Waterlogged wonders from Must Farm: Bronze Age boats, bowls, boxes and buckets

As an independent wood specialist, I’m spending the day sat at my computer, finalising the text for the waterlogged wood assessment report for the timbers excavated from the Late Bronze Age pile dwelling at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, UK. The excavations at Must Farm and in the surrounding landscape over the last ten years have been truly astonishing, turning up the remains of nine Bronze Age log boats, and – most recently – a breathtakingly well-preserved settlement, built on piles above a river channel. Must Farm is one of those archaeological sites that presents a tangible snapshot of how past lives were lived, beautifully preserved in the anaerobic conditions of the river muds.

Overhead view of the excavation (Courtesy of CAU)

The document I’m working on needs to outline all the waterlogged wood that was excavated and recorded on site, assess its significance as an archaeological assemblage and lay out the case for the analysis that could be carried out. I’m dealing with remains of the wooden structures that once stood at the site, the tools and wooden artefacts that they used in and around their homes, even the woodchips that resulted from building the settlement. All the different material types – pottery, metalwork, bone, textiles, and many others – will have a specialist assessment which will be brought together to produce an overarching document summarising all the discoveries made at the site. The archaeological contractor (Cambridge Archaeological Unit) will then work with Historic England and the developer (Forterra) to decide how to move the project forward into the analysis and publication phase.

Although we’re not carrying out any detailed analysis at the assessment stage, it’s already proving to be a fascinating process. The spatial information is starting to be pulled together in GIS, so we can now ‘see’ a lot of the settlement’s wooden structure on the computer screen. This is essential as it’s a really big assemblage, with about 5000 pieces of wood recorded. I’ve been working closely with Iona Robinson Zeki, one of the site supervisors. Although I was on site a lot, it’s not the same as being there every day and it’s that fine-grained knowledge of the excavation which is now helping to bring the construction of the settlement into sharp focus.

Some of the plan data for Roundhouse 1 (Courtesy of CAU)

We spent a lot of time as a team, talking in the trenches about how the roundhouses were built and, although there’s still a lot we don’t know, it’s great to see some of our ideas and theories down in black and white on the page (well, screen).

Key Structural elements of Roundhouse 1 (Courtesy of CAU)

There are around 170 wooden artefacts which Vicki Herring, CAU’s fantastic illustrator, has drawn. As the artefacts are now all in conservation at York Archaeological Trust, the illustrations are proving an essential resource while pulling together a catalogue of the material.

Wooden beater (Courtesy of Vicki Herring / CAU)

I’m really looking forward to reading the full assessment document and beginning to see all the different strands of evidence come together. Then it will be time to crack on with the analysis, and really get to grips with what the wooden remains can tell us about the lives of the people who lived in this settlement 3000 years ago.

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