‘Britain’s Pompeii’ reveals a Bronze Age village frozen in time

By | March 20, 2024

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It is late summer, 2850 years ago. A fire engulfs a stilt village perched above a boggy, slow-moving river that meanders through the wetlands of eastern England. The tightly packed roundhouses, built just nine months earlier from wood, straw, grass and clay, go up in flames.

The residents flee, leaving behind all their belongings, including a wooden spoon in a bowl of half-eaten porridge. There is no time to save the fattened lambs, which are trapped and burned alive.

The scene is a vivid and poignant snapshot, captured by archaeologists, of a once thriving community in Late Bronze Age Britain known as Must Farm, near what is now the city of Peterborough. The research team published a two-part monograph on Wednesday detailing the painstaking excavation and analysis of the $1.4 million site in Cambridgeshire.

Described as an ‘archaeological nirvana’ by the experts involved, the site is the only one in Britain that meets the ‘Pompeii premise’, they say, referring to the city forever frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. has provided unparalleled information about ancient Rome.

‘If you have a house in a typical Bronze Age site you probably have a dozen post holes in the ground and they are just dark shadows of where it once stood. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get a few shards of pottery, perhaps a pit with a pile of animal bones. This was the opposite of that process. It was just incredible,” said Chris Wakefield, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge’s Cambridge Archaeological Unit, an archaeologist and member of the 55-person team that excavated the site in 2016.

“All the ax marks had been used to shape and sculpt the wood. They all looked fresh, like they could have been done by someone last week,” Wakefield added.

The remarkably well-preserved condition of the site and its contents enabled the archaeological team to gain comprehensive new insights into Bronze Age society – findings that will further inform today’s understanding of what everyday life in Britain was like in the ninth century. before Christ could destroy.

Shown here is an artist's illustration of what the inside of the roundhouses may have looked like.  -Judith DobieShown here is an artist's illustration of what the inside of the roundhouses may have looked like.  -Judith Dobie

Shown here is an artist’s illustration of what the inside of the roundhouses may have looked like. -Judith Dobie

Must Farm domesticity – and a mystery

The site, which dates back to eight centuries before the Romans arrived in Britain, featured four roundhouses and a square entranceway, which stood about 2 meters above the riverbed and was surrounded by a 2 meter high fence. sharpened poles.

The archaeologists think the settlement was probably twice as large. However, quarrying in the 20th century destroyed all other remains.

Although charred by the fire, the surviving buildings and their contents were extremely well preserved by the low-oxygen conditions of the fens or wetlands, and contain many wooden and textile objects that have rarely been preserved in the archaeological record. Together, the traces of the settlement paint a picture of cozy homeliness and relative abundance.

The excavation of the site in 2016 involved 55 people.  - Cambridge Archaeological UnitThe excavation of the site in 2016 involved 55 people.  - Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The excavation of the site in 2016 involved 55 people. – Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The researchers unearthed 128 ceramic artefacts – pots, bowls, cups and cooking utensils – and deduced that 64 pots were in use at the time of the fire. The team found a number of stored pots neatly nested. The textiles found at the site, made from flax linen, were soft and velvety to the touch with neat seams and hems, although it was not possible to identify individual garments.

Wooden artifacts included boxes and bowls carved from willow, alder, and maple, 40 bobbins, many of which were still attached with threads, miscellaneous tools, and 15 wooden buckets.

“One of those buckets… the bottom of it had a lot of cutting marks on it, so we know that people living in that Bronze Age kitchen when they needed a makeshift cutting board, they just turned that bucket upside down and used it as a chopping board. surface,” Wakefield said.

“It’s those little moments that add up to a richer, more complete picture of what was going on.”

Textiles made from flax linen were among the rare finds.  - Cambridge Archaeological UnitTextiles made from flax linen were among the rare finds.  - Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Textiles made from flax linen were among the rare finds. – Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The circumstances of the event that brought this all to a halt are still a bit of a mystery. Researchers believe the fire occurred in late summer or early fall because skeletal remains of one household’s lambs showed the animals, typically born in spring, were three to six months old.

However, what exactly caused the devastating fire remains unclear. The fire could have started accidentally or deliberately. The researchers discovered a pile of spears with shafts over 3 meters long at the site, and many experts believe that warfare was common during that period. The team worked with a forensic fire investigator, but ultimately could not identify a specific smoking gun clue that led to the cause.

“An archaeological site is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle. In a typical location you have 10 or 20 units out of 500,” Wakefield said. “Here we had 250 to 300 and we still couldn’t get a full picture of how this big fire broke out.”

Reversing ideas about Bronze Age society

The contents of the four preserved houses were ‘remarkably consistent’. They each had a toolbox with sickles, axes, gouges and hand razors used to cut hair or clothing. With a floor space of almost 50 square meters in the largest, each of the homes appeared to have different activity zones similar to rooms in a modern home.

Not all objects were of practical use, such as 49 glass beads plus others made of amber. Archaeologists also unearthed the skull of a woman, smooth to the touch, possibly a memento of a lost loved one. Some of the artefacts the researchers found will go on display in an exhibition entitled ‘Introducing Must Farm, a Bronze Age Settlement’ at the Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery from April 27.

The village was only inhabited for a short time, but its inhabitants owned and used many rich and varied objects.  - Cambridge Archaeological UnitThe village was only inhabited for a short time, but its inhabitants owned and used many rich and varied objects.  - Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The village was only inhabited for a short time, but its inhabitants owned and used many rich and varied objects. – Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Laboratory analysis of biological remains revealed the types of food the community once consumed. An earthenware bowl, imprinted with the maker’s fingerprints, contained a final meal: a wheat porridge mixed with animal fat. Chemical analyzes of the bowls and pots showed traces of honey and deer, suggesting that the people who consumed the dishes may have enjoyed honey-glazed deer meat.

Ancient feces found in rubbish piles beneath where the houses would have stood showed that the community kept dogs that fed on leftovers from their owners’ meals. And fossilized human feces, or coprolites, showed that at least some residents suffered from intestinal worms.

The rubbish piles, or middens, were one line of evidence showing how long the site had been occupied, with a thin layer of rubbish indicating the settlement had been built for nine months to a year before going up in flames. Two other factors supported this reasoning, Wakefield said.

Analyzes of Bronze Age dishes found at the site, such as the bowl and spoon pictured here, have helped reveal what Must Farm residents ate.  - Cambridge Archaeological UnitAnalyzes of Bronze Age dishes found at the site, such as the bowl and spoon pictured here, have helped reveal what Must Farm residents ate.  - Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Analyzes of Bronze Age dishes found at the site, such as the bowl and spoon pictured here, have helped reveal what Must Farm residents ate. – Cambridge Archaeological Unit

“The second thing was that a lot of the wood used in the construction was unseasoned, it was still green and it hadn’t been in place very long,” he said.

“The third is that we lack the kinds of insects and animals associated with human habitation. It wouldn’t be long before beetles would invade… but there is no evidence of this in any of the more than 18,000 types of wood.’

The fact that the site, with its rich and varied content, was only in use for a year upended the team’s preconceived ‘visions of everyday life’ in the ninth century BC and could indicate that societies from the Bronze Age may have been less hierarchical than traditionally thought. according to the 1,608-page report.

“We do not see the accumulation of a lifetime here, but only a year’s worth of materials,” the authors said in the report. “It suggests that artefacts such as bronze tools and glass beads were more common than we often think and that their availability was in fact not limited.”

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