A Bronze Age settlement uncovered at Must Farm quarry near Peterborough in the east of England has been described as “Britain’s Pompeii.” The site is in a relatively good condition because it appears to have been abandoned suddenly following a catastrophic fire. The settlement was built on a platform on piles over a river channel and dates back to the end of the Bronze Age (1300-800 BC). The piles and houses were destroyed by a sudden fire, which caused the whole structure to collapse into the river. Here the mud preserved the buildings and their contents in a manner similar to the volcanic eruption at Pompeii.
This area of Britain is known as the Fens or Fenlands, a naturally marshy area covering nearly 4,000 square kilometres. Most of the area was drained several centuries ago, resulting in a flat, dry, low-lying region supported by a system of drainage channels and man-made rivers, dykes and drains. It is now a major arable agricultural region.
Excavations first took place here in 2004 and 2006 and then later in 2011-2012. Archaeologists discovered the well-preserved remains of a Bronze Age settlement consisting of roundhouses built on wooden piles, or stilts, above a water channel. The houses were probably built around 1000 – 800BC and the settlement was surrounded by a wooden palisade. At some point, perhaps as little as six months after it was built, a fire tore through the settlement, causing the homes to collapse and drop into the river below. The fire was extinguished by the water and the buildings, and the objects within them, sank down in the water and were preserved in layers of mud and silt.
It is for this reason that the site and its remarkable well-preserved finds are referred to as ‘Britain’s Pompeii’. For instance, one of the amazing finds was a bowl which still contained the remains of a meal, complete with the spoon that was being used to eat it, which was most likely abandoned as the fire broke out.
Must Farm has the largest, and finest, collection of textiles from the British Bronze Age. These extremely delicate objects, woven from lime-tree bark and other plant fibres, were preserved by the unique combination of charring and then waterlogging. In addition to the usual swords and axes, the settlement also yielded the largest collection of domestic metalwork from Britain, objects such as sickles, gouges and razors. Other objects include sections of wattle walls, woven wooden fish traps and wattle-hurdle fish weirs, glass beads, and pots of various sizes and designs.
The later excavations, in 2011 and 2012, revealed eight Bronze Age log boats in a small freshwater channel. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the ages of these boats span a period of about 1,000 years, with the earliest examples dating to around 1750–1650 BC. The boats would once have carried people and things to and from this settlement, demonstrating that the people here had links to places well beyond the immediate area.
In 2016 a large wooden wheel with a diameter of about 1 metre was uncovered at the site. Dating from 1100–800 years BC, it represents the most complete and earliest of its type found in Britain. A horse’s spine found nearby suggests the wheel may have been part of a horse-drawn cart.
The Must Farm site lies inside an enormous quarry, still in use today, from which clay is extracted to make bricks. Where possible, the archaeological objects have been removed for further study by experts. In August 2016, the site was sealed and reburied.
Much more information and photos can be found on the official website at:
Text Alun Harvey