Some three thousand years ago, deep in the fens of Cambridgeshire, a small settlement of huts on stilts was engulfed in a catastrophic fire. The inhabitants fled as best they could, taking little by way of possessions with them. Why this fire happened remains a mystery, but it did help to preserve some remarkable Late Bronze Age artefacts that have blown the lid off previous misconceptions about the incredible skills of these early settlers.
This is what fascinates me most about this era; the more sensitive lab equipment and research methodology becomes, the more accurate the data harvest gets, leading to fewer assumptions and an abundance of facts. Articles that claimed one thing about our ancestors are either disproved or validated according to new information.
Must Farm is an example of an extraordinarily well-preserved site. Radio carbon dating has narrowed the date of occupation at between 1100-800BCE. The wooden structures were suspended on piles driven into the mud of the freshwater channel below. When the fire ravaged huts collapsed into the fen, the soft anoxic silt preserved the remains.
The entire cluster of shelters, surrounded by wooden ramparts, lies on the south edge of the Flag Fen Basin, where other astonishing Bronze Age structures were uncovered during earlier digs (see Pryor, 2001). Investigations of the channel to the west of the settlement revealed the remains of nine longboats, eight of which were dated to the Late Bronze Age and the ninth to the Iron Age, a series of fish traps and weirs, plus a collection of Bronze and Iron Age weaponry.
Evidence suggests that the channel itself was in use for a much longer period than the settlement, with dated artefacts confirming activity from around 1700-100BCE. We could make inferences about the nature of the fire, and possible conflicts with surrounding tribe’s folk, but it would be merely supposition. It could just as easily be the result of an accident, a careless youngster dropping a torch on a windy day perhaps or stray embers drifting from a fire setting a dry thatch alight. There is no way to be sure.
What is certain, is that much of the charring actually helped to preserve the seeds, tubers and other delicate artefacts that would otherwise have rotted in the sediments. Analysis of those seeds, food residues, textiles, pot sherds, and metal objects gives us a rare glimpse of domestic life within the confines of a group of round huts.
Previous notions of Late Bronze Age human skills with regard to spinning and weaving were grossly underestimated. The cloth fragments found were delicate and finely woven, and dyed with great care. Loom weights, bobbins and spindle whorls were discovered in a reasonably small area, indicating that some huts were devoted to a particular crafting activity, rather than everyone dabbling in the art of cloth making. This lends weight to the argument that some community members honed a specific tradeable skill, allowing them to barter and exchange one type of goods or service for another.
In contrast, the abundance of saddle querns would suggest that each household participated in the daily grind of grain into flour. That’s not to say that larger settlements did not have specialist bakers, only that it was likely that each family baked their own bread at the Must Farm settlement.
Having confirmation that our ancestors ate river fish such as pike, was a gratifying discovery. What excites me more is that the time consuming and costly exercise of identifying the exact species of tubers that were collected among the trove, is still being carried out. I eagerly await the results, as the starch component of Late Bronze Age diets would have been restricted to bullrush roots, emmer wheat and other ancient grains, and the odd wild parsnip. If experts can extend this to include categorical evidence of other roots too, we can add to the list of native species in Britain while widening our understanding of their everyday life and activities. It would certainly assist my historical fiction series set around the same time, or a little later.
In addition to the everyday crafts and foods of these ancient people, we can begin to form ideas and draw rudimentary conclusions as to their rituals and beliefs. Paleo-climatologists have significant evidence to support the fact that the weather was warmer and much wetter in this era of British history, with long rainy seasons, floods, and the accompanying issues of crops rotting and homes being washed away.
In the nearby Flag Fen, a long wooden causeway was constructed and completed before the Must Farm settlement was occupied. Along the length of the causeway, suspended over the water channel, archaeologists found a vast quantity of animal and human remains, along with swords that had never been sharpened, and jewels and beads, all of which appear to have been deposited as votive offerings.
As a fiction writer, it is easy for me to construct a primitive religion and rituals that might have occurred whereby inhabitants who longed for dryer weather and abundant crops would assume a vengeful set of gods were punishing them for some perceived slight. The offerings slipped into the water at strategic points along the causeway were all bent or broken first, for reasons unknown.
It could be that those wealthy enough to deposit newly forged swords did not want unscrupulous people retrieving the weapons and then using them against the owner for nefarious means. It may have been a symbolic gesture to show the gods that the offered weapons were not meant as a threat – who knows?
What we can say for sure now, thanks to this outstanding place, is that the people of Late Bronze Age Britain were smart, inventive and highly skilled in the manufacture and processing of cloth, pottery, net and trap making to catch fish. They also prized their metal tools to such a degree that they made wooden carrying cases in which to store some of them. These settlers were quick to adapt to the volatile and changing landscape around them. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from them now.
Sources – Antiquiry Publications Ltd 2019 ‘The Must Farm pile dwelling settlement’ Mark Knight et al
‘Extreme wet conditions coincident with Bronze Age abandonment of upland areas in Britain’ CS Turney et al
The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape. English Heritage Archaeological Report. London: English Heritage, 2001. Pryor, F. M. M.