Must Farm – Britain’s Pompeii – Reveals Bronze Age Lifestyle of ‘Cosy Domesticity’

March 26, 2024

‘Archaeological nirvana’ has been unearthed in ‘Britain’s Pompeii’, a stilt village occupied for less than a year before it burnt out, over a tragic summer day 2,850 years ago. As flames engulfed their homes, inhabitants fled, abandoning their possessions to the fire’s fury. In a blaze that consumed the tightly clustered roundhouses, constructed merely nine months earlier from wood, straw, turf, and clay, the community of 50 to 60 odd people at Must Farm faced devastation.

Phần còn lại của chiếc rìu được đặt bên dưới Cấu trúc Một tại Khu định cư Thời đại Đồ đồng Must Farm. Nguồn: Đơn vị khảo cổ học Cambridge

Must Farm, a late Bronze Age settlement dating back to around 850 BC, has been meticulously unearthed by archaeologists from the University of Cambridge. The culmination of excavation and analysis, costing $1.4 million (£1.1 million), is detailed in a newly published two-volume monograph chronicling the site’s exploration in Cambridgeshire.

Must Farm - Britain’s Pompeii - Reveals Bronze Age Lifestyle of ‘Cosy Domesticity’

The disaster at the Must Farm Bronze Age settlement has provided a wealth of artifacts from the time. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Accomplished Home-Building: Unearthing Must Farm

Revealed within its boundaries are four expansive wooden roundhouses, along with a distinctive square entranceway structure, elevated on stilts above the gentle flow of a nearby river in Cambridgeshire. The original settlement, likely twice as big, is believed to have comprised approximately 10 circular wooden houses elevated on stilts above a river.

“These people were confident and accomplished homebuilders. They had a design that worked beautifully for an increasingly drowned landscape,” said CAU’s Mark Knight, report co-author and excavation director in a press release.

“While excavating the site there was a sense that its Bronze Age residents had only just left. You could almost see and smell their world, from the glint of metal tools hanging on wattled walls to the sharp milkiness of brewed porridge.”

Must Farm - Britain’s Pompeii - Reveals Bronze Age Lifestyle of ‘Cosy Domesticity’

The coarseware ceramic bowl containing a gelatinous wheatmeal stew or porridge, with the accompanying wooden spatula. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Perched approximately two meters (6.56 feet) above the riverbed, the entire village boasted elevated walkways connecting some of its principal houses. Surrounding this bustling community was a formidable two-meter-high fence composed of sharpened posts, providing defensive fortification.

Though the settlement’s relative infancy was abruptly cut short by a catastrophic fire; the combination of charring and subsequent waterlogging creating the conditions for an unparalleled level of preservation. It was unearthed thus by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) during the years 2015 and 2016, reports the BBC.

Must Farm - Britain’s Pompeii - Reveals Bronze Age Lifestyle of ‘Cosy Domesticity’

A piece of textile pulled from the earth at Must Farm. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Unmasking the Discoveries: Remarkable State of Preservation

Among the discoveries at Must Farm were spears with remarkably long shafts, measuring over three meters (9.8 feet) and items of adornment, such as a necklace adorned with beads sourced from distant lands like Denmark and Iran, suggesting networks of trade and exchange stretching far beyond the boundaries of Bronze Age Britain. On top of that, a human skull, polished smooth by handling, hints at serving as a cherished keepsake of a departed loved one!

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

Must Farm - Britain’s Pompeii - Reveals Bronze Age Lifestyle of ‘Cosy Domesticity’

A selection of the wealth of Bronze Age daily artifacts recovered at Must Farm. (Must Farm)

There also were 128 ceramic pieces – jars, bowls, cups, and cookware – of which 64 were evidently in use at the time of the fire. Some pottery was neatly nested, indicating a sense of orderliness within the community. Flax linen textiles, possessing a soft, velvety texture, and beautifully crafted seams and hems, were also found. Wooden artifacts, including boxes, bowls, bobbins, tools, and buckets, provide a window into the mundane everyday items of ordinary people.

Within the northeastern quadrant of “Structure One,” identified as the kitchen area, archaeologists uncovered the above-mentioned treasure trove of ceramic and wooden containers. These ranged from tiny cups to spacious storage jars.

Adjacent to the kitchen, along the building’s eastern side, lay an array of metal tools, likely used for various domestic tasks, reports CNN. Meanwhile, the empty expanse in the northwest quadrant likely served as sleeping quarters, providing a peaceful retreat for the settlement’s residents.

In the southeastern area, close to a presumed entrance where ample natural light would have streamed in, lay an abundance of cloth fragments, along with bobbins and loom weights. This arrangement suggests that textile work was a central activity within the household, with the strategic placement of these materials facilitating efficient production.

Opposite the textile area, in the roundhouse’s southwest quadrant, lay the designated space for sheltering lambs. While there was no evidence of human fatalities in the fire that engulfed the settlement, the tragic discovery of several young sheep, trapped and consumed by the flames, offers a poignant reminder of the devastation wrought upon Must Farm.

Questions Remain

For the archaeologists from the University of Cambridge, this site offers far more than mere artifacts; it presents a veritable “blueprint” for understanding the circular architecture, interior design, and everyday life of the ancient dwellers amidst the swampy fenlands of East Anglia.

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

The precise circumstances surrounding the catastrophic fire remain unclear. While evidence suggests a late summer or early autumn occurrence, the exact cause currently eludes the archaeologists. A selection of the aforementioned discoveries will be showcased in an upcoming exhibition, “Introducing Must Farm, a Bronze Age Settlement,” at the Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, commencing on April 27.