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Bronze Age Britain


Almost 3,000 years ago, on a marshland about three hours north of modern-day London, a small settlement was built. It consisted of a few houses surrounded by a wall with spiky outposts. Despite the fortifications, the settlement did not last long, only about a year, before it was destroyed by a fire. As short-lived as it was, the settlement is now revealing amazing details about life in Bronze Age Britain. The Must Farm settlement, as the site is known, has been called Britain's Pompeii because even though the inhabitants left no written records, they left plenty of artifacts. Archaeologists have been excavating the site for years, trying to get a glimpse into domestic life of the era. And this week a team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit published two massive studies, over 1,000 pages' worth of findings about this. Chris Wakefield is one of the archaeologists who excavated the site. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRIS WAKEFIELD: Hi there. Great to speak to you.

DETROW: Well, let's immediately rewind about 3,000 years. Tell me about the Bronze Age. What years are we talking about and what was life generally like then in Britain?

WAKEFIELD: So the Must Farm settlement that we've had the privilege of excavating is from the late Bronze Age, so the kind of later part of that period. So we're talking about 850 B.C. So this is a period after the kind of the Neolithic - so people might be familiar with Stonehenge. So this is a period where people are first domesticating crops and animals. They're using pottery for the first time. So it's sandwiched between that period and then the kind of arrival of the Iron Age and the kind of spread of the Roman Empire through Europe. So we're kind of in this period where a lot of people don't really know much about it, but it's thanks to sites like this that were really able to kind of understand what day-to-day life would have been like for the inhabitants of this particular settlement.

DETROW: So we're talking after Stonehenge, before the Roman Empire here?

WAKEFIELD: Exactly. Yeah, that's perfect. So in terms of what life would have been like, we know from the archaeology at this particular site that - you know, it's very easy for us to kind of assume that people from 3,000 years ago are going to be pretty primitive. They're going to be really focused on trying to survive. But actually, it seems to be that they've got a great set of architecture here that's perfectly suited for living over a watery river channel in this kind of marshy environment, and they're really kind of choosing what they want to eat. They're picking the kind of different foodstuffs that they want. And what makes this really exciting is that we actually have bowls of food that have survived in the ground from 850 B.C., so we're actually able to get an idea of the recipes that they're actually eating at this particular time.

DETROW: Tell me a little bit about the menu because, I mean, honestly, it sounded good to me. From what I read, it sounded tasty.

WAKEFIELD: Yeah. I mean, it's brilliant. So there are some things that sound quite palatable today. So we've got things like mixtures of honey and venison, which I can imagine eating in a sort of quite fancy restaurant. But there are other areas that are a little bit different. So we're imagining kind of porridges, so oatmeal-type things made with emmer wheat, but they're mixing in kind of meaty sort of juices from the cooking to kind of make a sort of quite thick stew there, which to be honest, I don't really like the sound of that quite as much.

DETROW: That's true. I guess I was focusing on the honey venison when I said that.

WAKEFIELD: Yeah, I mean, definitely that - to me, I mean, you know, I'd certainly pay for that in a restaurant.

DETROW: But I mean, tell me a little bit of how you've been able to reimagine what these homes look like and some of the activity that you're pretty sure was going on in these homes.

WAKEFIELD: So a big part of that picture is the quality of the preservation that we've got here. So you mentioned before that there's a fire that's kind of the cause of the destruction of the site, and that fire charred loads and loads of the material, including the timbers that were used to build those structures. And that charring and burning kind of creates this sort of shield around the - those artifacts and those objects. It provides a kind of layer that helps to prevent that material from rotting away. And then that material falls down into the river over which these stilted houses are built. And that combination of the fire and the waterlogging, which prevents oxygen from getting to it, basically leaves us with things we would never normally find in archaeological contexts.

And it almost feels a little bit like we're kind of going next door and being shown around a house by a realtor, but it's a house that's from 3,000 years ago, effectively. So we know that as we walk through the door in the kind of northeast area, we've got kitchens, we've got cooking going on. To the southwest, we've actually got live sheep living inside the structures and going to the toilet in there as well, which, again, maybe sort of reveals a little bit that hygiene standards might have been a little bit different. But at the same time, it's quite a cozy, quite a comfortable space. It's full of stuff as well. So, you know, it's kind of cluttered with all the different parts, all of their kind of toolkits, all of the metalwork that they would have been using to kind of work wood and make textiles. So it's a really, really rich, vibrant atmosphere.

DETROW: Is there one item that really has stayed in your mind as the most interesting to you or the most memorable to you that was discovered as part of this?

WAKEFIELD: I mean, one of the things that really stands out for me is we found this incredible bronze axe that they would have used to build the settlement. And this was - all of the wooden handles had been preserved. And what was really amazing about this is that it was made in such a way that you could swap in different axe heads really easily in the same way you might have a screwdriver that takes multiple heads. So it's kind of a - sort of almost feels like a sort of 3,000-year-old multitool that, you know, they've got the kind of technology there that they can just craft this and use it really, really easily. And actually, it's one of the things that really shows us how sophisticated these people really were.

DETROW: You know, you've spent so much time going through the findings, trying to make sense of them. As you've thought about these people's lives, how close do you feel to them? How many similarities do you think there are between modern life and what life was going like 3,000-some years ago?

WAKEFIELD: I mean, that is a great question. And I think the really key thing is that it's - there's way more than you would think. So one of the things I love about being an archaeologist is when we kind of dig this material up from the ground, you're the first person to touch that since the people who were using it 3,000 years ago. And there are so many things that are familiar to me. So we know that they were keeping pet dogs in their houses. They were probably feeding them their leftovers - from the preserved dog poop that we've actually found in those structures. So, you know, the kind of familiarity that you kind of - you can almost see a living space with a kind of a dog curled up, snoozing in the corner of one of these houses.

Or there are instances where we know that they were doing food preparation. They didn't have anything really convenient to hand to do some chopping on. So they grabbed a wooden bucket from nearby, turned it upside down and used it as kind of an impromptu chopping board. And it's those little moments that you can identify that really bring you closer to those people that were living there. And like I say, there are so many great connections to those people that are really familiar. So, for example, around the outside of the settlement on the edge of this river channel, we've even got the footprints of the people who were walking around that have been preserved in the mud there, and they're a modern-day size 10 shoe.

DETROW: So you've analyzed the site for about a decade now. The findings have just been published. What's next? What is the next step in trying to better understand this period of time?

WAKEFIELD: So what's really interesting about Must Farm is that it's a one-off at the moment. This is the kind of only settlement of this particular type that we've got from this period in the U.K. But everything about the archaeology of the site suggests that this isn't just a one-off. The way that it's been built, the architecture, everything suggests that this is one of a - many, many more of these. But the challenge for us is actually that these are buried usually a depth that archaeologists don't normally get to dig to. So we're really hoping that in the next 20 or 30 years, archaeological exploration will reveal more of this kind of settlement, and that will help us to build an even better picture of how these would have been distributed around that landscape.

DETROW: That's Chris Wakefield, one of the archaeologists who worked on excavating this remarkable Bronze Age village. Thank you so much.

WAKEFIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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