History

Bronze-Age Wheel Sheds Light on Prehistoric Transport

Dating from 1100-800 BC, the wooden wheel is the latest find from a UK settlement described as Britain's Pompeii.

Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest, largest, most complete wheel ever found in Britain, revealing intriguing Bronze Age technology, Cambridge University announced on Friday.

Dating from 1100-800 BC, the wooden wheel is the latest find from a settlement in the UK county of Cambridgeshire described as Britain's Pompeii.

The site was home to several families who lived in a number of circular wooden houses built on stilts above a river. The settlement was abandoned in haste 3,000 years ago as a dramatic fire caught on the houses. The dwelings fell into the river, where silt and clay preserved the contents.

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The wheel, around three feet in diameter, was no exception. Found near the remains of the largest roundhouse, it is exceptionally well-preserved. Made of five panels of solid timber stitched together, it still has its reinforced hub in the center.

Archaeologists are puzzled as the wheel was found in a marshy area by a river where boats were the most common method of transport. Eight canoes of various sizes were unearthed nearby in 2011.

"The discovery of the wheel demonstrates that the inhabitants of this watery landscape had links to the dry land beyond the river," David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

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The archaeologists hope to find new insights into domestic life 3,000 years ago as the excavation, which is now half way through the four-year project, continues over the coming months.

"Among the wealth of other fabulous artifacts and the new structural remains of round houses built over this river channel, this site continues to amaze and astonish us," Kasia Gdaniec, senior archaeologist for Cambridgeshire County Council, said.

Previous objects unearthed at the site, such as exotic glass beads that were part of an elaborate necklace, suggested "a sophistication not usually associated with the British Bronze Age," according to Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

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"This wheel poses a challenge to our understanding of both Late Bronze Age technological skill and, together with the eight boats recovered from the same river in 2011, transportation," Gdaniec said.

This wooden wheel is the latest find from a settlement in the UK county of Cambridgeshire described as Britain's Pompeii.

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.