'Britain's Pompeii' Found at Bronze Age Settlement

When fire collapsed a settlement into a river, silt and clay preserved signs of life some 3,000 years ago.

Britain's "Pompeii" has emerged in the UK county of Cambridgeshire as archaeologists unearthed incredibly well-preserved Bronze Age dwellings abandoned in haste by their inhabitants.

The excavation, carried out at a quarry in Peterborough by Historic England and the University of Cambridge, provides an extraordinary insight into domestic life 3,000 years ago.

Dating to the end of the Bronze Age (1200-800 BC), the settlement was home to several families who lived in a number of circular wooden houses built on stilts above a river.

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A fire destroyed the settlement causing the houses to fall into the river, where silt and clay preserved the contents.

"It's a frozen moment in time," Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said.

"We are learning more about the food our ancestors ate, and the pottery they used to cook and serve it ... This site is of international significance and its excavation really will transform our understanding of the period," he added.

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Archaeologists found an extraordinary time capsule buried just over six feet below the ground surface, where the river bed actually was in 1000-800 BC. It contained textiles, small cups, bowls and jars complete with past meals still inside.

Such is the level of preservation that the footprints of those living there are still visible in the waterlogged sediments.

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The archaeologists also found exotic glass beads that were part of an elaborate necklace, suggesting "a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age," Cambridge Archaeological Unit said in a statement.

The way the objects were found indicate people were forced to leave everything behind when fire caught on the houses. It is not known yet whether it was an accident or fire was set deliberately by hostile forces.

The archaeologists expect to find much more as the excavation, which is now half way through the four-year project, continues over the coming months.

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"Usually at a Later Bronze Age period site you get pits, post-holes and maybe one or two really exciting metal finds," David Gibson, archaeological manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, said.

"But this time so much more has been preserved – we can actually see everyday life during the Bronze Age in the round. It's prehistoric archaeology in 3D with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity," he added.

Collapsed roof timbers are seen at the site of a well-preserved Bronze Age dwelling at a quarry in Peterborough.

Nearly 2,000 years after Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii in ash and pumice, advanced imaging technology is bringing to life the victims of the devastating eruption. The CT scanning of the remains has been made possible thanks to a technique devised in 1863 by the archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli that produced plaster casts of bodies and objects buried under the ash.

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It is believed that about 2,000 people died in Pompeii, yet only 1,150 individuals have been discovered since the mid 19th-century excavations. As Pompeii was buried under 8 to 9 feet of material, bodies were encased in layers of hardened pumice and ash. Fiorelli's team found that their decayed corpses left voids. They poured plaster into the cavities, creating plaster casts of the impression in the ash. Such pictures of horror and death are now being investigated for the first time with a 16-layer CAT technology provided by Philips Spa Healthcare.

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In an unprecedented investigation, a team of researchers under the appointment of the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia began CT scanning the 86 plaster casts made by Fiorelli. Among the victims scanned was a boy, about four years old, frozen in terror. "Working with these casts was extremely moving, it felt like I was dealing with real patients," Giovanni Babino, the radiologist in charge of the project said.

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The boy was found next to an adult male and female, likely his parents, and to an infant who appeared to be asleep on his mother's lap. CT scans revealed his clothes and striking details of his skeleton. The investigation also showed that many victims, who were rushing out of their houses in a desperate attempt to escape, were killed by severe head injuries, most likely rubble that fell from collapsing buildings and roofs.

The initial results further suggest that Pompeii's people were rather healthy and blessed with nearly perfect teeth. Few of them suffered from cavities, Elisa Vanacore, a dental expert, said. "They ate a lot of fruit and vegetables but very little sugar," she told reporters. High levels of fluoride in the water that supplied Pompeii also helped.

So far, the researchers have scanned 30 casts of men, women, children, a boar and a dog. Convulsed in the last moments of life, the cast of the dog was found to contain no bones. The archaeologists believe the bones were possibly removed from the cavity prior to the Fiorelli casting process. The project is a "great step forward in our knowledge of antiquity," according to the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii Massimo Osanna. "We are going to know a lot about the victims of Pompeii: their age, sex, what they ate, what diseases they had and their social class," he told reporters.