SHAFAQNA – Archaeologists found complete roundhouses, pots containing meals and clothes hastily abandoned in the ruins of the site at Must Farm Quarry near Whittlesey.
A British Bronze Age settlement, captured in time at the very moment settlers fled for their lives from a devastating fire, has been dubbed the ‘Peterborough Pompeii’ because of its astonishing preservation.
Two prehistoric wooden roundhouses have remained virtually intact since they plunged into the East Anglian Fens 3,000 years ago.
It is likely that the families who lived there were preparing food or eating when their homes caught fire and sank into the bog. Archaeologists found pots containing meals and clothes hastily abandoned in the ruins of the small site at Must Farm Quarry near Whittlesey.
Ironically it is the fire itself that carbonised and preserved the structure much like at Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. The silt of the fens then prevented air and bacteria from corroding the wood and the posts and rafters are still clearly visible in the positions in which they fell.
The site, which has been left untouched since its discovery in 2006, is now being excavated for the first time by Historic England and the University of Cambridge.
Already the dig has revealed an extraordinary time capsule of Bronze Age life, with textiles cups, bowls and jars all perfectly preserved.
Mark Knight, site director of the excavation, said the team has found a range of different sized pots ‘like someone has gone to Habitat and bought the whole set.’
“We are, effectively, for the first time in British history about to go inside a Bronze Age roundhouse,” said Mr Knight.
“We’re going to go inside a Bronze Age home, we’re going to see what’s in there, what they were wearing, what they were eating on the day of the fire.
“We’ll understand what the world they lived in looked like, what it smelt like. It’s a world we’ve dreamed about getting into. Here we have it in that space.
“Normally when you dig dry land sites, you’re lucky if you find a few shards, here we’re finding complete pots, often with the food inside them.”
Exotic glass beads forming part of an elaborate necklace have also been found, hinting at a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age, and suggesting that the inhabitants were at the upper echelons of society.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “What’s amazing is this is the moment in time that they fled, leaving all their goods and chattels behind, like the Mary Rose.
“We’ve found fabrics with complicated woven patterns and even a spool of thread, which you simply do not find. It’s like the Peterborough Pompeii.
“Normally at Bronze Age settlements we just find a ring of post holes but here we not only have the posts, and palisades, but the rafters. It’s basically a flat pack house.”
A human skull has also been found, but further excavation is needed to find out if there were more remains and whether the person had died in the fire, or was the skull of an enemy or an ancestor being displayed – “Granny’s head” hung up by the door.
And with the help of a fire expert, the team hope to discover if the blaze was set deliberately at the end of the dwelling’s life, was an accident or was done by hostile forces.
The excavation site is two metres below the modern ground surface, as levels have risen over thousands of years and archaeologists have now reached the river bed as it was in 1000-800BC.
Clearly visible are the well-preserved charred roof timbers of one of the roundhouses, timbers with tool marks and a perimeter of wooden posts known as a palisade which once enclosed the site. There are even footprints of the inhabitants still visible in the waterlogged sediments.
The Must Farm excavation is the first large-scale investigation of deeply buried sediments in the fens, and is at a site which has produced a number of prehistoric finds, including nine pristinely-preserved log boats in 2011.
When it is complete, the finds will be taken for further analysis, then displayed at Peterborough Museum and other venues.
David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge said: “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.
“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.”