronze Age life just as the era was ending.

Environmental analysis has shown that the vegetation in the river helped to cushion the material falling from the structures, preventing damage.

The items landed directly underneath where they had been stored in the houses, giving archaeologists a direct insight into how the roundhouses were used.

The combination of charring and waterlogging caused thousands of objects to survive, including almost 200 wooden artefacts, more than 150 fibre and textile items, 128 pottery vessels and some 90 pieces of metalwork.

An artist’s impression of what the circular wooden homes on stilts would have looked like.
An artist’s impression of what the circular wooden homes on stilts would have looked like. (afh21)

Details of the project are published in new books following extensive analysis.

Mr Wakefield said the site is believed to have been occupied for between nine months and a year before it was destroyed by fire.

He said the wood used to build the homes was “still green” and there was an absence of insects such as woodworm.

People living and cooking in the circular houses threw rubbish from their doorways, creating “rings around the structures”, Mr Wakefield said.

“We were able to separate what was waste from what was still being used inside the houses at the time they burned down,” he said.

“From that quantity of material we were able to estimate this was quite a short-lived settlement because there just isn’t enough butchered animal bone from when they were cooking, there aren’t enough broken pots.”

An array of pots were found on the Bronze Age dig.
An array of pots were found on the Bronze Age dig.

He described what was left as an “amazing time capsule of a site that was pretty much active at the time it was destroyed”.

“I think people have this perception that everyone was struggling to survive, that it was a horrible, nasty time to be alive, and actually looking inside these structures shows they’ve got a very sophisticated level of technology that does everything that they need it to do,” Mr Wakefield said.

“They’ve got axes that they’ve created a bit like a multi-tool that you can swap in different axe heads and use it really quickly for different functions.

“We’ve got pots that have been designed to be stacked inside one another, and this was well before the potter’s wheel was invented, these were all hand-built.”

He said there was “a bucket for recycling their metal in one of the houses”.

Researchers also looked at what people in the dwellings ate.

Archaeologists examine a Bronze Age bowl.
Archaeologists examine a Bronze Age bowl.

“We know they’ve got these meaty stews that are being thickened with wheat, so a bit like a porridgey consistency but very savoury,” Mr Wakefield said.

“They seem to be picking certain joints of pork that they particularly like the look of, so we’re getting a lot of forelegs coming back from the pigs.

“They’re even potentially seasoning some of this stuff with spices, carrot and celery seeds as well.”

More than 18,000 structural timbers were recorded and Mr Wakefield estimated there were nine or 10 homes, each housing a family or extended family.

“These are really tightly packed together buildings, they’re pretty much touching their rooves,” he said.

“If a fire broke out in one of them it would spread really easily through the other buildings and within a very short period of time pretty much the whole thing would have gone up in smoke and collapsed down into that river.

A spearhead at the Must Farm excavation site.
A spearhead at the Must Farm excavation site.

“The other thing is we know the Bronze Age is potentially a violent time.

“We’re finding things like spears and swords at this site and more widely, so there’s a possibility it was some kind of attack that caused the settlement to burn down.

“The only thing that is more difficult with that one is no one died during the fire so we don’t have any human remains that were recovered that were connected with the fire itself.

“One of the things with archaeology is it’s often very difficult to have a definitive answer to everything.

“The likelihood is we’re never going to be able to say with certainty exactly why it burned down.”

He described the project as “one of the most comprehensive investigations into a prehistoric site that’s ever been done in the UK”.

“It’s almost like drawing back the curtain and seeing what it would have been like that time ago,” he said.

“I’ve dug for over 15 years and this project is easily the most incredible thing I’ve ever been involved with.

“This is the only site we’ve found, but there’s every indication that there are more of this type of site hidden, buried beneath the ground out there in the Fens and we just haven’t come across them yet.”

Duncan Wilson, Historic England chief executive, described the discoveries as “truly astonishing”.

New books about the project, published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, document the work and detail the discoveries made.

Some of the objects from the dig will be displayed in an exhibition at Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery from April 27.