This was village life in Britain 3,000 years ago

Three millennia ago, a small, prosperous farming community briefly flourished in the freshwater marshes of eastern England. The inhabitants lived in a cluster of round thatched houses, built on wooden stilts above a channel of the River Nene, which flows into the North Sea, and wore clothes of fine linen, with pleats and tasseled hems; bartered for glass beads and amber imported from remote places such as present-day Iran; I drank from delicate clay cups shaped like poppy heads; they dined on wild boar leg and honey-glazed venison and gave the table scraps to their dogs.

Within a year of its construction, this prehistoric idyll came to a dramatic end. A catastrophic fire devastated the complex; the buildings collapsed and the villagers fled, abandoning clothing, tools and weapons. Everything, including the porridge left in the pots, crashed through the burning wicker floors into the thick, sticky reeds below and remained there. Eventually, the objects sank, hidden and buried, in more than six feet of oozing peat and silt. The river gradually moved away from the camp, but the debris remained intact for almost 3,000 years, preserving a documentation of daily life at the end of the British Bronze Age, 2500 BC to 800 BC

That moment frozen in time is the subject of two monographs published Tuesday by the University of Cambridge. Based on a 10-month excavation of what is now known as Must Farm Quarry, a submerged and superbly preserved settlement in the shadow of a potato chip factory 75 miles north of London, the studies are as detailed as a forensic investigation report by a crime scene. One article, a summary of the site, runs to 323 pages; the other, for specialists, is almost 1,000 pages longer.

“It didn’t look like archaeology,” said Mark Knight, project director and one of the paper’s authors. “At times, excavating the site felt a little rude and intrusive, as if we had arrived after a tragedy, rummaged through someone’s possessions and were able to get a glimpse of what they had done one day in 850 BC “

Evidence for life in the British Bronze Age has traditionally come from fortified and religious sites often found on high, arid landscapes. Most clues come from pottery, flint tools and bone. “We generally have to work with small fragments and barely visible house remains, and read between the lines,” said Harry Fokkens, an archaeologist at Leiden University. To convince someone that these places were once thriving settlements takes some imagination.

Paul Pettitt, a Paleolithic archaeologist at Durham University who was not involved in the new studies, said the monograph – a case study of exceptional preservation combined with highly skilled excavation – recalls that domestic life in that period was “colourful, rich , varies and not just regarding metallic weapons, as the public’s love for metal detecting would suggest.”

Francis Pryor, a British archaeologist best known for his 1982 discovery of Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site a mile from Must Farm, added: “The Must Farm report is transforming our understanding of British society in the millennium before the Roman conquest, 2,000 years ago. August Far from being primitive, Bronze Age communities lived in harmony with their neighbors, enjoying life in warm, dry homes with excellent food.”

Until ten years ago, the so-called Swamp Pompeii lay buried in a clay brick quarry. The original village is believed to have been twice as large (mining in the 20th century destroyed half the archaeological site) and may have married several dozen people. people belonging to families.

What remained were four imposing round houses and a small square entrance structure erected on a wooden platform and surrounded by a six-foot-high palisade of sharpened ash poles, a barrier no doubt designed for defense. The green lumber, fresh wood chips, and no repairs, reconstruction, or insect damage suggest that the complex was relatively new at the time of the fire.

An analysis of the outermost growth rings of burned hardwood indicated the onset date as late autumn or early winter, while the skeletons of three- to six-month-old lambs and the charred larvae of a local beetle species of fleas implied that the settlement was destroyed in summer or early autumn.

By piecing together the material culture of these ancient Britons, the study reveals how homes and the household goods within them were built, what connected residents, and how their clothing was made.

Among other things, archaeologists found 180 textile and fibrous objects (threads, fabrics, knotted nets), 160 wooden artefacts (spools, benches, handles for metal tools and wheels), 120 ceramic vases (bowls, jars, jugs ) and 90 pieces of metalworking (sickles, axes, chisels, a dagger, a razor for cutting hair). Masses of pearls forming part of an elaborate necklace indicated a level of refinement rarely associated with Bronze Age England.

“What’s interesting is that this is an inventory of five Bronze Age families,” Knight said. “It was as if everyone had a wedding registry for an exclusive department store.”

Although the bones of fish, cattle, sheep and pigs were pulled from the heaps (halos of rubbish dumped from the huts above), there was no evidence of human casualties. The skull of a young woman was found outside a home, but because it had been polished by repeated touching, researchers decided it was more likely a memento or ritual decoration than a battle trophy. “The aunt’s skull was attached to the front door,” Mr Knight surmised.

Interest in Must Farm first arose in 1999, when an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge noticed a series of oak posts sticking out of the quarry’s clay beds. Dendrochronology dated the poles to prehistory, and excitement grew when preliminary excavations uncovered fish traps, bronze swords, and spearheads.

The discovery of nine log boats — dugout canoes up to 28 feet long — buried in the mud hinted at the vast wetlands that once covered the region. “Boat journeys through the reed marshes to the woods would have been made many times during the short life of the site,” said Chris Wakefield, the archaeologist on the project. “In the summer, that meant walking through clouds of mosquitoes.”

A large-scale survey conducted by the University of Cambridge in 2015 and 2016 highlighted palisade fencing, light walkways, the ruins of a circular roof and walls made of woven willow branches called wattle. The way the beams fell – some vertically, others in eerie geometric lines – allowed the researchers to map the layout of the circular architecture. One house was about 500 square feet in size and appeared to have distinct “activity zones” comparable to rooms in a modern home.

The thatched roofs had three levels. The base layer of insulating straw was covered with turf – soil made up of dead but not fully decomposed plants – and finished with clay, which near the apex of the roof may have formed a chimney or flue. “The people were confident, skilled house builders,” Mr Knight said. “They had a design that worked beautifully for a submerged landscape.”

Stored in what was presumably the kitchen of a residence were bronze knives, wooden trays and clay pots, some of which were even nestled. “There was a simple aesthetic at work that felt cohesive and unified,” Knight said. A clay bowl imprinted with the footprints of its creator still contained its final meal: a polenta of wheat grains mixed with animal fat, perhaps goat or deer. A spatula rested inside the dish.

The artisanal workmanship of the recovered relics and the presence of log boats, perhaps the only reliable means of transportation, led researchers to conclude that, rather than an isolated outpost, the site may have been a bustling crossroads for trade. “There was a sense that these early swamp dwellers were at the top end of their society and had access to everything that was available at the time,” Knight said. “At the end of the Bronze Age, the rivers of eastern England were ideal for trade and connections; “sites like Stonehenge were now on the periphery.”

The Must Farm community harvested crops and cut down trees on the nearest land. Sheep and cattle also grazed there. Wild boars and deer were hunted in local woods within a two-mile radius of the farm, the researchers calculate. “The irony is that the community wanted to live on the water, but their economy was land-based,” Knight said.

Evidently, food was so plentiful that the villagers almost ignored the fish, eels, and waterfowl that swam around the settlement’s foundations. With good reason, it turns out: Sanitation was an iffy proposition in the swamps. Sausage-shaped globules found in the settlement’s turbid sediment turned out to be fossils of dog and human feces, many of which contained fish tapeworm eggs and giant kidney worms acquired from foraging in stagnant waterways. Tapeworms are flat, ribbon-like parasites that wrap around people’s intestines and can grow up to 30 feet long. Kidney worms stop within three feet but can destroy vital organs.

Two questions remained unanswered in the otherwise comprehensive Cambridge monographs: Was the fire the result of an accident or an attack by rivals who may have envied the residents’ wealth? And why didn’t any Bronze Age bother to salvage all that soggy stuff?

“A settlement like this would have lasted perhaps a generation, and the people who built it had clearly built similar sites before,” said David Gibson, a Cambridge archaeologist who collaborated on the study. “It may be that after the fire they just started again.”