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This Was Village Life in Britain 3,000 Years Ago

Three millenniums ago, a small, prosperous farming community briefly flourished in the freshwater marshes of eastern England. The inhabitants lived in a clutch of thatched roundhouses built on wooden stilts above a channel of the River Nene, which empties into the North Sea. They wore clothes of fine flax linen, with pleats and tasseled hems; bartered for glass and amber beads imported from places as far-flung as present-day Iran; drank from delicate clay poppyhead cups; dined on leg of boar and honey-glazed venison, and fed table scraps to their dogs.

Within a year of its construction, this prehistoric idyll met a dramatic end. A catastrophic fire tore through the compound; the buildings collapsed and the villagers fled, abandoning their garments, tools and weapons. Everything, including the porridge left in cooking pots, crashed through the burning wicker floors into the thick, sticky reed beds below and stayed there. Eventually, the objects sank, hidden and entombed, in more than six feet of oozing peat and silt. The river gradually moved course away from the encampment, but the debris remained intact for nearly 3,000 years, preserving a record of daily life at the end of Britains’s Bronze Age, from 2500 B.C. to 800 B.C.

That frozen moment in time is the subject of two published Tuesday by Cambridge University. Based on a 10-month excavation of what is now known as Must Farm Quarry, a submerged and superbly preserved settlement in the shadow of a potato-chip factory 75 miles north of London, the studies are as detailed as a forensic investigation report of a crime scene. One paper, a site synthesis, runs to 323 pages; the other, for specialists, is nearly 1,000 pages longer.

“This didn’t feel like archaeology,” said Mark Knight, the project director and one of the paper’s authors. “At times, excavating the site felt slightly rude and intrusive, as if we had turned up after a tragedy, picked through someone’s possessions and got a glimpse of what they did one day in 850 B.C.”

The sharpened tip of a post; an amber bead; an axehead in situ.Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Evidence for life in Britain’s Bronze Age has traditionally come from fortified and religious sites that are often found on high, dry landscapes. Most of the clues come as pottery, flint tools and bones. “Generally we have to work with small bits and pieces and barely visible remains of houses, and read between the lines,” said Harry Fokkens, an archaeologist at Leiden University. Convincing anyone that such places were once thriving settlements takes a little imagination.