Life in ‘Britain’s Pompeii’


Britain’s “Bronze Age Pompeii” has turned into a “paradox”, according to its excavators. Now that the dig is completed it can be seen as “an extraordinary tale of the everyday”, according to Mark Wright and his colleagues.

The Fenland site, at Must Farm near Peterborough, dates back 3,000 years and has been preserved by waterlogging to an amazing degree: timber-framed houses, stacked crockery and sets of tools, and linen textiles with a thread count higher than our own summer clothing have all been recovered. Up to ten round houses within a palisade were built on stilts over a shallow stream, to exploit fenland resources and perhaps also as a measure of security.

That did not work: the Cambridge Archaeological Unit team has found that the community was destroyed by a “comprehensive” fire, deliberately started. “Settlements built above water were hard to burn down,” Mark Wright told Current Archaeology. “The extensiveness suggests the fire was in some way controlled or made to happen.” The inhabitants escaped, or were driven out: the destruction might have been the result of local politics.

The buildings had only been there for a short time, with some still unfinished. The timbers were still green, and tree-ring studies show that all the oak uprights were felled in the same winter months. Raw clay waiting to be made into roof linings and chimney flues lay awaiting use. Very little waste had been generated by the inhabitants, and the fire probably occurred during the first year of occupation.

What remained for the archaeologists were collapsed rafters on top of the wall posts, sandwiching the everyday equipment of prehistoric country life: the contents of Bronze Age roundhouses could be seen for the first time in context. The better-lit eastern parts of the interiors yielded “buckets, platters, pot, tools, quern stones (grinding tools) and the paraphernalia of textile production — a hive of activity where a range of everyday chores were tackled.

The western portion “produced little more than the occasional socketed axe or some lamb bones”. Studies elsewhere show that houses were divided into male and female areas: at Must Farm, the women may have been slaving away in one half of the house while the men ate lamb chops in the other.

Some of the wooden pieces recovered are too small to have been structural elements, and may have been parts of chests, chairs and tables, the excavators surmise, while “straw and bracken may have been mounded up as bedding or used as insulation”. Textiles could have been from rugs or wall hangings (as still seen in Mongolian yurts) as well as from fine linen garments.

Most of the finds have parallels at other Bronze Age sites where preservation is much poorer: what is unique about Must Farm is that “the extraordinary archaeology seemingly provides a glimpse of entirely ordinary life. For the first time, we can begin to get a sense of what was normal,” Mark Wright says.

Because it came to a sudden end which “created a perfect storm of preservation”, this snapshot in ancient time “is absolutely representative of what this world looked like. We can use the detail from our work here and use it to paint the picture for the rest of Bronze Age Britain. That’s the real excitement.”

Transport was provided by wheeled wagons — the largest and most complete wooden wheel of the period was found at Must Farm earlier this year (The Times, February 19, 2016) — and by dugout log canoes. Six, dating from the late second millennium BC to early in the first, were found near by in previous excavations. The canoes, the largest 27 ft (8.3m) long, were carved from substantial oak logs: the tool marks can still be seen on the best preserved, and two were decorated with linear carving.

There was also contact with a wider world: the bronze swords and axes were not made on site, and glass beads from as far away as Turkey and Syria made their way to Must Farm. Waterways led across the North Sea into Europe, or westwards into central England: these people were traders as well as farmers and fishermen, the investigators believe. The image of Bronze Age life emerging from the amazing preservation of this short-lived hamlet is new yet familiar: “It’s just that we have never been able to see the full picture before,” the team say.