Must Farm excavation concludes

The excavation of the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens comes to an end this week, alas, but so many archaeological remains in exceptional condition have been found, they will be studied for years to come. The unique conditions of the site — round houses built on stilts on the Nene River channel around 3,000 years ago that caught fire and fell into the river where the fire was extinguished and everything was enveloped in the mud of the rising fen — have preserved the largest collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever found in Britain.

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 now know that the homes in this Bronze Age settlement were kitted out with enough household products to put Bed, Bath and Beyond to shame. We know they ate a rich and varied diet include wild animals (boar, red deer, freshwater fish) and domesticated (lambs and calves), plus plants and grains including emmer wheat and barley. We know the roundhouses were recently constructed, only around six months old when tragedy struck and they collapsed into the river.

Earlier this year archaeologists found a complete wood wheel, the oldest in the UK. Since then, they’ve discovered even more thrilling artifacts. The textiles alone are unprecedented, an extensive collection of woven fibers from various stages of production. Some of the linen fibers are as fine as a human hair and are incredibly tightly woven.

Must Farm also has one of the largest collections of Bronze Age glass ever discovered. A large number of beads have been found, many of them glass, others made of amber or jet. One cluster of beads were found grouped together probably because they were once on a necklace. There’s even something threaded in between them, so once the beads are examined in the laboratory, the full necklace may reveal itself. Jet and amber could not be sourced locally; they were likely traded from continental Europe and the Middle East.

A wealth of household goods has been recovered, everything from wooden buckets to large platters to loom weights. Whole groups of pots were found in place, left behind mid-use when the fire broke out, some with food still in them. The Must Farm pots come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. The largest examples are coarseware, thick-walled clay reinforced with grog, shell and crushed pieces of fired clay. They were used for storage and cooking. The fineware pieces have thin, delicate walls tempered with sand or very fine shell fragments. While very few are decorated and those only with incised lines, many are polished or burnished. The smallest fineware vessels are little round cups no more than six centimeters (2 inches) high. All of the clay pottery was made with the simple technique of coil building (stacking coils of clay) and then turned (rotated on a board and smoothed with fingers). Some of the fragments and pots still have the marks of fingertips on the surface.

The metalwork discovered at Must Farm is exceptional as well, both in terms of preservation and in the discovery context. Most of the Bronze Age metal weapons and tools found come from sacrificial deposits or some other context divorced from daily use. The pieces at Must Farm, on the other hand, were inside the dwellings when they collapsed into the river. They are domestic objects still in the home, not offerings or discards. Add to that the fact that some of the wood sections, like the hafts of axes and spears, have survived and it gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to examine metalwork as it was actually used. One bronze socketed axe with its wooden haft intact, albeit charred by the flames, may be the most beautiful prehistoric axe I’ve ever seen.

The site is just feet away from a working quarry, so it cannot be converted into an open-air archaeological park. The wood timbers from the roof and floor and the wattle panels of the walls of the most intact of the roundhouses have been recovered for conservation and perhaps a future reconstruction, but the site will be reburied to preserve the rest. There are no current plans for a museum exhibition, but discussions are ongoing. So many great artifacts have been recovered there’s more than enough material to populate a whole new museum dedicated to Must Farm.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Must Farm excavation has one of the greatest online presences for an archaeological project I’ve ever seen, if not the greatest. Their Twitter, Facebook and website are neverending sources of fascinating material and photographs. They will continue to be updated as the artifacts are examined, so just because the excavation is over doesn’t mean it’s too late to follow them.



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Comment by jane
2016-07-18 06:46:45

Thanks a lot for the update. The ‘tiny pot’ might either be a drinking cup or might have been used for ink or some form of glue or paint. I tried to think of anything else, but couldn’t so far (toys maybe ?).

Also, that ‘bronze socketed axe’ appears to have been part of some form of installation. For a ‘hand axe’ the wooden haft looks a bit weird – in comparison to poor old Otzis hand axe, for example.

Comment by Barbara
2016-07-18 12:01:26

Wouldn’t the jet have come from Whitby?

Comment by Cordate
2016-07-18 15:33:53

So glad they were able to continue the dig longer than originally inspected!

Comment by Ruth Parish
2016-07-18 17:55:25

I see Barbara beat me to the Whitby jet comment, but now I’m here I would like to express my appreciation for a consistently interesting blog. Thanks!

Comment by Paul
2016-07-19 02:11:18

Very nice article and nice collection too. Many things to learn from this article. Thanks for posting.

Comment by Midas
2016-07-20 08:56:07

How were they supposed to wield that axe? It looks a bit like the haft is a partial tree trunk from which a branch sticks out and they then slipped the axe head onto the branch. Is it an axe head stand, similar to a hat stand? :)

Comment by jane
2016-07-20 17:48:28

Yeah, I was wondering about that axe too. My first impression was indeed similar to yours, and it is a pity that the rest of the handle rotted away. However, I now think that the whole thing looked similar to the digit ‘7’, i.e. the bronze part, compared to a modern axe, is simply not heavy enough and the ‘partial tree trunk’ simply added mass and the handle itself was probably thinner.

To imagine some sort of -let’s say- water powered Bronze age sawmill, or whatever, is of course tempting. There are by the way complete hoards of those bronze axe head type. For example, here, here and here.

Comment by William H. Coil
2018-12-16 19:07:44

Just curious.
How did they melt the copper and tin?
In what kind of container?

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November 2021


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