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Must Farm: Bronze Age Settlement Sheds Light on Everyday Life

Archaeologists from the University of Cambridge have made remarkable discoveries about everyday life in the Bronze Age during the excavation of ancient circular wooden houses at Must Farm, a clay quarry in Cambridgeshire, UK.

Preliminary reconstruction sketch showing a bird’s-eye view and side view of how the stilted settlement at Must Farm may have looked

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

They were destroyed by a fire that caused the settlement to collapse into the shallow river beneath. The soft river silt encapsulated the remains of the charred dwellings and their contents, which survive in extraordinary detail.

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

They were destroyed by a fire that caused the settlement to collapse into the shallow river beneath. The soft river silt encapsulated the remains of the charred dwellings and their contents, which survive in extraordinary detail. “The excellent preservation of the site is due to deposition in a water-logged environment, the exclusion of air and the lack of disturbance to the site,” said Prof. Charles French from the University of Cambridge’s Division of Archaeology. “The timber and artifacts fell into a partly infilled river channel where they were later buried by more than two meters of peat and silt. Surface charring of the wood and other materials also helped to preserve them.”

Now the excavation is coming to an end, the scientists are able to build a near complete picture of domestic life in a Bronze Age house: where activities happened, what the roof was made of, what people were wearing, and how their clothes were produced. The materials found provide evidence of farming, crafts and building technologies.

Simplified schematic representation of a typical house at the Must farm settlement. The posts which support the building are very substantial, driven into the sediments at depths of up to 3 m. The roof is made from a combination of thatch and turf with clay around the apex. Image credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

At least five houses have been found at the settlement, each one built very closely together for a small community of people. Every roundhouse seems to have been planned in the same way, with an area for storing meat and another area for cooking or preparing food.

The houses were built on stilts. The conical roofs were built of long wooden rafters covered in turf, clay and thatch. The floors and walls were made of wickerwork, held firmly in place by the wooden frame.

The site has revealed the largest collections in Britain of Bronze Age textiles, beads, domestic wooden artifacts (including buckets, platters, troughs, shafts and handles) and domestic metalwork (axes, sickles, hammers, spears, gouges, razors, knives and awls). It has also yielded a wide range of household items; among them are several complete ‘sets’ of storage jars, cups and bowls, some with grain and food residues still inside. Most of the pots are unbroken and are made in the same style.

An array of household items, including whole pots. Image credit: Dave Webb / Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

“Perhaps uniquely, we are seeing the whole repertoire of living at Must Farm – from food procurement to cooking, eating and waste and the construction and shaping of building materials,” Prof. French said.

The wild animal remains found in rubbish dumps outside the houses show the people at Must Farm were eating wild boar, red deer and freshwater fish such as pike. Inside the houses, the remains of young lambs and calves have been found, revealing a mixed diet.

While it is common for Late Bronze Age settlements to include farm domestic animals, it is rare to find wild animals being an equally important part of their diet. Plants and cereals were also an important part of the Bronze Age diet and the charred remains of porridge type foods, emmer wheat and barley grains have been found preserved in amazing detail, sometimes still inside the bowls they were served in.

Finds of textiles and fibers illuminate the stages of textile production, and include hanks of prepared fiber, thread wound on wooden sticks or into balls, and finished fabrics of various qualities.

“The outstanding level of preservation means that we can use methods, such as scanning electron microscopy which magnifies more than 10,000 times, to look in detail at the fiber content and structure,” said Dr. Margarita Gleba, also from the Division of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

“All the textiles appear to have been made from plant fibers. The people used cultivated species, such as flax, as well as wild plants, such as nettle and perhaps trees, to obtain raw materials.”

“Flax provided the finest fibers and was used to weave fine linen fabrics on a loom. The linen textiles found at Must Farm are among the finest from Bronze Age Europe. Wild fibers appear to have been used for coarser fabrics made in a different technique, known as twining.”