Bronze Age piles preserved within the river silts and collapsed structural timbers
Bronze Age piles preserved within the river silts and collapsed structural timbers © Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Bronze Age piles preserved within the river silts and collapsed structural timbers © Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Bronze Age Homes Unearthed in East Anglia

  • 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
  • 'Best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain' provide an extraordinary time capsule of everyday life
  • Pots with meals inside and finely woven clothing have been found
  • Preserved in river silts items, which would normally have long-since decomposed, have been unearthed in pristine condition by archaeologists
  • £1.1 million four-year project funded by Historic England and Forterra sheds new light on day to day lives of our Bronze Age ancestors

Archaeologists have revealed incredibly well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings during an excavation at Must Farm quarry, Whittlesey, 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.

Video not working due to cookies settings or click here to watch on YouTube

Time capsule of Bronze Age life

A fire destroyed the settlement causing the dwellings to collapse into the river, preserving the contents in the river bed. 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.

The archaeologists have also found exotic glass beads forming part of an elaborate necklace, hinting at a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age. We believe the exposed structures are 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.

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. We are learning more about the food our ancestors ate, and the pottery they used to cook and serve it. We can also get an idea of how different rooms were used. This site is of international significance and its excavation really will transform our understanding of the period. "

Homes abandoned in haste

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.

Excavation continues

The finds suggest there is much more to be discovered in the rest of the settlement as the excavation continues over the coming months.

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.

An important wetland site

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 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. 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.

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, man-made hill dwellings in the Netherlands.

Project partners

The major project is being funded by Historic England (formerly known as English Heritage) and building products manufacturer Forterra, which owns the Must Farm quarry. It is happening because of concern about the long-term preservation of this unique Bronze Age site with its exceptional remains.

The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge 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.

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. "

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."

Brian Chapman, Head of Land and Mineral Resources at Forterra, said:

"We're delighted to be part of this incredible project which demonstrates our commitment to preserving the unique history of the site and look forward to working closely with our partners over the coming months and years."

County Councillor Ian Bates, Chairman of the Environment and Economy Committee at Cambridgeshire County Council, said:

"We recognised early on the significance of the site and worked closely with partners to ensure the safe recovery of the archaeology found there. The Bronze Age finds really are of national prominence and it is important that it is preserved as a local legacy and for national audiences."