Everyday Life In A Bronze Age Village Emerges In U.K. Excavation

Jan 12, 2016
Originally published on February 21, 2016 11:16 pm

What did villagers in England eat for dinner 3,000 years ago? And what were they wearing?

These are the kinds of questions that archaeologists believe they can answer with a Bronze Age-era discovery at the Must Farm Quarry, some 80 miles north of London.

"What's special about this is, it's not the archaeology of the important people. It's not burial mounds. This is the archaeology of the home," David Gibson from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit says in an interview with All Things Considered.

Remains of a Bronze Age circular house show inner and outer post rings and collapsed roof timbers "like spokes in a wheel."
Dave Webb / Cambridge Archaeology Unit

The research team says say these circular Bronze Age homes were perched on stilts above a river. Archaeologists believe that when a fire started, the residents fled, and their dwellings sunk into the river where they were preserved by the silt, creating a unique snapshot of everyday life thousands of years ago.

Among this treasure trove are whole pots with food inside, textiles made from plant fibers, a longboat, weapons and colorful beads.

Gibson says they're sending off pots for analysis. "It might even tell us exactly what their last meal was before the fire struck," he says. And somewhat chillingly, "we know it was sudden because one of the pots with the food still had its wooden spoon stuck in it."

Whole pots were preserved inside timber dwellings destroyed by fire. Archaeologists discovered there was still food in some of them.
Dave Webb / Cambridge Archaeology Unit

He adds that they've found 29 complete food vessels and pots, ranging in size from 2 feet high to 2 inches. "It's almost like someone has gone to the department store and ordered the full set for their house," Gibson says.

It's the "best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain," preservation group Historic England says in a statement.

Historic England and the Forterra Quarry are funding this $1,588,000 project over four years.

"Normally, when we do archaeology, we see the decay of a settlement, we see it going out of use, and we see the slow back-fill over time of the ditches and the pits. We don't see a snapshot. So this is almost like, you get the opportunity to peek through the curtains and see people actually in their daily moment," archaeologist Selina Davenport told the BBC.

Archaeologists are still excavating the site. They say the findings will eventually be displayed at nearby museums.

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In a soggy English quarry, archaeologists have uncovered what some are calling Britain's Pompei. It's a Bronze Age settlement preserved in mud. About 3,000 years ago, the settlement had a catastrophic fire. Houses that were built on stilts plunged into a river where they were covered by layers of silt. David Gibson of the Cambridge Archeological Unit is working on digging out the site, and he says what they have uncovered is remarkable.

DAVID GIBSON: What's special about this is it's not the archaeology of the important people. It's not burial mounds. This is the archaeology of the home. Normally when we do an excavation on dry land of Bronze Age houses what you get are a few post holes in the ground. And we as archaeologists essentially join the dots and tell the public what's there. With this, we've actually got the roof. The roof's collapsed into the water and it's preserved. And what we know beneath this is the content of that house. So imagine if you took a modern house and squashed it down into about the space of 50 centimeters, that's what we've got.

SHAPIRO: And what has that told you about the way people lived in this part of England 3,000 years ago?

GIBSON: Well, it's absolutely amazing. Within this one house we've got 29 so far complete food vessels and pots. They range in size from sort of 2-foot high down to 2 inches. So we've got the large jars and storage pots, but we've also got the fine drinking cups. It's almost as though someone's gone to the department store and ordered the full set for their house.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell what people were eating?

GIBSON: At the moment, we've - sending off the pots for analysis, but we know we were going to be able to do this because the fire was so hot that inside the pots the food is vitrified. So at the moment we're looking at things like electron microscopy and also we're going to do lipid analysis, essentially look at the fats that have soaked into the ceramic pots.

SHAPIRO: And how much will that tell you about what's actually in there?

GIBSON: It might even tell us exactly what their last meal was before the fire struck. And we know it was sudden because one of the pots with the food still has its wooden spoon stuck in it.

SHAPIRO: Is there anything you've discovered so far that made you think, wow, I never would've guessed that people were doing that 3,000 years ago?

GIBSON: Well, you know, we've found at least evidence of - we've got 30 pieces of textile, and these aren't plain, drab textiles. These have got, like, decorated hems and tassels on. And so we'll be able to reconstruct exactly what they were wearing, you know, rather than this kind of, you know, guesswork of archaeologists. We'll actually be able to hopefully piece some of these fragments together and get a better idea of how they looked. So we'll know what they were eating, how they looked and, you know, never know, we might even be able to work out what Bronze Age furniture looked like. You know, it's absolutely amazing.

SHAPIRO: Is there any risk that after so many years in the ground exposure to the elements could make these finds deteriorate in 2016?

GIBSON: Well, the thing is things in the ground are always deteriorating over time. And the decision was taken because of the location of this, and concern slightly about its long-term preservation, it was decided to excavate it now under a controlled research excavation and using all the scientific techniques to get the maximum information out now while everything's still well-preserved.

SHAPIRO: So for someone like you who spent your entire career doing this kind of work, how does this feel?

GIBSON: It doesn't get any better than this. This is exceptional. I've been joking with my kids, you know, the last few weeks that, you know, this is the time to retire after this one (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Well, David Gibson of the Cambridge Archeological Unit, congratulations on your extraordinary find. Thanks for telling us about it.

GIBSON: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.