Must Farm Bronze Age Timber Platform
Making the extraordinary commonplace? A fresh perspective on the Bronze Age discoveries at Must Farm examining their wider settlement and landscape context.
The Must Farm timber platform, finds from which have been widely publicised, was a Late Bronze Age settlement, standing in a wetland on timber piles. It was destroyed by a catastrophic fire at the beginning of the 1st millennium BC and its remains were preserved by slow-forming river sediments; they now lie some 3m below the surface of the reclaimed Cambridgeshire Fens.
The settlement comprised a row of at least four roundhouses enclosed by an uninterrupted palisade and walkway. In spite of its wetland setting, the settlement appears to have been predominantly ‘dryland’ in character, with terrestrial species making up most of both its faunal and floral assemblages.
The conflagration that destroyed the site was all-consuming, but remarkably, major structural components such as collapsed roof and wall timbers have survived in partial articulation. As a result, the interiors of individual houses have retained many of their original fixtures and fittings (charred furniture, whole pots with food inside them, carbonised textiles) only slightly removed from their original positions.
Excavation of the site is being jointly funded by Historic England and the brick manufacturer Forterra and is being carried out by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, part of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. It is situated at the southern edge of the Must Farm brick pit, an active quarry located at the western end of the Fenland market town of Whittlesey. The platform originally stood on a watercourse in the Flag Fen Basin, which is a small embayment on the western edge of the Fens, close to where the River Nene emerges from the more solid geology around Peterborough.
The site in its wider setting
Media coverage to date has focused primarily on the exceptional levels of preservation, which include some unparalleled discoveries (the largest and oldest complete Bronze Age wheel ever to be found in the UK for example). Less attention has been given to the significance of the site for Bronze Age studies, or to the relevance of its landscape setting.
The site’s relationship to the Flag Fen Basin is crucial as this small area has already generated a series of internationally important Bronze Age discoveries. These have included such features as the Fengate field systems, the Flag Fen post alignment, and the Flag Fen platform, as well large quantities of later Bronze Age metalwork (Pryor 2001).
More recently, landscape-scale excavations around the south-eastern fringes of the basin (at Bradley Fen and Must Farm) have revealed Early Bronze Age burnt mounds and fenced paddocks, mid-2nd millennium BC field systems, and impressive amounts of later Bronze Age metalwork (Knight & Brudenell forthcoming).
Investigation of the former watercourse immediately upstream of the Must Farm timber platform site revealed an astonishingly well-preserved section of Bronze Age water channel, complete with in situ fish weirs, fish traps, at least nine logboats (both whole and partial) and several intact bronze weapons.
Continuing analysis of the Flag Fen Basin’s environmental history has painted a picture of a submerged Holocene landscape that began dry but became increasingly wet; over this time the terrain was transformed from a river valley to an embayment in a fen. Earlier courses of the Nene and its distributaries navigated the basin’s deeper southern levels whilst its middle, which was low-lying, evolved from a floodplain landscape (Neolithic) to a salt marsh one (Early Bronze Age) to a fen (Middle Bronze Age). As a result, the adjacent river valleys acted as conduits for sediment and were progressively swamped.
Evidently, the ever-increasing saturation of the Flag Fen Basin was the catalyst for the construction of the major timber edifices, including long causeways and raised settlements, which have been found at Flag Fen and Must Farm. It is this saturation that has also helped ensure the structures were preserved.
Cult centre or thriving wetland community?
The sheer intensity of activity across the former embayment, combined with the exceptional character of its archaeology, has led a widely-accepted picture to develop in which the Flag Fen Basin was a Bronze Age cult-centre – a place distinct from the ‘everyday’ settlement patterns observed elsewhere (Harding & Healy 2007).
However, the recent discoveries within the Flag Fen Basin, and in particular our excavations of the Must Farm timber platform, are forcing us to rethink our ideas on patterns of settlement in the later Bronze Age. Whilst these are turning some conventional models on their head, they also offer us better ways to understand the comparatively slight traces of contemporary occupation on the adjacent dryland – such as at Fengate and Bradley Fen. In coming to terms with these new discoveries, we may have to concede that some aspects of the discoveries in the basin may be less exceptional than was once supposed, especially in relation to the large Flag Fen platform.
The picture now emerging is not one of a specialised cult-centre in the heart of the basin, but of a wetland that supported a thriving community. Nevertheless, there remains the danger that wetland settlement ‘specialisation’ will be heralded as the new unique feature of this landscape, in spite of the fact that the patterns of settlement that now present themselves appear to mirror those associated with, for example, major river valleys.
The reasons for the development of such settlements are complex, but access to a river as the means by which bronzes (as well as other commodities) could be traded along exchange networks was almost certainly a major draw for communities. For example, access to these networks and the need to control watercourses is often cited as the principal reason why occupation began to take hold at this time on eyots and islands in the Thames, including sites such as Runnymede Bridge (Needham 1991) and Wallingford (Cromarty et al 2006). Owing to their low-lying nature, these sites appear to be unlikely choices for settlement, yet they were the context for intense periods of activity, judging by the wealth of finds they produced.
The same might be argued for wetland sites, such as the settlements in the Flag Fen Basin. The only difference here was that occupation required the deliberate colonisation of a wetland environment in order to maintain proximity to the watercourses of the River Nene, rather than the occupation of, say, a low-lying site near to a river.
This interpretation is strikingly different to the conventional story of the landscape development of the Flag Fen Basin, but it does seem to fit the evidence at least as well. It offers an explanation for the paucity of settlement remains on the fringes of the basin and a context for understanding the massive investment in structures near to and above the basin’s watercourses. It also enables us to see these patterns as comparable to those identified elsewhere in southern Britain, meaning that we do not have to frame this locality as an extraordinary ‘cult-centre’; instead we should concentrate our attention on the richly detailed picture of everyday life provided by the site.
This interpretation also enables us to qualify the deterministic role we often ascribe to the fenland environment. Communities were clearly quite capable of settling in these newly formed wetland spaces. In spite of the rising water-table in the late 2nd and early 1st millennium BC, people were not forced out of the basin interior. Indeed the decision to stay appears to have been determined by concerns shared by people in other parts of southern Britain at this time.
Mark Knight is a Senior Project Officer for the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. His specialism is prehistoric landscapes, in particular the deeply buried landscapes 'distinctive' to fenland. He is a prehistoric pottery specialist, but most of all his interest lies in clarifying later prehistoric contexts of habitation and mobility. He is director of the Must Farm timber platform excavations.
Cromarty, A M, Barclay, A, Lambrick, G and Robinson, M 2006 Late Bronze Age Ritual and Habitation on a Thames Eyot at Whitecross Farm, Wallingford: The Archaeology of the Wallingford Bypass 1986–92 (Thames Valley Landscapes Monograph 22), Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology
Harding, J and Healy, F 2007 The Raunds Area Project: A Neolithic and Bronze Age Landscape in Northamptonshire. Swindon: English Heritage
Knight, M and Brudenell, M forthcoming Pattern & Process: Landscape Prehistories from Whittlesey Brick Pits – The King’s Dyke and Bradley Fen Excavations 1998–2004 (CAU Flag Fen Basin Depth and Time Series 1). Cambridge: Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Needham, S P 1991 Excavation and Salvage at Runnymede Bridge, 1978: The Late Bronze Age Waterfront Site. London: British Museum
Pryor, F 2001 The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape. Swindon: English Heritage
This page was first published on 30 June 2016