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.

Coralie Acheson (MOLA): Mapping the history of Bloomsbury

Probably the very first stage in most commercial archaeological investigations in the UK is in pre-planning when developers request an archaeological assessment (often known as a desk-based  assessment/DBA) to tell them what archaeology there might be on their site and what they might need to do about it. This is my job and it involves a lot of maps.

I’m sure there’s a desk under there somewhere!!

I’m sure there’s a desk under there somewhere!!

Today I was researching a site in Bloomsbury, looking for clues as to what archaeological remains might be on the site, and what archaeological remains might have been removed (because as interesting as 18th century quarry pits are the don’t leave much earlier stuff in place). The area I’m looking at has little evidence for prehistoric activity and was some distance from the Roman and Saxon settlements. During the medieval period it was part of the manor of ‘Blemundsbury’ (sound familiar?) named after the owner in the 13th century, William Blemund. The site is a little way from the medieval village of Lomsbury though so was probably farmland.

We’re lucky in London to have maps going back to the 16th century easily accessible. The first one of these I usually look at is the Agas map of 1560. It has wonderful little details of people as well as buildings. Bloomsbury was pretty rural at this time.


The Agas map. I like to think these dudes are having fun pretending to be birds (as aeroplanes hadn’t been invented!)


During the Civil War defences were being built to defend towns, cities and other strategic points all over the county. London’s are pretty hard to pin down but on Rocque’s map of 1746 you can see the outline of one of the batteries which ran along the northern part of the defences in the gardens of Bedford House, just south of where Russell Square is today! It’s a little bit from my site though so not going to affect my history.

Rocque’s map of 1746

Rocque’s map of 1746

Moving into the 19th century we had a bit of a panic as I found a Baptist chapel lurking ominously near my site. This caused a flurry of overlaying and georeferencing to find out the exact relationship between my site and this chapel. Turns out it was outside the site so no need to fuss. Nonconformist chapels of the late 18th and early 19th century have a tendency to have burials under the floorboards and few, if any, records.

Later 19th century development of the site looks relatively straight forward so I’m going to write up my report to say there is a high potential for post-medieval structural remains and associated features (i.e. foundations and wells!) but not much happening prior to that date except perhaps a bit of quarrying.

So, time for another cuppa and then I’ll get on to assessing what this means when put into the context of what of the proposed development. This will involve looking in detail at the current buildings and how much archaeology their construction is likely to have involved and what might be left now.