An ‘extraordinarily well-preserved’ Bronze Age farm found in Britain only operated for a year before being destroyed by a ‘catastrophic’ fire, suggests a new study.
The Must Farm site in Cambridgeshire drew worldwide attention in 2016 when it was hailed as ‘Britain’s Pompeii’ or the ‘Pompeii of the Fens’.
Now archaeologists from Cambridge University’s Archaeological Unit have come up with a definitive time frame to Must Farm’s occupation and destruction.
The settlement consisted of large circular wooden houses built on stilts. It appears the buildings collapsed in a fire and plunged into a river where the timbers were preserved in the silt (pictured)
‘It is likely that the settlement existed for only one year prior to its destruction in a catastrophic fire,’ said site director Mark Knight.
‘The short history of Must Farm, combined with the excellent preservation of the settlement, means that we have an unparalleled opportunity to explore the daily life of its inhabitants.’
He said Must Farm is located within the silts of a slow-flowing freshwater river, with stilted structures built to elevate the living quarters above the water.
The ancient channel dated from 1,700 BC to 100 BC and was active for centuries prior to the construction of Must Farm around 1,100–800 BC.
Prior to the building of Must Farm, a causeway was built across the river.
‘Although excavation of the river sediments associated with the causeway was limited, stratigraphically we can demonstrate that the that the causeway and the settlement are chronologically unconnected,’ Mr Knight said.
‘The people who built the settlement, however, would have been able to see the rotting tops of the causeway piles during the time of the settlement’s construction.’
Excavations undertaken between 2009 and 2012 revealed the remains of nine logboats in the ancient river channel, along with fish weirs and traps, providing further evidence of the long history of occupation in the area.
The Must Farm houses are the ‘most completely preserved prehistoric domestic structures found in Britain’, visible as ‘hundreds of uprights or pile stumps, which together define the outline and internal settings of at least five stilted structures’ enclosed by a palisade with an internal walkway.
The team believe the buildings were set ablaze nearly a century after they were first built but have yet to discover if the fire was set deliberately or was an accident. They say it is possible the fire may have been started carried out by attackers
The research team said that the architecture reflects the conventions of the prehistoric British roundhouse, albeit located in an unusual wetland setting.
Uniquely, there is no evidence that the structures were ever repaired and analysis of the timbers has suggested that the timbers were still green when destroyed by fire.
The researchers said that the structures collapsed vertically and the heavy roofs brought everything down with them into the sediment of the channel.
They explained that the fluvial silts have preserved ‘wooden artefacts, pottery sets, bronze tools and weapons, fabrics and fibres, querns, loom weights, spindle whorls, animal remains, plants and seeds.’
The researchers said that Must Farm represents a ‘routine dwelling’ in a rarely excavated fenland setting, which is ‘incredibly valuable’.
The Must Farm Quarry site revealed the internal and external structure of the house during the excavation. Archaeologists encountered upright poles that used to support the building’s walls and roof, well-preserved wall panels, collapsed roof beams and a row of poles arranged in an enclosure fence
The team of archaeologists found more than 180 fibre or textile items, 160 wooden artefacts, 120 pottery vessels, 90 pieces of metal work and at least 80 glass beads.
They said some of the plant and animal remains found at Must Farm are rare for that period in British prehistory and include pike bones, sheep and goat dung as well as entire charred and currently unidentified tubers.
Most of the food sources, which include wild boar and deer, were not from the wetlands.
‘We are only in the early stages of investigating the vast quantity of material from Must Farm, material which promises to reveal many more fascinating aspects of life in the fens 3,000 years ago,’ Mr Knight said.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Antiquity.