Archaeologists in Britain have uncovered the charred remains of a 3,000-year-old stilted wooden structure that plunged into the river after it caught fire. The remarkably well-preserved roundhouse is offering an unprecedented glimpse into what domestic life was like during the Bronze Age.
This remarkable settlement in East Anglia was occupied at the end of the Bronze Age, sometime around 1200-800 BC. Several families lived in a circular building, which was propped up on stilts above the water. The structure collapsed into the river after a fire damaged the posts.
The roundhouse would have looked something like this Celtic Crannog (Credit: Christine Westerback/CC BY SA 2.0)
But the fire and the roundhouse’s subsequent collapse into the river contributed to its extraordinary preservation. Like the intact structures found at Pompeii, the flames helped to carbonize and maintain the wooden beams. Silt at the bottom of the river prevented air and bacteria from chewing away at the wood. And because the inhabitants were forced to leave everything behind, virtually everything remains where they left it. Archaeologists are describing it as a time capsule.
“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” — Mark Knight
Posts and rafters stick up from the ground, while footprints of the inhabitants can still be seen in the sediment. A charred roof of a roundhouse remains visible, as are tool marks and a perimeter of wooden posts that once enclosed the site. Experts say the excavations are revealing “the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found” in the country.
“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,” noted Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of heritage organization Historic England. He says the site is of “international significance,” and that it’s poised to “transform our understanding of the period.”
The site, located at Must Farm near Peterborough, England, has already produced a treasure-trove of artifacts. Though the excavations are only half complete, the archaeologists have uncovered elaborate textiles made from plant fibers, along with small cups, bowls, and jars that still have their meals inside. The researchers also found glass beads that were attached to a necklace—a sophisticated item of jewelry not typically associated with the Bronze Age. This could mean that the inhabitants were at the upper levels of society.
These glass beads were once part of an elaborate necklace.
“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,” said Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) Site Director Mark Knight. “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.”
It’s prehistoric archaeology in 3D with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity.” — David Gibson
A human skull was also found at the site, but further excavations are required to determine if it belongs to a person who died in the fire. The team also plans to bring in a fire expert to determine if the fire was deliberate (e.g. the result of a hostile tribe) or accidental.
These textiles were made from plant fibers.
Archaeologists have known about the site for decades, but it hasn’t been touched since 2006. Efforts to fully uncover the settlement were given an added sense of urgency after fears emerged that falling water levels could cause the remains to degrade quickly.
The $1.58 million (£1.1 million), 4-year project is being handled by the CAU, who are being funded by Historic England. All items are being sent to labs for further analysis. A detailed paper is expected in a few years, after which time the items will go on public display.
Similar European prehistoric wetland sites have been found before, but nothing quite like this one. Other examples include the ancient loch-side dwellings known as crannogs in Scotland and Ireland, the stilt houses of the Alpine Lakes, and the terps—human-made hill dwellings—in the Netherlands.
“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,” said CAU Archaeological Manager David Gibson. “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.”
All images: Cambridge Archaeological Unit