Archaeological experiences from Must Farm excavation project

by Yun Chiang on 21 January 2016

Must Farm SiteMust Farm is situated in the middle of a working quarry at Whittlesey, Peterborough, which is almost on the doorstep of Cambridge. It may be hard to imagine there is a Late Bronze Age (LBA) settlement sitting underneath a 21st century brickwork. But that is the case at Must Farm. Modern construction has dug up a big deep hole that creates a window that lets us look into the lives of people 3000 years ago (the site was dated to 800-1000 BC using radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology; although not every part of the site has the same dates, they generally fall into the range of the LBA).

The Archaeology Department organised a fieldtrip to Must Farm at the end of October when the project had just started. At first sight, I could not believe I was seeing an archaeological site. Structural timbers are everywhere and there is a clear line of palisades in the north part. Broadly speaking archaeological evidence is often fragmentary, and what archaeologists expect to see on settlement sites are mostly postholes, pits, or inorganic artifacts for example pottery sherds or bone tools. Organic materials for example timbers and textiles generally do not survive since that is determined by burial environments and by climate. I was amazed by the well-preserved wood mass at Must Farm – the surviving timbers make it more similar to a ruin than an excavation site. Although some archaeological sites are extremely well-preserved in particular environmental conditions for example arid and hot Egypt or the ‘ghost ship’ in the sandy soil of Sutton Hoo, Must Farm is unique since it is not only buried in a waterlogged environment, but it was also burnt. From the charred timbers and other existing evidence, Must Farm’s current working theory is that the roundhouses were brought down by a fire and then collapsed into the river. The fire event led to the carbonization of timbers, which transformed them from an organic to inorganic form. There is a limited amount of oxygen in a waterlogged environment, which is an extra bonus to the preservation.

Excavation site at Must FarmRiver silts are beneficial in terms of preservation, but they can be tricky (or sticky) when they have to be removed to expose more timber structure. For me it was quite challenging, almost like peeling chocolate icing from a chocolate cake. My first excavation was on a dry tell settlement in Hungary, so it took me some time to become familiar with the texture of the soil and to learn how to use my trowel more effectively. One problem with waterlogged timbers is that they can be fragile, since the cell walls of the wood can easily deteriorate after being uncovered. The timbers require delicate handling, and it is important to spray them to keep the moisture in. The highlight of my digging was the discovery of a vertebrate. Judging from the robustness and size of the bone, it is possible that it is a cow’s spine. Personally this was my dream come true. I hadn’t excavated bones before, but I had always wanted to dig up a skeleton. I feel really lucky to have had the opportunities to experience both dry and waterlogged Bronze Age settlement sites. Both were rewarding experiences. For me dryland sites are about being sensitive to changes of colours or texture of the soil. This is because burnt patches or clay concentrations indicate a possible presence of occupation deposits which can help archaeologists find a floor. It is equally amazing to see how different natural formation processes affect the preservation of material remains.

Must Hill excavation siteBut Must Farm is more than wonderful preservation. The level of detail is astonishing. Archaeologists are able to observe cut marks directly on structural timbers. This is helpful since through cut marks archaeologists can understand how LBA people built the roundhouses and what kinds of techniques they used. This sophistication also produces a rich context. Contextual evidence has a dominant place in archaeological studies. Ian Hodder emphasised that interpretations archaeologists make about the past have a temporal and spatial particularity. In other words, for Hodder it is crucial to put material remains back in their contexts. Unfortunately, contexts are not always that well preserved or archaeologically visible on site. However, this is not a problem at Must Farm, because the original context of the settlement is ‘frozen in time’. The contexts of the Must Farm round houses may help archaeologists understand more about agency, social organisation or regional interaction in the LBA. The LBA is a mysterious period which shows an organisational complexity spanning from segmentary societies, chiefdoms, to archaic states. At Must Farm it is evident that there was a certain social organisation determining the LBA people’s lives. It requires cooperation to construct such a large scale of round houses (estimates show that the houses can accommodate up to 50 people). The glass bead found on site also shows connections with the near continent. The possible form of social organisation in prehistoric Britain remains unknown, but hopefully, excavation at Must Farm can lift the curtain on the mysterious daily lives of Bronze Age people.

I am truly grateful to Professor Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and all the people I met at Must Farm. I really had a great time. I was quite happy giving up completing all the missions of my videogames and going digging instead. I heartily recommend that you follow Must Farm on their social media, there are more amazing things coming up (insider information).        

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