Earliest complete Bronze Age wheel found at Must Farm

The Must Farm excavation has unearthed yet another unprecedented archaeological treasure: a Bronze Age wooden wheel so complete even a stump of its axle survives. It dates to about 1,100-800 B.C. and is the earliest complete Bronze Age wheel found in Britain. A wheel from around 1,300 B.C. discovered at the Flag Fen site two miles away in the 1990s is the oldest in Britain and Copper Age wheels from around 2,500 B.C. have been found in continental Europe. The Must Farm wheel is one meter (3.3 feet) in diameter and about 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) thick which makes it the largest discovered in Britain. The Flag Fen wheel is incomplete — it’s a crescent with the center missing — and .8 meters in diameter.

The wheel was made of three wooden boards held together by two horizontal bracers that are secured with dovetail joints. The radial structure of the hub identifies it as oak and those half-moon dugouts on either side of it were probably decorative elements that also had the practical side effect of decreasing the weight of the wheel which would be especially important in a watery environment. The less weight on the wheel the less likelihood of sinking incidents. There’s charring on the surface of the wheel, but it’s radiant charring which means it wasn’t actually on fire but rather near it.

It’s very similar in design to the Flag Fen wheel, so there’s no question that it’s a wheel, not a shield or tray or any other round, flattish wooden object. The Flag Fen wheel is also tripartite and also held together by horizontal bracers. It was made of three different kinds of wood: alder for the outer rim, oak for the axle and braces and ash for the dowels. We already know the Must Farm axle was also oak. Further analysis of the wheel will determine whether it too was made of more than one kind of wood.

Mark Knight site director of the excavation, said the discovery of the wheel helped create a much more detailed picture of the way those families lived in 1100-800 BC.

“This was a settlement built on a river that exploited dry land,” he said.

“The wheel is perfect, beautifully made in panels and stitched together. It was probably part of a chariot or a cart and, alongside the other discoveries, illustrates that this was a complex community that exchanged goods, created wealth and was thriving.”

The wheel was found nestled in sediments a few yards from the largest round house. The spine of what is believed to be a horse was found in January in the same area. He may have pulled the chariot or cart this wheel was once attached to. It’s too early to say for sure what its use was. While it’s in unprecedented shape for its age, the wheel is in delicate condition. The area where it was found is not as well preserved as the rest of the site and the wood is beginning to flake. It will be removed in its entirety and conserved in laboratory conditions.

Archaeologists found other wooden artifacts in the same spot: a wooden platter, a wooden box, small bowls with food remains still inside (nettle stew again, Mom?), tools and textiles.

3 thoughts on “Earliest complete Bronze Age wheel found at Must Farm

  1. From Oliver Rackham’s wonderful “History of the Countryside”:

    Ashes were regarded as wheelwright’s timber (p 217);
    [Elm} was used for the naves of wheels (p 237)
    Elm was cheaper than oak but more difficult to work (p 237).

    These comments are about written history i.e. long after the Bronze Age, and (p 239) after the invention of the iron-tyred wheel in the Iron Age.

  2. The cutouts would have allowed access (and visibility) to the back side of the hub. I suspect they were a practical aid to assembly and maintenance.

  3. I have been following the excavations on their Facebook page. The discoveries I am looking forward to seeing are the tools used to create the wooden objects.

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