An important report has revealed unprecedented details about the daily lives of prehistoric inhabitants in England from the remains of a Bronze Age village destroyed by fire almost 3,000 years ago.

Located at Must Farm, the late Bronze Age settlement dates to around 850 BC. Archaeologists from the University of Cambridge excavated four large, round wooden houses and a square entrance structure, all built on wooden stilts over a slow-flowing river.

The entire palisaded village stood around two meters above the riverbed, with boardwalks connecting some of the main houses, and was surrounded by a two-meter-high fence of sharpened posts.

The settlement had been occupied for less than a year when a catastrophic fire destroyed the buildings, causing the structures and their contents to collapse into the muddy river below.

The combination of charring and waterlogging led to exceptional preservation of artifacts. The site has been described as the “British Pompeii”.

Years of research on thousands of artifacts revealed the inhabitants lived a surprisingly comfortable lifestyle, with domestic layouts like modern homes, meals of “venison glazed with honey”, and fine linen clothing, showing planned organization even including a recycling bucket.

The palisaded village also contained a pile of throwing spears over three meters long, as well as a bead necklace incorporating ornaments from locations as far away as Denmark and Iran.

Archaeologists believe the settlement provides a uniquely preserved plan of circular architecture, interior living spaces, and domesticity for those who inhabited the fens around eight centuries before the Romans arrived on British shores.

One small, square building may have served as an entrance to the site with a large wooden bucket inside containing damaged bronze objects and worn axe heads awaiting recycling into new tools.

Around each circular house footprint were “middens”, or trash heaps discarded from the stilted village above, containing broken pots, butchered animal bones, and fossilized feces.

Some human coprolites contained parasite eggs, suggesting inhabitants dealt with intestinal worms. Despite remaining in the mud for millennia, many artifacts retained traces of daily life and its sudden interruption as occupants abandoned their possessions to escape the flames.

For example, an enamelled ceramic bowl was found still containing the maker’s fingerprints pressed into the clay and their last meal of spiced wheat porridge mixing with animal fat, likely goat or deer, while a wooden spoon rested inside.

The occupants of Must Farm maintained local forests for gathering wild pig and deer for meals, shearing sheep, and harvesting crops such as wheat and flax, as well as lumber.

Waterways were vital for transporting all these materials. Several small dog skulls imply they were kept as household pets but also used for hunting.

While the Bronze Age could have been violent at times, the circular house layouts and some defensive fencing suggest protection from rival groups as well as from wildlife.

Excavations at the Must Farm site
Excavations at the Must Farm site. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

A polished human skull may have been a loved one’s memento rather than a trophy of war.

Although the cause of the fire can never be known for certain, Must Farm provides a unique window into the disappearing world of those who lived and worked along the waterways of East Anglia nearly three millennia ago.


Sources

University of Cambridge | Knight, M., Ballantyne, R., Brudenell, M., Cooper, A., Gibson, D., & Robinson Zeki, I. (2024). Must Farm pile-dwelling settlement: Volume 1. Landscape, architecture and occupation. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. doi.org/10.17863/CAM.106697


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