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Cambridgeshire find revolutionises our understanding of Bronze Age life and ritual in the east of England

Published: Fri 29 Jan 2016
Cambridgeshire find revolutionises our understanding of Bronze Age life and ritual in the east of England

Ben Jennings reacts to BBC article on findings at Must Farm quarry.

Archaeological investigation of our distant past often relies upon ephemeral evidence for structures, microscopic plant remains, small pottery sherds, and, as one well known comedian stated, “a series of small walls”. The current findings at Must Farm quarry, Cambridgeshire, excavated by Cambridge Archaeological Unit and funded by Historic England in association with Forterra – the quarry owner – provide a significant opportunity to glimpse life as it would have been during the Bronze Age, some 1000 years before the Roman occupation of Britain.

The evidence so far excavated is quite remarkable. Of course, the ‘shiny’ finds, such as bronze weapons and tools, and glass work beads do grab attention. And rightly, for they provide possible indicators of the status of the people living at the site. These items suggest the ability of the prehistoric Must Farm inhabitants to access trade and exchange networks spreading across Britain and continental Europe.

Yet, more remarkable are what would appear to be relatively mundane finds. Some of the largely intact ceramic vessels recovered contain charred and preserved remnants of their last contents. Future analysis of these remains will provide an indication for the types of food and drink which the Bronze Age dwellers were preparing and consuming. It is quite remarkable to think that these pots and jars could provide the recipe for a marketable ‘Bronze Age porridge’ to start the day.

We can also get a glimpse of the forms of clothes that may have been seen around the village. Preserved textiles, made from plant fibres, given an idea of the forms of garment worn, and how they may have appeared – and felt.

Bronze Age Site

By far the most impressive remains however, in my opinion, are the structural elements visible. When dealing with Bronze Age – an era when the vast majority of structures are built from timber – settlements archaeologists typically have to work with a series of post holes – small round pits which were cut in to the ground and a structural timber was driven into, much as we do when building a garden fence – which we can see because the timber has rotten over time and the soil within takes on a different colour. Not only does Must Farm have the supporting posts in situ, they also have remains of the building super-structure which have collapsed inside the building. This provides not only the opportunity to understand the primary construction of the Bronze Age round house, but also to examine how the upper levels and internal space were laid out and separated.

Preservation issues have been key to the survival of so much wonderful organic material at Must Farm. The site is within the Fenland of east England, and the largely waterlogged nature of the surrounding land creates excellent conditions for the survival of timber, food remains and textiles over thousands of years. When combined with the fact that the structure appears to have been destroyed in a burning event – it is not yet clear if this was deliberate or accidental – the carbonization of many materials creates a double benefit to preservation; carbonisation and waterlogging.

In this respect the structures uncovered at Must Farm definitely represent the best preserved Bronze Age dwellings in Great Britain, indeed rivalling the ‘lake-villages’ of the Alpine region which were recently given UNESCO World Heritage Status. In much of the media coverage, the site was often termed as “Britain’s ‘Pompeii’”, in my opinion the comparison is somewhat understating Must Farm; this site is far more interesting than Pompeii, which really is “a series of walls” (even if they are quite big walls).

Must Farm not only provides an insight into the occupants of a small settlement in the Fens, but revolutionises much of our understanding of Bronze Age life and ritual in the east of England. The Fenlands are well known for their preservation, and many interesting sites and finds have been found in the area, such as dug-out boats and trackways which provide further information of human occupation in the area, but slightly further afield at Flag Fen. Despite the numerous findings in the wetland area, there had until now been no indication for settlement within the wetlands, it was presumed to be a resource gathering and ‘ritualised’ area, while the villages and settlements occurred on the dryland islands and edges of the Fens. Must Farm necessitates a re-consideration of Bronze Age occupation within the Fens, and across England’s wetlands as a whole.

The excavation is ongoing, and hopefully more exciting finds will be discovered as the archaeologists progress through the complex mass of burned and collapse structures. Fortunately, the site has an active ‘diary’ which features the latest information. See the Must Farm website for more details.

Ben Jennings, Research Assistant in Archaeological Sciences

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