— No one knows why a catastrophic fire tore through the small settlement that rose by a river channel, incinerating the homes of several families and sending burning timbers crashing into the marsh below. It might have been an accident, an attack by enemies or even some sort of ritual.
Yet answers are emerging, piece by piece, some 3,000 years later.
The Must Farm archaeological site here in Cambridgeshire
is considered so rich that it has been compared to Pompeii, the Roman town buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
Must Farm does not look like a picturesque ruin, much less a farm. It occupies raw, muddy terrain with wind turbines and smokestacks towering in the distance. And the bright yellow vests worn by the people involved in the excavation make it look like a construction site.
But its treasures beckon. From the soggy earth, a charred wooden bowl and a ceramic vessel protruded last week, close to the backbone of a cow, presumably butchered for meat. A few feet away, the unmistakable shape of a human skull jutted from the murky sediment in which it had been encased since the Bronze Age.
“The Pompeii analogy that keeps being talked about with this site is true, and it’s also false,” said Mark Knight, the site director. “There is no volcano in this landscape; this wasn’t some natural disaster. But an event, like a big fire, basically caught their everyday life, dropped it into our channel and sealed it there for us to excavate.”
For Mr. Knight and his team from Cambridge University’s Archaeological Unit, this is an exhilarating, yet at times unsettling, experience.
“This doesn’t feel like archaeology,” he said, “this feels intrusive. We have sort of turned up after some tragedy, and we are able to pick through the remains, and get some indication of what was going on in this settlement 3,000 years ago.”
In that way the excavation seems as much a modern-day crime scene investigation as an exploration of prehistory. Among those working here is a fire forensics expert, who hopes to determine where the flames started and how they spread.
The fire swept through at least two round houses, which were built on wooden stilts above a channel connected to the River Nene, and which were bordered by some sort of perimeter.
Like any good detective story, clues advance the narrative: a bowl, complete with wooden spoon and an unfinished meal — a discovery that suggests that whoever lived here left in a hurry. The skull indicates that perhaps not everyone was quick enough.
While many archaeological discoveries depend on luck, this one has benefitted from several strokes of good fortune.
The site was uncovered thanks to the work of Must Farm quarry, run by a construction company called Forterra which, along with Historic England
, a government heritage organization, is financing the excavation. Perhaps only such a large quarrying operation could have removed so much earth across such a wide space and to such a depth, thereby exposing the prehistoric timbers.
The timbers and the items that have been unearthed were preserved by the silt and the water levels in the soil, according to Selina Davenport, a field archaeologist.
The way the wooden posts fell should also make it possible to reconstruct what the structures looked like before the fire broke out, sometime between 920 and 800 B.C.
While some posts stand vertically, many lie in eerie, geometric lines just as they fell 3,000 years ago — charred evidence both of the sophistication of this settlement and of the devastation of the blaze that destroyed it.
Archaeologists have known about the site for some time and had debated what to do with it for more than a decade. Finally, a decision was made to excavate and remove the artifacts because of worries that they would deteriorate.
That has left a huge but exciting task for those digging in freezing temperatures under temporary cover. A team of about a dozen has been working since September and the project is due to finish in April, though that deadline looks ambitious.
For archaeologists, who usually work on smaller, more limited projects, the prospect of gaining a unique snapshot of everyday life in the Bronze Age presents a palpable thrill.
“It’s an amazing window to the other side,” said Iona Robinson, a project supervisor and researcher at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. “We deal with shadows normally, we deal with absences, we are so used to working with 50 percent of the evidence and now — here — we have this fantastic window into the full picture.”
During the Bronze Age, in this boggy environment, waterways formed the only reliable means of transport and communication (nine ancient log boats were discovered near here in 2011), so the site may have been at a sort of crossroads. It may, in fact, be typical of other settlements, still undiscovered, beneath the English fenlands.
From the items recovered so far, it seems that the men and women who lived here were at the high end of their society and established themselves above the waterway because of trade or other opportunities it afforded. That suggests this was a bustling nexus of their world, rather than an outpost at its margins.
The community here had much that was available in prehistoric Britain: textiles, ceramics, spears and a beautifully crafted, sickle-shaped, chopping tool. Beads from Central Europe
have been found, as well as pots like those in northern France
and swords similar to those from northern Spain
All of which makes the question of how this community met its dramatic end all the more intriguing. One possibility is an accidental fire. Another is that it was deliberately destroyed by its occupants, either as an act of ritual, or because the structures had served their purpose and were falling apart. However, the fact that so many possessions were left argues against this.
The third possibility is an attack by hostile neighbors, and the skull is the first sign, according to Mr. Knight, that people may have died violently here.
He cautions that Bronze Age Britons sometime kept the skulls of their ancestors, so it is possible that this was a relic. But digging will soon show whether it is attached to a skeleton.
That thought might conjure images of Pompeii, and the way it preserved the last, desperate moments of its residents, but Must Farm was never destined to become a permanent archaeological site.
Indeed, solving the mystery of what happened is a race against time, and there is only one chance to get it right.
It is perhaps fitting that Must Farm resembles a construction site, because once the artifacts have been removed, the excavation will be filled with soil and broken brick, and the setting of this mysterious and very old settlement will become a roadway.