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Bronze Age houses uncovered in Cambridgeshire are Britain's 'Pompeii'

media captionThe BBC's Jo Black reports from the Bronze Age excavation site in Cambridgeshire

Archaeologists say they have uncovered Britain's "Pompeii" after discovering the "best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found" in the country.

The circular wooden houses, built on stilts, form part of a settlement at Must Farm quarry, in Cambridgeshire, and date to about 1000-800 BC.

A fire destroyed the posts, causing the houses to fall into a river where silt helped preserve the contents.

Pots with meals still inside have been found at the site.

Live updates about the dig and more stories from Cambridgeshire

image copyrightCambridge archaeological unit
image captionArchaeologists work on a wooden platform as they uncover the houses
image captionArtist's impression of what one of the roundhouses might have looked like
image copyrightPA
image captionArchaeologist Selina Davenport helped uncover the dwelling

An earlier test trench at the site, near Whittlesey, revealed small cups, bowls and jars.

In addition, archaeologists said "exotic" glass beads that formed part of a necklace "hinted at a sophistication not usually associated with the Bronze Age".

Textiles made from plant fibres such as lime tree bark have also been unearthed.

However, the roundhouses themselves are now being excavated.

Archaeologists think they have found about five houses but are not yet certain.

Bronze Age Europe and Britain

image copyrightBritish Museum Trustees
image captionGold cape discovered in Mold, north Wales - a supreme example of Bronze Age art
  • The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from between 2500 and 2000BC until the use of iron became common, between 800-650BC
  • It came after metalworkers discovered that adding tin to copper produced bronze, used for tools and weaponry which were much more hard-wearing
  • The Greek poems of Homer - though composed later - look back to a time when bronze weapons were used
  • In Britain, the Bronze Age lasted until about 800BC. Use of bronze seems to have coincided with fresh migration of people from the continent.
  • Classic Bronze Age remains include sophisticated axes, precious gold objects, and round burial mounds or "barrows" of which many can still be seen in Britain

The work to uncover the settlement is necessary because there are concerns the water level at the site could fall some time in the future, meaning the remains of the houses cannot be preserved in situ.

image copyrightCambridge Archaeological Unit
image captionThe stilts that held the houses can be seen, together with collapsed roof timbers
image copyrightCambridge Archaeological Unit
image captionThese preserved Bronze Age textiles were made from plant fibres
image copyrightPA
image captionA middle to late Bronze Age dagger was recovered from the site in 1969

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, which is jointly funding the excavation with land owner Forterra, described the settlement and contents as "an extraordinary time capsule".

He added: "A dramatic fire 3,000 years ago, combined with subsequent waterlogged preservation, has left to us a frozen moment in time, which gives us a graphic picture of life in the Bronze Age.

"This site is of international significance and its excavation really will transform our understanding of the period."

image copyrightCambridge Archaeological Unit
image captionAfter analysing pots found at the site, archaeologists found some contained food
image copyrightTwitter
image copyrightPA
image captionHistoric England said the site showed a "frozen moment in time"

'Unsurpassed finds'

David Gibson, from Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which is leading the excavation, said: "So much has been preserved, we can actually see everyday life during the Bronze Age in the round.

"It's prehistoric archaeology in 3D, with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity."

image copyrightCambridge Archaeological Unit
image captionGlass beads found during excavation are thought to have been from a necklace

Well-preserved charred roof timbers of one of the roundhouses are clearly visible, together with timbers showing tool marks and a perimeter of wooden posts known as a palisade, which once enclosed the site.

While a number of Bronze Age settlements have been found in the UK, Mr Gibson said none had been as well-preserved as the Must Farm site.

"Most don't have any timber remaining, just post-holes and marks where posts would have been," he said.

"So far this is unique as we have the roof structure as well."

He said there were some well-preserved similar dwellings at Loch Tay in Perthshire, but these were about 500 years later than those in Cambridgeshire, dating from the early Iron Age.

image copyrightCambridge Archaeological Unit
image captionCharred timbers can be seen lying over a collapsed wall

Archaeologists digging two metres (6ft) below the modern surface at the quarry also found preserved footprints, believed to be from people who once lived there.

Once all the retrieved items have been cleaned and documented they are expected to be put on public display.

Related Topics

  • Archaeology
  • Whittlesey

More on this story

  • Bronze Age houses: What the finds tell us