Bronze Age settlement preserved by fire and water

The best preserved Bronze Age settlement ever discovered in Britain.

must_farm17:51 Tuesday 12th January 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: It’s been described as the best preserved Bronze Age settlement ever discovered in Britain. An excavation project in the Cambridgeshire Fens has unearthed two prehistoric wooden round houses, thought to be around 3,000 years old. It’s thought several families lived in the settlement at Must Farm near Peterborough, in wooden houses on stilts, above the banks of a river. To tell us more, here’s Barney Sloane from Historic England.
BARNEY SLOANE: Well it was originally discovered in 1969, as long ago as that. There was a hint from some chance discoveries, I think during a drain excavation or something, although we really only got our first decent look at it during quarrying works in 2004. A timber was spotted by an archeologist, and a trial trench in 2006 revealed just a hint of the magnificence of the site. We then tried to preserve the site in situ rather than excavate it, and we monitored it from 2007 through to last year. Thereafter, looking at the monitoring, we thought actually we think there’s a risk here that this magnificent site would be lost for ever. So we made the decision to fund the excavation jointly with Forterra, who are the landowners and the building products makers.
CHRIS MANN: So the best preserved Bronze Age settlement ever discovered in Britain. Describe its magnificence. What is it that’s so exciting for you Barney?

BARNEY SLOANE: Well it is the most astonishing thing to visit. If you can imagine a palisade of enclosure, so you can see the driven piles that formed the fence that surrounded an enclosure. The round houses which fill the enclosure, there are two that have emerged so far, are defined by these big upright ash posts, a centre circle of six of them and an outer circle of ten to support a conical roof. Now the roof itself, the rafters were still in place when the whole thing subsided into the river, or the lake that was underneath this stilted enclosure, and then got preserved. So we have most likely the floor, parts of the walls, the internal arrangements, and then extraordinarily the roof rafters as well, preserved together by fire and water.
CHRIS MANN: Obviously there are secrets there that are going to be revealed to you as you look in time over it, but what do you know already from all of this?
BARNEY SLOANE: Well we know now that there’s a huge range of pottery, different types of vessels that were in use in the larger of the round houses, all the way from delicate little cups to great big storage vessels. They have found animal bones. They’ve found textiles woven from what look like reeds. They’ve found beads, glass beads, and even metalwork, delicate little hand sickles, presumably for cutting reeds or crops or something, and even a sword blade. They’re quite extraordinary.
CHRIS MANN: Yes. Such detail. So how did people live in Cambridgeshire 3,000 years ago? Give me some idea of what their life was like.
BARNEY SLOANE: Well the water levels were much higher then, so our site in Whittlesey must have been right on the edge of the known world for them, unless they were trading of course across to Europe, which is an intriguing possibility. So this would have been very much like a water-world, a kind of landscape of Fens, lakes, inlets and so on, criss-crossed perhaps by causeways, a bit like the Flag Fen causeway not very far away; and plied by log boats, some of which were discovered earlier in 2011, where we found eight or nine of these log boats, not too far, on the same general property as this extraordinary site. So we see a picture of wooden raised structures, roundhouses on stilts, and a riverine sort of life.
CHRIS MANN: So when can people go and have a look at this Barney. When can we see it for ourselves?
BARNEY SLOANE: Well sadly you can’t get to see the site itself, because it’s part of a working quarry, and the logistics are just simply too difficult. The owners and the excavators who are Cambridge Archeological Unit from the University of Cambridge, they have arranged to have viewing platforms and galleries for some small local groups, but they just can’t take the general public I’m afraid. However there is a website, which is I think, which gives an up to date view of the kinds of things that are being discovered. And people will be able to follow the track of the excavation as it unfolds over the next five months.
CHRIS MANN: And if there’s one thing that people should look at, what can you recommend?
BARNEY SLOANE: For my money I think it is just the fact that we’ve got such a complete view of what one of these round houses would have been. We’ve got the rafters and the posts and the layout, and I think as time goes on we will know very much about what domestic life was like 3,000 years ago, which is an extraordinary privilege.
CHRIS MANN: Barney Sloane from Historic England. Thank you so much for joining us.

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