An extraordinarily well-preserved Late Bronze Age settlement in Cambridgeshire, in the East of England, has been called ‘Britain’s Pompeii’ or the ‘Pompeii of the Fens’ but is more accurately the Must Farm quarry.
Thanks to corporate funding from Forterra Building Products Ltd, the quarry got a major excavation and there is now a definitive timeframe to Must Farm’s occupation and destruction.
It lasted just one year before being consumed in a catastrophic fire.
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. This palaeochannel (dating from 1700-100 BC) was active for centuries prior to the construction of Must Farm (approx. 1100-800 cal BC), and 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. 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,” says Site Director Mark Knight from Cambridge.
Excavations between 2009 and 2012 revealed the remains of nine logboats in the palaeochannel, in addition to fish weirs and fish traps – further evidence of the long history of occupation in the landscape.
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 architecture reflects the conventions of the prehistoric British roundhouse, located in an unusual wetland setting. Uniquely, there is no evidence of repair to the structures, and strikingly, dendrochronological analysis has suggested that the timbers were still green when destroyed by fire.
The structures collapsed vertically, and the heavy roofs brought everything down with them into the sediment of the channel. A tragedy for the inhabitants, but serendipitous for archaeologists, as 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, coprolites…’
A Year in the Life
Must Farm represents a routine dwelling in a rarely excavated fenland setting, which is incredibly valuable. It shows the typical patterns of consumption and deposition for this kind of site.
The team of archaeologists found over 180 fibre/textile items, 160 wooden artefacts, 120 pottery vessels, 90 pieces of metal work, and at least 80 glass beads.
Some of the plant and animal remains found at Must Farm are rare for this period in British prehistory, including pike bones, sheep/goat dung, and currently unidentified entire charred tubers. Strikingly, most of the food sources, including wild boar and deer, are not from the wetlands.