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Wild, local meat and fish; international accessories; the latest household goods and turf roofs: how we lived in Bronze Age Britain

  • Final finds at 3,000 year old roundhouses reveal near complete picture of life in the Bronze Age settlement known as the “Pompeii of the Fens"
  • Roundhouses contain Europe’s finest collection of Bronze Age fabrics and the largest collection of Bronze Age glass ever found in Britain
  • The settlement’s diet was rich and varied, including wild boar, red deer and pike, whilst they built their homes with wickerwork floors and turf roofs
  • Finds reveal a materialistic community with many household goods including complete sets of pottery bowls, weaving equipment, tools for preparing food, wooden buckets, platters and glass beads from Europe and the Middle East

Image showing an array of household items, including whole pots. Some pots were found with the charred remains of 3,000  year old food still in them.
An array of household items, including whole pots. Some pots were found with the charred remains of 3,000 year old food still in them. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), photo Dave Webb

Life in Bronze Age Britain

Archaeologists excavating at least five 3,000 year old circular wooden houses on stilts in the East Anglian fens have pieced together the daily lives of a Late Bronze Age (1000 - 800BC) community through a number of extraordinary finds. The 10 month excavation, which is now coming to an end, has revealed how Bronze Age houses were constructed, what household goods they had, what they ate and how their clothes were made.

The specialist team working at the site, known as ‘Must Farm’ at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire have uncovered the finest collection of Bronze Age fabrics and one of the largest collections of Bronze Age glass ever found in Britain.

They have also found an unprecedented array of household goods, from complete sets of pots, some with food still inside, to wooden buckets and platters, decorative textiles, tweezers, loom weights and decorative beads made from glass, jet and amber showing they were trading with Europe and the Middle East.

The houses are the best-preserved Bronze Age settlement ever excavated in Britain and were destroyed by a major fire that caused the dwellings to collapse into a river, preserving their contents in amazing detail. Evidence, including tree-ring analysis of the oak structures suggests that at the time of the fire, the houses were still new and had only been lived in for a few months, despite being well-equipped with household goods.

Close-up of finely wooven textile made from plant fibres. The roundhouses contained Europe's finest collection of fabrics and fibres.
Close-up of finely woven textile made from plant fibres. The roundhouses contained Europe's finest collection of fabrics and fibres. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), photo Dave Webb

What did people wear 3,000 years ago?

The community living in these roundhouses were making their own high quality textiles, like linen. Some of the woven linen fabrics are made with threads as thin as the diameter of a coarse human hair and are among the finest Bronze Age examples found in Europe. 

Other fabrics and fibres found include balls of thread, twining, bundles of plant fibres and loom weights which were used to weave threads together. Textiles were common in the Bronze Age but it is very rare for them to survive today.

What did they eat?

Wild animal remains found in rubbish dumps outside the houses show they were eating wild boar, red deer and freshwater fish such as pike. Inside the houses, the remains of young lambs and calves have been found, revealing a mixed diet.

While it is common for Late Bronze Age settlements to include farm domestic animals, it is rare to find wild animals being an equally important part of their diet. Plants and cereals were also an important part of the Bronze Age diet and the charred remains of porridge type foods, emmer wheat and barley grains have been found preserved in amazing detail, sometimes still inside the bowls they were served in.

Amber bead and others found in situ at the 3,000 year old Roundhouses at Must Farm. Analysis shows these were made in the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, showing this communinty were trading abroad. Found in the roundhouses was the biggest collection of Bronze Age glass ever found in Britain.
Amber bead and others found in situ at the 3,000 year old Roundhouses at Must Farm. Analysis shows these were made in the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, showing this communinty were trading abroad. Found in the roundhouses was the biggest collection of Bronze Age glass ever found in Britain. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), photo Dave Webb

What household goods did they have?

Each of the houses was fully equipped with pots of different sizes, wooden buckets and platters, metal tools, saddle querns (stone tools for grinding grains), weapons, textiles, loom weights and glass beads. These finds suggest a materialism and sophistication never before seen in a British Bronze Age settlement. Even 3,000 years ago people seemed to have a lot of stuff.

Many of these objects are relatively pristine suggesting that they had only been used for a very short time before the settlement was engulfed by fire.

What did Bronze Age houses look like?

At least 5 houses have been found at the Must Farm settlement, each one built very closely together for a small community of people. Every house seems to have been planned in the same way, with an area for storing meat and another area for cooking or preparing food.

The roundhouses were built on stilts above a small river. The conical roofs were built of long wooden rafters covered in turf, clay and thatch. The floors and walls were made of wickerwork, held firmly in place by the wooden frame.

Preliminary reconstruction sketch showing a bird's-eye view and side view of how the stilted settlement at Must Farm may have looked.
Preliminary reconstruction sketch showing a bird's-eye view and side view of how the stilted settlement at Must Farm may have looked. © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

What were they trading in?

Some 18 pale green and turquoise glass beads have been found alongside one of jet and one of amber. Analysis has shown the glass beads were probably made in the Mediterranean basin or the Middle East.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said “Over the past 10 months Must Farm has given us an extraordinary window into how people lived 3,000 years ago. Now we know what this small but wealthy Bronze Age community ate, how they made their homes and where they traded. This has transformed our knowledge of Bronze Age Britain, and there is more to come as we enter a post-excavation phase of research. Archaeologists and scientists around the world are learning from Must Farm and it’s already challenged a number of longstanding perceptions. We would like to thank Forterra for joining us in this incredibly fruitful partnership.”

David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, said: “The exceptional site of Must Farm allows you visit in exquisite detail everyday life in the Bronze Age. Domestic activity within structures is demonstrated from clothing to household objects, to furniture and diet.  These dwellings have it all, the complete set, it’s a “full house”. “Stuffocation”, very much in vogue in today’s 21st Century may, given the sheer quantity of finds from the houses at Must Farm, have been a much earlier problem then we’d ever imagined.”

Brian Chapman, Head of Land and Mineral Resources at Forterra, said: “This remarkable project has uncovered artefacts which can be studied and enjoyed by generations to come. We made a commitment to reveal this unique site and would like to thank everyone involved in making these amazing discoveries.”

Kasia Gdaniec Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeologist said: “It has been a privilege to witness the gradual exposure of this astonishing fenland site under the careful excavation skills of Cambridge Archaeological Unit.  They and their large team of specialist researchers have also fuelled world-wide interest through well-illustrated and informative weekly site diaries and daily blogs and placed Whittlesey’s extraordinary prehistoric archaeological resource on the world stage.  Projects initiated through the planning process have made a huge contribution to knowledge and the understanding of the past throughout the country, but rarely do sites with such astonishing levels of preservation emerge. Simply marvellous!”

The £1.4 million excavation was joint funded by Historic England and Forterra, and carried out by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge with the approval of Cambridgeshire County Council.

It was announced this week that Must Farm has been awarded Best Discovery at the 2016 British Archaeological Awards. Judges from across the archaeology profession voted for the Bronze Age settlement, recognising that the perfectly preserved remains uncovered by archaeologists deep beneath a fen, have transformed our understanding of everyday life in prehistoric Britain, three thousand years ago.

The excavation has now come to a close and Historic England is working closely with Peterborough City Council and other interested organisations to determine the best strategy for using and displaying the archaeological finds. Looking ahead, the post-excavation report will begin soon and will take several years to complete. A book will be published on the excavation and the finds explained and displayed online.

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