Large circular wooden houses built on stilts collapsed in a dramatic fire 3,000 years ago and plunged into a river, preserving their contents in astonishing detail. Archaeologists say the excavations have revealed the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain.  

It’s prehistoric archaeology in 3D with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity

David Gibson

Archaeologists have revealed exceptionally well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings during an excavation at Must Farm quarry in the East Anglian fens that is providing an extraordinary insight into domestic life 3,000 years ago. The settlement, dating to the end of the Bronze Age (1200-800 BC), would have been home to several families who lived in a number of wooden houses on stilts above water.

The settlement was destroyed by fire that caused the dwellings to collapse into the river, preserving the contents in situ. The result is an extraordinary time capsule containing exceptional textiles made from plant fibres such as lime tree bark, rare small cups, bowls and jars complete with past meals still inside. Also found are exotic glass beads forming part of an elaborate necklace, hinting at a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age.

The exposed structures are believed to be the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain and the finds, taken together, provide a fuller picture of prehistoric life than we have ever had before.

The major excavation is happening because of concern about the long-term preservation of this unique Bronze Age site with its extraordinary remains. The Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) is carrying out the excavation of 1,100 square metres of the Must Farm site in Cambridgeshire, and is now half way through the project.

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.      

It is possible that those living in the settlement were forced to leave everything behind when it caught on fire. Such is the level of preservation due to the deep waterlogged sediments of the Fens, the footprints of those who once lived there were also found. The finds suggest there is much more to be discovered in the rest of the settlement as the excavation continues over the coming months.

CAU’s Mark Knight, Site Director of the excavation, said: “Must Farm is the first large-scale investigation of the deeply buried sediments of the fens and we uncover the perfectly preserved remains of prehistoric settlement. Everything suggests the site is not a one-off but in fact presents a template of an undiscovered community that thrived 3,000 years ago ‘beneath’ Britain’s largest wetland.”

The £1.1 million four-year project has been funded by heritage organisation Historic England and the building firm Forterra. Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “A dramatic fire 3,000 years ago combined with subsequent waterlogged preservation has left to us a frozen moment in time, which gives us a graphic picture of life in the Bronze Age.”

After the excavation is complete, the team will take all the finds for further analysis and conservation. Eventually they will be displayed at Peterborough Museum and at other local venues. The end of the four year project will see a major publication about Must Farm and an online resource detailing the finds.

The site, now a clay quarry owned by Forterra, is close to Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire and sits astride a prehistoric watercourse inside the Flag Fen basin. The site has produced large quantities of Bronze Age metalwork, including a rapier and sword in 1969, and more recently the discovery of nine pristinely preserved log boats in 2011.

Archaeologists say these discoveries place Must Farm alongside similar European Prehistoric Wetland sites; the ancient loch-side dwellings known as crannogs in Scotland and Ireland; stilt houses, also known as pile dwellings, around the Alpine Lakes; and the terps of Friesland, manmade hill dwellings in the Netherlands.

David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at CAU, added: “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,” he said. 

For a more detailed summary of the Must Farm discoveries, visit the project archive here: 

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