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Earliest Complete Bronze Age Wheel in Britain Discovered

  • Archaeologists at Must Farm uncover 3,000 year old Bronze Age wheel, the first complete example ever to be discovered in Britain
  • Find broadens our understanding of Late Bronze Age life
  • Wheel is latest find from "Peterborough's Pompeii" - Large wooden round houses built on stilts which plunged into a river after a dramatic fire 3,000 years ago

Archaeologists have discovered the largest and most complete Bronze Age wheel, the earliest example of its kind, in Britain. Thought to date from 1100-800 BC, this ancient wooden wheel is one metre in diameter and is so well preserved it still contains its hub. The find is unprecedented in terms of size and completeness, although an incomplete Bronze Age wheel was found nearby at Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire in the 1990s. The discovery poses challenges to our understanding of the Late Bronze Age in terms of the technology available 3,000 years ago.

Man excavating the Bronze Age Wheel at Must Farm
Excavation of Bronze Age Wheel at Must Farm one metre in diameter, with hub clearly visible © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said:

"This remarkable but fragile wooden wheel is the earliest complete example ever found in Britain. The existence of this wheel expands our understanding of Late Bronze Age technology and the level of sophistication of the lives of people living on the edge of the Fens 3,000 years ago."

This find is the latest in a series of discoveries at the Must Farm site which is providing an extraordinary insight into domestic life 3,000 years ago. It has already revealed circular wooden houses believed to be the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain. The large wheel was unearthed just a few metres away from the largest round house on the site. Other exciting finds include a wooden platter, small wooden box and rare small bowls and jars with food remains inside, as well as exceptional textiles and Bronze Age tools. The houses collapsed into a river, after a catastrophic fire, which preserved their contents in amazing detail.

Close up of wooden hub of wheel
Close up of the wooden hub of the wheel © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge said:

"The discovery of the wheel demonstrates the inhabitants of this watery landscapes links to the dryland beyond the river."

Brian Chapman, Head of Land and Mineral Resources at Forterra, said:

"This is an incredible project which we are delighted to be part of. We understand that the discovery of the wheel is of national importance. We are committed to helping uncover the remaining secrets of this unique site at Must Farm and look forward to working with our partners over the coming months."

Kasia Gdaniec, Senior Archaeologist for Cambridgeshire County Council, said:

"Among the wealth of other fabulous artefacts and the new structural remains of round houses built over this river channel, this site continues to amaze and astonish us with its insight into prehistoric life, the latest being the discovery of this wooden wheel. Believed to be the most complete example yet found from this period, this wheel poses a challenge to our understanding of both Late Bronze Age technological skill and, together with the eight boats recovered from the same river in 2011, transportation."

Well preserved wooden
A very well preserved wooden "platter" found recently. 34cm by 43cm © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Historic England (formerly known as English Heritage) and building products supplier Forterra are funding a major £1.1 million project to excavate 1,100 square metres of the Must Farm quarry site in Cambridgeshire. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge is over half way through the excavation which is taking place because of concerns about the location and future preservation of the site. The remains cannot be preserved indefinitely in situ and need to be recorded and analysed to help our understanding of this unique Bronze Age site.

Delicate wooden box
Delicate wooden box found recently © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

After the excavation is finished, the team will take the finds for further analysis and conservation. Eventually, they will be displayed at Peterborough Museum, Flag Fen and at other local venues. The end of the four year project will see a major publication about Must Farm and an online resource detailing the finds.

The oldest Bronze Age wheel in Britain is the Flag Fen wheel which dates to c1300 BC but is incomplete and is smaller at 0.8m in diameter. Part of a Late Bronze Age wooden wheel is also known from Lingwood Fen near Cottenham in Cambridgeshire. In Europe, the earliest wheels date to at least 2500 BC, in the Copper Age.

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