Last week I have the opportunity of visiting Must Farm, a Bronze Age settlement site, with members of the Prehistoric Society. Right off, I have to say this was a fantastic site in many ways, and that the work being undertaken by the Cambridge Archaeology Unit with the support of Historic England and the landowner Forterra is exemplary. There was so much to see and we had Mark Knight of the Cambridge Unit to act as our guide.
The story of Must Farm has emerged through a series of excavations over the past 15 years. The site was discovered, as many are, by accident in 1999. The site is on the edge of a quarry in Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, where clay is being extracted for brick making and a local archaeologist spotted a number of timber posts sticking out of the edge of the quarry. Small excavations in 2004 and 2006 began to reveal both incredibly well-preserved artefacts and a detailed glimpse into Bronze Age life. The site itself is situated on the edge of a brick pit, some of it has been quarried away in the past, and the team think that this has left about half of the settlement for them to investigate.
The 2006 excavation showed the settlement had been built on a series of wooden piles that had been sunk into a river channel below and this has been dated to between 1,300-1,000 BC. Some time later, probably between 1,000-800 BC the residents erected a wooden palisade (an enclosure consisting of wooden posts driven into the ground) around the main platform. It was at some point after this that a fire broke out and this resulted much of the settlement and its platform to crash drop into the river below. This of course put the fire out and prevented further damage to the platform, houses and their contents. In the intervening time all of this material was covered with layers of silt which has further helped to preserve everything from wooden utensils to clothing and it is this high degree of preservation which has made the site what it is – in effect it is a time-capsule and gives us remarkable glimpses into life during the Bronze Age.
The 2006 excavation recovered a wide variety of pottery, from large storage vessels to beautiful, tiny “poppyhead” cups all from the Late Bronze Age. Some of the most exceptional discoveries were preserved pieces of clothing that had survived for 3,000 years. These had survived as a direct consequence of the fire which charred the fibres and the water extinguishing them before they were destroyed completely. Laboratory analysis has shown that the people had used plant rather than animal fibres for clothing, and they specifically used those from lime trees. The same excavation also found evidence for the speed at which events took place when the fire broke out. The team found a bowl which still contained the remains of a meal, complete with the spoon that was being used to eat it! It is of course tempting to compare Must Farm with other sites that were overwhelmed by disaster, such as Pompeii, where everyday life has been captured in a single, sudden snapshot, but this is on a much smaller scale.
The latest element of the exploration of the site which I visited is called the Timber Platform Project and this has uncovered even more of this remarkable site. The Timber Platform Project is an 8 month long excavation of more of the site. So far, this has revealed many elements of a round house including roof timbers, and two circles of upright posts – one near the centre and one further out. There are also planks, walkways and sections of lath used in walls. In the gallery below you will be able to see the layout of the house, the palisade and the stumps of posts associated with a walkway which predates the platform and seems to head in the direction of a contemporary nearby settlement – Flag Fen. Such is the detail of the site it has been possible to allow a forensic fire investigator to examine the scene and report on it. If you look at the general images of the site you can see roof-timbers splayed outwards and within these the two circles of Oak posts. These are the larger uprights and have cracks in them, which is a characteristic of Oak when it dries.
Environmental evidence has allowed the team to understand the landscape within which the site existed and has since been protected. In the late Bronze Age the site was on the edge of one of many small rivers or tributaries which were widespread in the area. There were ‘islands’ of higher ground and areas of more solid, gravel based geology on which people lived. The people of Must Farm were not an isolated group. There have been 7 log boats found in the area and 2 are contemporary with the settlement itself. In the latest blog from the team they ponder European connections
What the site of Must Farm does best though is to present us with unique moments that open up a window directly into the past. It is this which helps to make the Must Farm site truly exceptional.
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