Round houses found at Bronze Age Must Farm site

The Must Farm Quarry in the Cambridgeshire fens near Peterborough, southeast England, is the site of the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever discovered in Britain. It was first found in 1999 by a local archaeologist who saw the tops of timber posts bristling at the edge of the working quarry. Small archaeological investigations followed in 2004 and 2006, with the latter unearthing pottery of exceptional quantity and variety, plant fiber textiles, woven willow baskets used as fish weirs, glass beads, tools, weapons, even a bowl of food — later found to be nettle soup — with a spoon still standing inside it. A 2011 excavation discovered an unheard of eight perfectly intact log boats.

The reason so many organic remains survived for more than 3,000 years at Must Farm is that soggiest of archaeological jackpots: waterlogged soil. When the settlement was built on the ancient Nene River channel in about 1,300 B.C., the land that would become the Flag Fen basin was still mostly dry with the river as the major thoroughfare. Water levels started to rise, flooding the low-lying areas and forcing the inhabitants to adapt their architecture and lifestyles accordingly. Things lost to the rising waters were embraced by the mud and covered by deposits of silt and clay that protected them from oxygen and microorganisms that cause organic materials to decay.

In the early stages of settlement, large square cut oak piles were driven into the river channel to support a wooden platform. Part of the structure collapsed, pinning a fish weir beneath it for our edification. Water flooded the structure. Between 1,000 and 800 B.C., new piles were sunk and a wooden palisade was added around the platform to impede the flow of water. Sometime between 920 and 800 B.C., the site was struck again, this time not by water but fire. The structure burned and dropped into the river. The water doused the flames; the charred organic material sank to the bottom of the stream. The combination of fire carbonizing organic remains, water stopping the fire before it consumed all and mud encasing everything was a perfect storm to preserve an entire Bronze Age household for 3,000 years.

Last September, a new excavation funded by Historic England and Forterra, the company that owns the clay quarry, set out to explore the timber platform. The Cambridge University Archaeological Unit has been digging for three months. They have five more months to go and they’ve already made extraordinary finds, most significantly evidence of collapsed round houses on stilts, at least five of them. They are the best preserved Bronze Age homes ever discovered in Britain by far. Usually all archaeologists have to go on is postholes.

[Site director Mark] Knight said possible reasons for the fire included a cooking accident, deliberate destruction and abandonment of the site, or even enemy attack. But whatever happened, the people abandoned their possessions and left precipitously: “This is a world full of swords and spears – it is not entirely a friendly place.

“We’re used to finding a bit of pottery and trying to reconstruct a civilisation from that,” he said. “Here we’ve got the lot. We should be able to find out what they wore, what they ate and how they cooked it, the table they ate off and the chairs they sat on.

“These people were rich, they wanted for absolutely nothing. The site is so rich in material goods we have to look now at other bronze age sites where very little was found, and ask if they were once equally rich but have been stripped.”

This wealth is confirmed by animal remains which are overwhelmingly land animals like sheep, pigs and cows rather than the plentiful fish, eels and mussels the inhabitants were living on top of. The articulated spine of a cow was found in one of the houses, likely a carcass that was being butchered before the fire stopped time. At this point the water levels in the settlement and environs were high, so the livestock can only have been pastured on land a third of a mile away.

Archaeologists also found the first human remains a few weeks ago. So far only a skull has been excavated; archaeologists don’t know if there’s a skeleton yet to be dug up — one of the residents of the home caught in the fire, perhaps — or if the skull was a standalone item like a war trophy or amulet or devotional object.

The timber platform excavation has gotten a lot of press in the past few days, very deservedly so, but the news stories are cursory at best and they also weirdly treat the Must Farm settlement as if it’s an entirely new discovery instead of the latest phase of years of excavations. If you crave detail and accuracy, you can follow the progress of the dig on the Must Farm’s exceptional site diary and Facebook page of wonders. The team does a phenomenal job of keeping the public updated, explaining the finds, their archaeological significance, the excavation process and sharing great photographs.

16 thoughts on “Round houses found at Bronze Age Must Farm site

  1. “Water levels started to rise, flooding the low-lying areas and forcing the inhabitants to adapt their architecture and lifestyles accordingly. ”

    Wow! this is exactly what scientists today say is happening as a result of climate change and yet it was happening during the Bronze Age too! I hope these archeologists forward their climate change data to al gore or whoever to give real world examples of climate change or global warming happening during the Bronze Age too. it makes me angry and sad to think that Bronze Age campfires thousands of years ago started warming the planet it’s almost ironic justice their village burned.

    1. Well, the water levels rose slowly over the course of centuries in the Bronze Age, and I don’t know that it was a result of a warming trend. What we’ve got going on right now is a whole different ball of wax.

  2. Didn’t see a place to contact you privately. There are 3 typos you might want to fix. 1. “the land that would become the Flag Fen basin was still most dry” [“most” should be “mostly”.] 2. “pinning a fish weird beneath it” [Isn’t it “weir” rather than “weird”?] 3. “evidence of collapsed round houses on stilts, at leave five of” [“leave” would seem a typo for “least”.]

  3. “What we’ve got going on right now is a whole different ball of wax.” It would be if it were, but it almost certainly isn’t.

  4. As an environmental scientist and analyst, I can assure you that the evidence overwhelmingly supports that we ARE dealing with an entirely different ball of wax. The kind of changes that the people of this settlement dealt with 1300 years ago (and before and since) are the natural processes of the interaction of earth and water over time in specific places. Everyplace has those, just not all at once. What we are experiencing now is global, not just local, and it is happening everywhere. The people in that settle ment were able to adapt until a catastrophe (the fire), then it is likely they moved somewhere else and started over, the sensible thing when you have that choice. We may not have that choice now. There are too many of us, and already climate influenced migration is causing problems. Denial is not the same as optimism. And only denial could lead someone to say “it almost certainly isn’t”. It most certainly is. The evidence is all around you.

  5. That said, I want to thank livius for this post- it is fascinating. I’ve always lived near rivers, where people identified themselves with a particular river. I’m fascinated with the ways water, land, and people interact to change one another. How cool to to find a place where so much is preserved in such an unusual way, though at the same time, I ache for the people who found their lives suddenly turned upside down (I seem to have an unusual relationship with dead people). But now we get to learn more about who they were and how they lived, and perhaps, more about our own capacities to adapt to rapid change. We are going to need that knowledge.

  6. Thomas, if you are speaking to me, since retirement I have become
    a geneaogist. That was a genealogy joke.

  7. it sure is a different ball of wax! 10,000 years ago the large lake I live so very close to was a huge glacier over a mile high. it melted and became a ‘great lake’. why did it melt? cavemen campfires heated the earth and melted the glaciers, of course.

    I say this in jest of course but I point out that when rivers change course, or for us history buffs, doggerland is covered by ocean, it’s just natural change. but when these things happen today, a mere few thousand years later, and it’s suddenly caused by man, through the release of CO2 aka plant food, it’s climate change. climate may or may not be changing, but in my neck of the woods, it’s cold in the winter.

    1. I don’t really want to get into a debate about anthropogenic climate change. I’ll just note that the fact that the planet it warming at an unprecedented rate does not mean winters are not cold.

  8. As a physical scientist with plenty of relevant expertise I tell you that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is, almost certainly, baloney.

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