The remarkable preservation at Must Farm promised insights into day-to-day life that would revolutionise our knowledge of the late Bronze Age. As excavations at the site reach completion, it is already clear that we will never see that era in the same way again. Mark Knight, Susanna Harris, and Grahame Appleby told Matthew Symonds about life in a Bronze Age settlement.
Roundhouse 1 under excavation. (Photo: M Symonds)
There is a paradox at the heart of Must Farm. By any measure its archaeology is both spectacular and exceptional: digging revealed gutted roof rafters splayed across rings of blunted timber uprights, while charred detritus lay strewn across the site. For anyone used to experiencing Bronze Age roundhouses as smudged stains in the soil or perhaps discreet arcs of stones on remote uplands, being confronted with what look like freshly fallen buildings is stunning. Removing this superstructure exposed the contents of Bronze Age roundhouses for the first time. Stacked crockery or sets of tools may be less visually dramatic than flattened buildings, but the picture such artefacts present of home life is breathtakingly intimate. It is also the true value of Must Farm: the extraordinary archaeology seemingly provides a glimpse of entirely ordinary life. For the first time, we can begin to get a sense of what was normal.
A set of medium-sized bowls for eating from. All of the roundhouses have produced very similar sets of household utensils. (Photo: CAU, taken by Dave Webb)
‘This world does have a clichéd look to it,’ observes Mark Knight, Site Director for Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU). ‘There are roundhouses, and they contain the same sort of pots and metalwork that are found on sites where preservation is much poorer. It’s the quantity that has exceeded everyone’s expectations. So even though Must Farm is giving us a new image of what the Bronze Age looked like, there is a familiarity to it. The amount of material that people possessed is surprising, but I don’t think that means we are looking at a high-end part of the community. It’s just that we have never been able to see the full picture before.’
‘Normally we are dealing with sites that went through their full pattern of occupation before being abandoned in an orderly way. Afterwards they might be disturbed by ploughs or later settlement, leaving us with a very diluted image. Must Farm is the exact opposite, because it came to a premature end, which also created a perfect storm of preservation. When the site burnt down, the household furniture and furnishings were still pristine, and afterwards they were gradually buried under metres of sediment. So we do not think that this site is an anomaly. We think it is absolutely representative of what this world looked like. That means we can take Must Farm, and all of the detail that is coming from our work here, and use it to paint the picture for the rest of Bronze Age Britain. That’s the real excitement.’
All of the stages of textile production were recovered from Must Farm, including finished textiles. (Photo: CAU, taken by Dave Webb)
Plenty has been discovered by the CAU excavations, funded by Historic England and Forterra, since our last detailed look at Must Farm (CA 312). Back then, two roundhouses had been identified on a patch of riverbank cordoned off by a closeset ash palisade. Now it is known that five such buildings nestled within this space, and the CAU team believe that a similar number were lost when the adjacent brick-clay quarry encroached on the site in the 1960s. Those operations produced a bronze rapier and some pots, but at the time they were assumed to be Bronze Age watery deposits. With hindsight, the finds add weight to a quirk in the behaviour of the palisade, which suggests a chunk of the settlement is missing. Rather than encircling the roundhouses, the palisade sketches out an open ‘C’, leaving it singularly unsuited to act as a barrier of any kind. Projecting an opposing ‘C’ against the surviving length of fence would complete the perimeter and create a roughly oval compound. If this reconstruction is right, around half the settlement remained available for excavation.
As reported in CA 312, the settlement was not founded on dry land, but stood on stilts over a sluggishly flowing side channel of the River Nene. Despite living in Fenland, these colonists remained staunchly terrestrial in their tastes. Although a few fish, such as pike, carp, and perch, ended up on the menu, the Must Farm settlers had a weakness for the fat of the land in the form of venison, horse, lamb, pig, emmer wheat, and barley. Whether their palates had much time to acclimatise to the fish and fowl that was now available on the doorstep is, though, an interesting question. It is increasingly apparent that the settlement had not been standing for long, and may not even have been finished, before it was ravaged by fire.
‘We think it was built in winter,’ says Mark. ‘Treering analysis of the ash posts in the palisade and the oak uprights supporting the houses tells us that they were all felled in the same winter, we just don’t know which one. Within 12 months, the settlement had probably burned down, because the wood was still green, there weren’t any infestations of wood-boring insects, nothing was broken, and very little waste had been generated. There’s even a sense that one of the roundhouses, which we call Structure 4, hadn’t been completed. We’re finding clay lumps associated with it that seem to still be in their raw state, rather than having been shaped into the roof linings or chimney flues. So perhaps four of the houses had been built, and the last one was in the final throes of being finished.’ Why the settlement was razed is still not clear, but the inhabitants seem to have had time to escape. A human skull found at the site was lying on its own and its presence is probably explained by the Bronze Age penchant for introducing ancestors’ remains into buildings. It does seem certain, though, that the blaze was not an accident. ‘The fire was comprehensive,’ Mark says. ‘It’s not that one building was badly damaged and at the other end of the settlement the effects were limited. They were all burnt out.’
‘Precedent tells us that settlements built above the water like this were hard to burn down, so the extensiveness suggests that the fire was in some way controlled or made to happen. Looking at it now you have to ask “Where are the inhabitants? Why didn’t they make any attempt to salvage their belongings?” And now we have this brevity of occupation too. Is it possible that there were forces out in the Fens that didn’t want these people here and succeeded in scaring them away? Are we seeing the result of skirmishes or disputes? Or could there be a ritual element? At the moment, we don’t have the evidence to say.’
The buildings claimed by the conflagration show every sign of having been modest residences. None of the roundhouse timbers were embellished with decorative carvings and the carpenters seem to have stuck slavishly to what was necessary, rather than seeking to create intricate and elaborate show homes. This air of routine, even commonplace construction is reinforced by the building materials themselves. Both the ash and the oak were sourced from coppiced trees, with the former having been grown for 15-20 years and the latter for 20-30 years. Woodland would hardly be managed over that kind of time-scale in anticipation of a single, small settlement, so the availability of this timber implies a far more widespread need for building materials. At Must Farm, once any branches had been trimmed off the rough posts, they were simply set in the marsh and hacked into shape where they stood. Such plain, practical architecture may well have been the vernacular of the Late Bronze Age.
Must Farm metalwork: a socketed axe, still fixed to its haft. (Photo: CAU, taken by Dave Webb)
Anyone who stepped inside one of the Must Farm roundhouses would have entered a wellfurnished home. Under foot, the floor would have felt strangely springy – especially to anyone more familiar with dry-land roundhouses – as the base of the dwelling was made up of woven wicker hurdles. Resting on these, and suspended perhaps a metre above water level, would have been various items of furniture. For now, all that can be said for certain is that these included wooden objects, held together with mortice holes, that were far too small to function as structural elements, perhaps including chests, chairs, and tables. Straw and bracken may have been mounded up as bedding, or used as insulation, while some of the textiles found at the site could have come from rugs or wall drapes. The recovery of clay chimney flues implies the presence of a crackling hearth. Overhead, dangling from the roof beams, were joints of lamb, split down the middle and being slowly cured or perhaps even lightly smoked.
Activity within the roundhouses did not occur haphazardly throughout the interior. Instead, as has long been suspected, the availability of light seems to have dictated how space was used. As a rule of thumb, the western half of the roundhouses produced little more than the occasional socketed axe or some lamb bones. In the eastern half, it is a very different story. Here buckets, platters, pots, tools, quern stones, and the paraphernalia of textile production all point to a hive of activity where a range of everyday chores were tackled. This dovetails neatly with the general pattern of late prehistoric houses. As the entrances usually face east and thus catch the rising sun, natural light is most abundant in that part of the interior.
Differences between the tasks attempted inside and outside the roundhouses are also beginning to become apparent. While lambs were processed indoors, the waste portions of mature deer and wild-boar carcasses were dumped away from the houses. Here too there is likely to be a practical element, with lambs being far less cumbersome and messy to butcher in an enclosed space, but it is possible that there were taboos about when it was appropriate to eat certain types of meat. Over on the adjacent dry land, the remains of 20 or so cattle could be dumped in one go during this period, presumably after having been slaughtered for massive feasts that brought together numerous local communities. But if beef was expected at these communal bashes, it is lamb that appears to have been the staple of home cooking. As analysis of the Must Farm foodstuffs progresses, the CAU team have high hopes that they can stop talking about diet, and start talking about cuisine.
While space within the settlement was used in subtly different ways, the individual roundhouses and their contents are strikingly similar. ‘They are exceptional in their uniformity,’ says Mark. ‘There is a sense that each of the households have equivalent material sets. All of the people living here seem to be thriving equally and there is no obvious sign of hierarchy. What has been spectacular about the excavations is that each of the roundhouses has produced its own inventory. So we find something like 10 pots, 11 pieces of metalwork, wooden buckets, troughs, tool handles, textiles, loom weights, and spindle whorls. In effect, each house is a template of the next, so there is a real sense that this is the standard domestic repertoire.’
Among the everyday items recovered from the roundhouses, it is the textiles and metalwork that stand out as truly remarkable. ‘There are fragments of very fine linen textiles’, says Susanna Harris, from the University of Glasgow, ‘and this is something that really is exceptional for Britain. One way that we think about the fineness of textiles is by counting the number of threads there are in a centimetre of weaving. When I first saw one of these textiles, I was checking and rechecking my measurement, to make sure that it was right, because the linen had 25 to 28 threads in a centimetre. Our own linen summer clothing is not usually that fine; often it only has 14 to 18 threads a centimetre. When looking at Bronze Age Europe, including Italy and Greece, this Must Farm linen sits among the finest. So this really brings Britain into that European context.’
Numerous beads have been found at the site, including this amber example. Bone and glass beads were also present, some of which may have been manufactured as far afield as Turkey or Syria. (Photo: CAU, taken by Dave Webb)
Apart from the quality of the fabric, much about these linens remains uncertain. ‘A little bit later you get lots of evidence for the use of colour’, says Susanna, ‘but this is a slightly more unknown period and we don’t know how much dyeing was going on. Whether this fine linen was clothing is also hard to say, because no diagnostic features have survived the fire to tell us. Another technique we see at Must Farm is twining. One example is quite coarse, so it could have been lining a floor or a wall. Another has finer stitching, and is curved, so there’s a shape to it. We know that twining can be employed in many ways – for clothing, matting, containers. It’s a bit like modern-day plastic in that it has such diverse uses. There’s also a knotted net, which has got quite a big mesh, so perhaps it was a lightweight container, something that held fodder, or a fishing net. I think that all these textiles could have been produced here. We can’t exclude trading, but we have all the stages of production at Must Farm. There are bundles of raw fibre, then various different stages of thread production, right the way through to the textile itself. The very finest threads from the site are 100 micrometres in diameter, which is about half the size of the ones used in that very fine piece of textile.’
When it comes to the metalwork recovered from the houses, it is not the quality that is surprising, but the quantity. ‘What we can see at Must Farm is the daily lived use,’ says Grahame Appleby, metalwork specialist for CAU. ‘Metal objects have their own biographies and their own life cycles. As far as I’m aware, there is no evidence for metalworking at Must Farm, but we know that they are chopping, cutting, and doing carpentry as they build the settlement, so a priori they must be bringing tools to the site. Within the houses, there were socketed axes, hammers, gouges, hooks, chisels, sickles, and spears. The axe is a multi-tool, and the others could be used for things like carpentry or processing food. It is possible that we can also see forward planning, as there was a bucket with metalwork in it. Was that intended as a ritual deposit, or had it been gathered for recycling?’
One fragment of a bronze sword blade, which was disturbed when a pipe trench was sunk across the site in the 1960s, may have endured a particularly eventful working life. ‘It looks like it was broken rather than cut up,’ says Grahame. ‘It’s a brittle fracture, so the metal has failed at that point. This sword also received some massive whacks from another edged implement. People have done edge analysis to see whether this was deliberate damage related to recycling the metal or ritually killing the object, or if this was a consequence of combat. What I can tell you is that at some point this sword was resharpened. It was also hit by a blunt implement. Because that point of brittleness exists, a thwack from something like a shield edge – that’s pure speculation – would be much more likely to break the sword than an edged weapon.’
What lured people with a taste for terrestrial ways out into Fenland? ‘We know that the adjacent dry land is field systems, herds, and managed woodland,’ says Mark. ‘It is a landscape that has been developed and transformed on a massive scale. And the bounty of that adjacent dry land seems to be reflected in the richness of the material culture at Must Farm. It’s mixed agriculture, and I think they are generating a surplus that is being used for trade, such that the inhabitants can get things like the exotic glass beads from Turkey or Syria that we’ve found here. So we have a major agricultural landscape, but a community that has chosen to live on the adjacent waterways. By doing that, they are plugging themselves into a network that allows them to go out into the North Sea and across to Europe, or into the heart of Britain to get to the tin and copper. Someone said to me that farmers don’t live in the middle of their fields, they live at the edge of the road. That’s essentially what’s happening here.’
By this reading, the story of Must Farm is one of connectivity. Building in the marsh created new opportunities for trade and engagement with a wider world, but this enterprising approach was not risk-free. The speed with which Must Farm was destroyed suggests that the hopes of its inhabitants swiftly turned to ash. ‘This happened 3,000 years ago’, Mark points out, ‘and we’re standing here like it happened yesterday. You can’t quite smell the fire, but we’re that close. I’ve never in archaeology been on a site where 3,000 years feels like such a short distance. You don’t need me talking about it: this site speaks for itself.’
The flames take hold. But who ignited them, and why? (Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit)
This feature appeared in CA 319. Click here to subscribe.