Saturday 6 August 2016

New Windows into Prehistoric Life: Thoughts on "Britain's Pompeii"

A programme recently broadcast by the BBC (and still available, to UK viewers, at least, on I-Player until the end of August), provides a timely update on one of the most exciting archaeological excavations to have taken place on these islands during my lifetime. "Britain's Pompeii - A Village Lost in Time" charts the progress of excavations at Must Farm, Cambridgeshire, where a farmstead of the Late Bronze Age (c1000-800 BC) is being unearthed. The four circular buildings, built on a platform jutting out over a river, burned down (or may have been torched by an enemy), and collapsed directly into the water, allowing for unprecedented preservation of wood, fabric, and other organic materials. Progress can be followed on the project website.

Excavations at Must Farm. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).
Excavations at Must Farm. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).
Excavations at Must Farm. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).

In my novel, Undreamed Shores, the character of Arthmael (based on a real archaeological skeleton known as "the Amesbury Archer"), living at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, explains to my protagonist, Amzai, how he met his wife, Alaudina (the mother of Amzai's prospective bride, Nanti), in the fenlands of East Anglia:

" ... there are marshes that stretch for miles, and the people live on eels and duck, and strange plants that grow in the water, like reeds. It's easier to get around by boat than on foot in that place. That's where Nanti was born."

Later Arthmael speaks of his own, far more distant, homeland (analysis of the Amesbury Archer's teeth has shown that he grew up in central Europe):

"Arthmael told of his homeland, of the village where he had been born. It was built on wooden poles, set on the edge of a great lake, with two high mountains rising behind it, their summits covered by snow, even in the summer."

The place I had in mind was Lake Constance in Germany, where such settlements have indeed been found.

Reconstruction of a Bronze Age "pile-dwelling" on the shores of Lake Constance, Germany. Photo: Traveler100 (licensed under GNU).

The settlement at Must Farm is the first true "pile-dwelling" found in Britain, built in much the same way as the settlements around Lake Constance, and elsewhere in Germany, Switzerland and eastern France, but with circular, rather than rectangular, houses. The people who built it lived at least 1400 years after the Amesbury Archer (they might, perhaps, have been the 56-times-great-grandchildren of Alaudina's sister), yet, remarkably, they seem to have been enmeshed in a network of international contacts and exchange that had endured since his time. Artefacts found at Must Farm suggest that this network extended not only into central, but also into southern Europe: they include glass beads which may have been made in northern Italy.

It will be some considerable time before Must Farm reveals all of its secrets: excavation, which is still ongoing, is just the first stage in the research process. It will take much longer to analyse the food residues found in pottery bowls; the human and animal faeces discovered behind the houses; the carpentry techniques used to build the platform, and the houses themselves; the fragments of woven textiles that are emerging from the mud even as I write this post.

Already, however, there are some hints, which are changing the way in which we understand this period in Britain's history. The characters in Undreamed Shores neither ride horses nor use wheeled transport: the people who lived at Must Farm almost certainly did both (a wooden wheel is one of the most significant discoveries announced to date). Arthmael and Nanti wear clothes of fur, leather, and woven wool: the people of Must Farm seem to have been using another important resource - linen, made from flax - the earliest evidence for this on the British Isles. This is a subject on which I will have more to say in a later post, not least because this is an industry with which I have a tangible, and much more recent, familial connection.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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