Silty fen preserved burning houses and domestic objects inside them to reveal unprecedented view of life 3,000 years ago
Almost 3,000 years after being destroyed by fire, the astonishingly well preserved remains of two bronze age houses and their contents have been discovered at a quarry site in Peterborough.
The artefacts include a collection of everyday domestic objects unprecedented from any site in Britain, including jewellery, spears, daggers, giant food storage jars and delicate drinking cups, glass beads, textiles and a copper spindle with thread still wound around it.
The remains of the large wooden houses, built on stilts in a waterlogged fenland site beside the ancient course of the river Nene, are the best preserved bronze age dwellings ever found in Britain. The most poignant object, suggesting that the last meal in the house was abandoned as the owners fled, was a cooking pot containing a wooden spoon and the remains of food calcified from the heat of the fire. “It feels almost rude to be intruding,” said the site director, Mark Knight. “It doesn’t feel like archaeology any more, it feels like somebody’s house has burned down and we’re going in and picking over their goods.”
But as an archaeologist, Knight said, he was full of excitement about the excavation, which he compared to a bronze age Pompeii.
A forensic expert is being called in to try to determine the reason for and spread of the fire, which caused the roof timbers to collapse on to the floor, sandwiching the objects. The structures then fell into the water, which immediately quenched the flames. Layers of silty mud and clay up to several metres deep then sealed the remains for almost 3,000 years. Knight said possible reasons for the fire included a cooking accident, deliberate destruction and abandonment of the site, or even enemy attack. But whatever happened, the people abandoned their possessions and left precipitously: “This is a world full of swords and spears – it is not entirely a friendly place.
“We’re used to finding a bit of pottery and trying to reconstruct a civilisation from that,” he said. “Here we’ve got the lot. We should be able to find out what they wore, what they ate and how they cooked it, the table they ate off and the chairs they sat on.
“These people were rich, they wanted for absolutely nothing. The site is so rich in material goods we have to look now at other bronze age sites where very little was found, and ask if they were once equally rich but have been stripped.” Although their houses were surrounded by water, the people seemed to favour eating domestic animals – sheep, pigs and cattle – rather than fish, eels and shellfish. The large spine of a cow was found in the smaller house, suggesting a carcass had been hanging up awaiting butchery. The animal must have been grazed on dry land up to half a kilometre away.
The diet was another sign of affluence, and a challenge to the traditional view of why people built and lived in such houses. The archaeologists suspect that, on this site at least, it had less to do with fishing and more with controlling the waterways which were the roads of their day.
The archaeology team from the University of Cambridge, working on the £1.1m excavation for Historic England, is making new discoveries every day. The first human remains, a skull still half buried in the silt, was found a few weeks ago near the presumed doorway of the larger house. They hope to find that it is still attached to a complete skeleton.
“Is it one of the people caught in the fire, or granny’s skull hanging up over the door? Or the head of an enemy? Scientific tests will tell us more,” Knight said. The archaeologists were delighted to have been working through one of the wettest winters on record, as it allowed wood being uncovered to stay waterlogged and intact.
The houses are almost within sight of the famous archaeological site and visitor attraction, Flag Fen, which is believed to have been a ritual landscape of the dead. But the latest finds were very much from the land of the living, built within a neat palisade, beside an older causeway linking two hummocks of comparatively dry land, on a site which, then as now, was partly underwater.
Today from the site you can catch a distant glimpse of Peterborough cathedral, but the view is dominated by a McCain’s chip factory, a wind farm and the gigantic pit of the brick clay quarry which may have destroyed more houses. Timbers were spotted in the sides of the pit in 1999, but it was only when these were dated to the bronze age that a systematic archaeological survey began. Another part of the site had already yielded an entire fleet of bronze age boats.
The settlement was discovered in a trial excavation in 2006, but – ironically in view of the sodden working conditions – a full excavation was only now decided on because of fears the site would dry out and endanger the archaeology. The site cannot be preserved in situ, but the finds will go to the local museum, and the best of the timbers will also be conserved.