This was village life in Britain 3,000 years ago
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This was village life in Britain 3,000 years ago
In an undated photo provided by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, charred grains inside a pot found at Must Farm Quarry, a Bronze Age site on a river channel in eastern England. The river gradually moved course away from the encampment, but the debris remained intact for nearly 3,000 years, preserving a record of daily life at the end of Britains’s Bronze Age, from 2500 B.C. to 800 B.C. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit via The New York Times)

by Franz Lidz

NEW YORK, NY.- Three millennia ago, a small, prosperous farming community briefly flourished in the freshwater marshes of eastern England. The inhabitants lived in a clutch of thatched roundhouses built on wooden stilts above a channel of the River Nene, which empties into the North Sea. They wore clothes of fine flax linen, with pleats and tasseled hems; bartered for glass and amber beads imported from places as far-flung as present-day Iran; drank from delicate clay poppyhead cups; dined on leg of boar and honey-glazed venison, and fed table scraps to their dogs.

Within a year of its construction, this prehistoric idyll met a dramatic end. A catastrophic fire tore through the compound; the buildings collapsed and the villagers fled, abandoning their garments, tools and weapons. Everything, including the porridge left in cooking pots, crashed through the burning wicker floors into the thick, sticky reed beds below and stayed there. Eventually, the objects sank, hidden and entombed, in more than 6 feet of oozing peat and silt. The river gradually moved course away from the encampment, but the debris remained intact for nearly 3,000 years, preserving a record of daily life at the end of Britain’s Bronze Age, from 2500 B.C. to 800 B.C.

That frozen moment in time is the subject of two monographs published Tuesday by Cambridge University. 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 of a crime scene. One paper, a site synthesis, runs to 323 pages; the other, for specialists, is nearly 1,000 pages longer.

“This didn’t feel like archaeology,” said Mark Knight, the project director and one of the paper’s authors. “At times, excavating the site felt slightly rude and intrusive, as if we had turned up after a tragedy, picked through someone’s possessions and got a glimpse of what they did one day in 850 B.C.”

Evidence for life in Britain’s Bronze Age has traditionally come from fortified and religious sites that are often found on high, dry landscapes. Most of the clues come as pottery, flint tools and bones. “Generally we have to work with small bits and pieces and barely visible remains of houses, and read between the lines,” said Harry Fokkens, an archaeologist at Leiden University. Convincing anyone that such places were once thriving settlements takes a little imagination.

Paul Pettitt, a Paleolithic archaeologist at Durham University who was not involved with the new studies, said the monograph — a case study of exceptional preservation combined with highly skilled excavation — provide a reminder that domesticity in that period was “colorful, rich, varied and not solely about metal weapons, as the public’s love of metal detecting would suggest.”

Bogged Down

Francis Pryor, a British archaeologist best known for his 1982 discovery of Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site one 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. Far from being primitive, Bronze Age communities lived in harmony with their neighbors, while enjoying life in warm, dry houses with excellent food.”

Until a decade ago, the so-called Pompeii of the Fen lay buried in a clay brick quarry. The original hamlet is believed to have been twice as big — mining in the 20th century obliterated half the archaeological site — and may have housed several dozen people in family units.

What remained were four substantial roundhouses and a small, square entranceway structure erected on a wooden platform and surrounded by a 6-foot-high palisade of sharpened ash posts, a barrier no doubt designed for defense. The green timber, fresh wood chips and the absence of repair, rebuilding or insect damage suggested that the complex was relatively new at the time of the blaze.

An analysis of the outermost growth rings of the scorched hardwood pointed to late autumn or early winter as the start date, while the skeletons of 3- to 6-month-old lambs and the charred larvae of a local species of flea beetle 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 the houses were constructed and the household goods within, what the residents ate and how their clothes were made.

Among other things, the archaeologists unearthed 180 textiles and fiber items (yarns, cloth, knotted nets), 160 wooden artifacts (bobbins, benches, hafts for metal tools and wheels), 120 pottery vessels (bowls, jars, jugs) and 90 pieces of metalwork (sickles, axes, chisels, a dagger, a hand-held razor for cutting hair). Masses of beads that had formed part of an elaborate necklace indicated a level of sophistication seldom associated with Bronze Age England.

“What’s interesting about this is that it’s an inventory of five Bronze Age households,” Knight said. “It was like each one had a wedding list for an upmarket department store.”

Although the bones of fish, cattle, sheep and pigs were pulled out of the middens (halos of garbage dumped from the huts above), there was no evidence of human casualties. A young woman’s skull turned up outside a dwelling, but because it had been polished by repeated touch, the researchers decided that it was more likely a keepsake or a ritual decoration than a battle trophy. “Auntie’s skull tacked over the front door,” Knight speculated.

Mosquitoes and Cold Porridge

Interest in Must Farm was first aroused in 1999 when a Cambridge University archaeologist spied a series of oak posts poking out of the beds of clay at the quarry. Dendrochronology dated the poles to prehistory, and excitement grew when preliminary digs unearthed fish traps, bronze swords and spearheads.

The discovery of nine log boats — dugout canoes as long as 28 feet — buried in the muck hinted at the vast wetlands that once blanketed the region. “Boat journeys through reed swamps to the woodlands would have been made many times during the site’s short life,” said Chris Wakefield, the project archaeologist. “In summer, that meant traversing clouds of mosquitoes.”

A large-scale investigation conducted by Cambridge University in 2015 and 2016 exposed the palisade fence, lightweight walkways, the ruins of a roundhouse roof and walls made of woven willow branches called wattle. The way the timbers fell — some vertically, others in eerie, geometric lines — enabled the researchers to map the layout of the circular architecture. One house featured roughly 500 square feet of floor space and seemed to have distinct “activity zones” comparable to rooms in a modern home.

The thatched roofs had three tiers. The base layer of insulating straw was topped by turves — soil formed of dead but not fully decayed plants — and finished with clay, which near the apex of the roof may have formed a chimney or flue. “The people were confident and accomplished homebuilders,” Knight said. “They had a blueprint that worked beautifully for a drowned landscape.”

Stored in what was presumably the kitchen of one residence were bronze knives, wooden platters and clay pots, some of which were even nested. “There was a simple aesthetic at work that felt coherent and unified,” Knight said. A clay bowl bearing the fingerprints of its maker still held its final meal: a wheat-grain porridge mixed with animal fat, possibly from a goat or a red deer. A spatula rested against the inside of the dish.

The craftsmanship of the recovered relics and the presence of log boats, perhaps the only reliable means of transport, 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 fen folk were at the high end of their society and had access to anything available at that time,” Knight said. “At the end of the Bronze Age, the rivers of eastern England were the place to be for trade and connections; sites like Stonehenge were now at the periphery.”

Tale of the Tapeworm

The Must Farm community harvested crops and felled trees on the closest dry land. Sheep and cattle grazed there, too. Boar and deer were hunted in the local woodlands — within a 2-mile radius of the homestead, the researchers reckon. “The irony is that the community wanted to live on water yet their economy was terrestrial,” Knight said.

Evidently, food was so abundant that the villagers all but ignored the fish, eels and water fowl swimming around the foundations of the settlement. With good reason, it turns out: Sanitation was an iffy proposition in the fenlands. Sausage-shaped globs found in the settlement’s murky sediment turned out to be fossils of dog and human feces, many flush with eggs from fish tapeworms and giant kidney worms acquired from foraging in the stagnant waterways. The tapeworms are flat, ribbonlike parasites that coil around the intestines of people and can grow to a length of 30 feet. The kidney worms stop at 3 feet but can destroy vital organs.

Two questions were left unanswered by the otherwise exhaustive Cambridge monographs: Was the blaze the result of an accident, or of an attack by rivals who may have envied the residents’ wealth? And why didn’t any Bronze Agers bother to retrieve all that soggy stuff?

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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