The 3,000-year-old roundhouses at Must Farm are believed to be the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain.

March 30, 2024

A group of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge’s Archaeological Unit (CAU) has unearthed well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings during an excavation at Must Farm, a clay quarry close to Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire.

Cambridge Archaeological Unit scientists have unearthed the charred wooden roof structure of a 3,000-year-old round house. Image credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

Cambridge Archaeological Unit scientists have unearthed the charred wooden roof structure of a 3,000-year-old round house. Image credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

“The site was first discovered in 1999 when a local archaeologist noticed a series of wooden posts sticking out of the quarry’s edge. This initial discovery led to a small evaluation in 2004, before a larger one followed in 2006,” said CAU scientists.

The Bronze Age settlement would have been home to several families who lived in a number of wooden houses on stilts above water.

Must Farm: Bronze Age Settlement Sheds Light on Everyday Life | Archaeology  | Sci-News.com

“The settlement was built on a series of piles sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built around 1300 – 1000 BC,” the scientists said.

“Slightly later, between 1000 – 800 BC a wooden palisade — an enclosure consisting of wooden posts driven into the ground — was constructed around the main platform. As the site is situated on the edge of a brick pit, some of the palisade and interior posts have been historically quarried away, leaving approximately half of the settlement to investigate.”

The settlement was destroyed by fire that caused the dwellings to collapse into the river, preserving the contents in situ.

The result is a time capsule containing exceptional textiles made from plant fibers such as lime tree bark, rare small cups, bowls and jars complete with past meals still inside.

“A dramatic fire 3,000 years ago combined with subsequent waterlogged preservation has left to us a frozen moment in time, which gives us a graphic picture of life in the Bronze Age,” said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England.

The exposed 3,000-year-old structures are believed to be the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain.

Must Farm - Wikipedia

Outline image showing all currently revealed structural elements. Image credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

“How have we identified a circular series of posts as a round house? Thanks to the methodology we have been using, we have been able to expose a large area of the wood mass and the uprights at the same time,” the CAU archaeologists said.

“As we removed the overlying sediments and cleaned the wood it became clear we had two circles of posts: a smaller, interior ring and a larger outer one. The posts in each ring are incredibly uniform: all are made of oak and have very similar diameters. These are very consistent with the form of a traditional Bronze Age round house usually identified in lowland areas, on dry land, by postholes.”

“What is truly exciting is the presence not just of these well-preserved timber uprights but the survival of other structural elements,” the scientists said.

“There are sections of what appear to be intact walls and, most extraordinarily, portions of the roof. This is a hugely important discovery as this will be one of the first later Bronze Age roofs to be excavated and analyzed using modern archaeological techniques. It even appears that portions of the roof have retained their original position as the building collapsed. The radial pieces of wood emanating from the center of the post circles, like the spokes of a wheel, are these roof timbers.”

Exceptionally well-preserved weft-twined textile fragment. Image credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

Exceptionally well-preserved weft-twined textile fragment. Image credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

The CAU team also found exotic glass beads forming part of an elaborate necklace, hinting at a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age.

“Usually at a Later Bronze Age period site you get pits, post-holes and maybe one or two really exciting metal finds. Convincing people that such places were once thriving settlements takes some imagination,” said team member Dr David Gibson.

“But this time so much more has been preserved – we can actually see everyday life during the Bronze Age in the round. It’s prehistoric archaeology in 3D with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity.”

“Must Farm is the first large-scale investigation of the deeply buried sediments of the fens and we uncover the perfectly preserved remains of prehistoric settlement,” added CAU archaeologist and Site Director of the excavation Dr Mark Knight.

“Everything suggests the site is not a one-off but in fact presents a template of an undiscovered community that thrived 3,000 years ago ‘beneath’ Britain’s largest wetland.”