History

Trove of Bronze Age Textiles Found at Britain's Pompeii

The 3000-year-old site reveals how clothing was made during the Bronze Age.

<p> Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit<span></span></p>

A treasure trove of finely woven textiles has been unearthed during the final part of a 10-month excavation at a site in the UK county of Cambridgeshire which has been described as Britain's Pompeii.

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

Charred in the fire that destroyed the houses and buried in the anaerobic waterlogged environment, the black, fragile textile fragments are some of the most finely-made Bronze Age fabrics ever discovered in Europe.

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The fragments were all found inside the round houses along with plant fibers, balls of thread, and tools for spinning and weaving.

"This illustrates different stages of textile production," Susanna Harris, an expert in fabrics and a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, said.

Some woven textiles are of superfine quality, even by modern standards, with threads around the diameter of coarse human hair (100 microns).

Fired clay weights found in the houses suggest the textile was produced using two clay weights so that the warp threads were held under tension on a loom.

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"We found different types of fabric at Must Farm: woven textiles, a basketry technique called twining (weft twining) and knotted net," Harris told Discovery News.

"The textiles could have been used for clothing, although now they are just fragments. Nets could have been used for fishing, trapping or to carry things. The twining is a coarser material and could have been used for matting or for a range of other things such as containers or household item," Harris added.

Most of the superfine fabrics were made of linen. People used flax, a domesticated crop known to have been farmed in Britain from the Neolithic period onwards.

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But fabrics were also made using wild species available in the local environment, such as the non-stinging fen nettle and lime bast, processed from the inner bark of lime trees.

"The textiles would have been soft and supple," Harris said.

Carried out by the University of Cambridge, the excavation has now come to a close. In the past months, 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.

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

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"This exceptional site allows you visit in exquisite detail everyday life in the Bronze Age," David Gibson, archaeological manager at the University of Cambridge's Archaeological Unit, said.

Apart from textiles, the circular houses contained pots of different sizes, wooden buckets and platters, metal and stone tools for grinding grains, weapons, and glass beads.

"These finds suggest a materialism and sophistication never before seen in a British Bronze Age settlement. Even 3,000 years ago people seemed to have a lot of stuff," the archaeologist said.

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The way the objects were found indicate people were forced to leave everything behind when the houses caught on fire.

They left their clothing, jewelry, tools, furniture, and abandoned the meals in the cooking pots.

It is not known whether it was an accident or fire was set deliberately by hostile forces.

However, tree-ring analysis of the oak structures has suggested that at the time of the fire, the houses were still new and had only been lived in for a few months.

"This site has transformed our knowledge of Bronze Age Britain, and there is more to come as we enter a post-excavation phase of research," Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said. SEE PHOTOS:

The ten-month excavation at Must Farm, a site in the UK county of Cambridgeshire which has been described as Britain's Pompeii, has come to a close. In these months, 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.

Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

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

Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Charred in the fire that destroyed the houses and buried in the anaerobic waterlogged environment, the black, fragile textile fragments are some of the most finely made Bronze Age fabrics ever discovered in Europe.

Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The fragments were all found inside the round houses along with plant fibers, balls of thread, and tools for spinning and weaving.

Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit

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

Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The houses contained a lot of items, including weapons and tools. Here is a bronze socketed axe with a wooden haft, or handle, which shows signs of charring.

Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The way the objects were found in the houses indicate people were forced to leave everything behind when fire caught on the houses. People left their clothing, jewelry, tools and furniture.

Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit

This picture shows charred and amazingly well preserved cereal grains still inside the ceramic pot they were served in. The meals appear to have been abandoned in the cooking pots as the houses caught on fire.

Credit: Dave Webb/ Cambridge Archaeological Unit


It is not known whether it was an accident or fire was set deliberately by hostile forces.

However, tree-ring analysis of the oak structures has suggested that at the time of the fire, the houses were still new and had only been lived in for a few months.

Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit