Must Farm is just outside the English city of Peterborough, on the edge of an area called the Cambridgeshire Fens. It’s an unassuming location that’s easy to ignore if you’re not from the region. Or at least it was, before it became the site of one of the most astounding archaeological finds in Britain.
After digging some initial trenches and discovering Bronze Age fields, archaeologists moved to a different site. And there they found the course of a long-forgotten river – and in it the remains of nine log boats. But there was an even more amazing discovery waiting for them in the silt.
In fact, the find was so incredible that some have taken to calling it Britain’s Pompeii. And while it might not have the grandeur of that Roman locale, what was dug up at Must Farm provides an unbelievable glimpse into the lives of Britons more than 3,000 years ago. Plus, it’s all thanks to a strange quirk of fate.
You see, finding anything from 3,000 years ago is pretty rare. And the items that archaeologists usually discover from that time are often made of metal or stone. Other important objects, like those made of wood or fabric, usually degrade over such a long time. But that wasn’t the case at Must Farm.
What was found there was, in fact, a real treasure trove. And not because of the uncovered riches per se, but because of what they tell us about the everyday lives of people from the Bronze Age. Indeed, some of the things that were discovered were astonishing, even to the archaeologists.
For what they found at Must Farm were the remains of a Bronze Age village. And how it came to be preserved so brilliantly is a story in and of itself. A huge stroke of good luck, or bad luck if you were an inhabitant of the village, allowed the archaeologists to discover this fine settlement.
That stroke of luck stems from where the village was built. Rather than being built on solid ground, the Must Farm settlement sat on stilts above the ancient river. So when catastrophe struck the dwellings, they were in prime position to be preserved for as long as they have been.
The disaster came in the form of a fire. The blaze chewed right through the stilts holding up the homes and caused the buildings to fall into the river. And from that moment on the preservation process took hold. For example, if the village had been on dry land, a fire like that would have gutted everything.
Instead, here the river put out the fire as the buildings tumbled into it. And so, while the timbers that archaeologists discovered were scorched, they’re in far better condition than almost any other Bronze Age find. The silt of the riverbed helped preserve the wood as well as a host of other amazing objects.
The first things discovered were the timbers themselves, most of them arranged where they fell. There were circles of the timbers that made up the walls, with the spoke-like roof beams arranged on top of them. But that was just the start of the amazing discoveries at Must Farm.
The archaeologists estimate that the wooden structures they found constituted about five huts. This makes their discovery, in fact, a small Bronze Age settlement. Also included in the find were walls made of smaller pieces of wood, which were just as well preserved as the larger logs.
But even these weren’t the most amazing things discovered during the dig. Because of the conditions in the silt, a swathe of incredibly fragile items were also found. And it’s these that have created the most excitement around the Must Farm dig. It’s not hard to see why, either.
One of the most amazing finds was a piece of fabric. It was a finely woven piece of cloth, and nothing like it has ever been found at any Bronze Age site in England. Bear in mind that scientists have dated the Must Farm discovery at around 1,000 to 800 BCE. This piece of cloth, then, predates the Colossus of Rhodes.
Other items found at the dig include a bowl of food with a wooden spoon still resting in it, a number of pieces of basketwork and bundles of twine. There were pots with unfinished meals in them as well. And these came together to give researchers a big clue about what had happened at the village.
When the fire had gripped the settlement, the people living there must have left quickly. You can imagine the scene. Anything not on fire is tumbling into the river underneath. And so it’s likely that almost everything in the village was abandoned. It was this, then, that ultimately led to the amazing discoveries.
Some scientists have suggested that the proliferation of objects points to the site having had some sort of religious or ritual significance for its inhabitants. But Mark Knight, who led the Cambridge University team that conducted the dig, has been quick to quash those ideas.
Knight, in fact, believes that the collection of items is a snapshot of Bronze Age life. Alongside pots and other household items, he and his colleagues found delicate glass beads, spearheads and a number of swords and axes. But there was a huge haul of pottery, too. This, then, was somewhere people lived and ate.
And it’s this which makes the discovery so exciting. Just like the discoveries in Pompeii, the finds at Must Farm give us an intriguing glimpse back in time. We know about the monuments that the Bronze Age people left behind, but fabric and wood are incredibly rare to find so intact.
But thanks to this new dig, we know, for example, that the people living in the village made their own textiles. We know, too, from the meals discovered, what the inhabitants ate. We even know that the village was only a few months old when the fire that sent it to its watery grave struck. And all of this is invaluable information.
Because history, after all, isn’t all monuments, rituals and war. The key to understanding the past is understanding the people who were alive then and experiencing it. How they lived, how they worked, how they grouped – are all critical questions to be answered. And the Must Farm discoveries have given us unprecedented access to all that information.