Friday 16 March 2012

Must Farm, Whittlesey. Archaeological heaven in Fenland.

When you teach history at school, it starts with the Normans, in the main. You might get a little tickle of Vikings and Saxons in primary school, but History Proper starts with William I, and he was French. There's a necessary nod to the Romans, but they're, well, the Romans. You can't ignore them. They built the roads. But the rest of British Pre-history is swept aside in a gallop that lasts three years from the Normans in Year 7 to defeating the Nazis and living a Cold War in Year 9.  Even Schama, who professes to tell "Our island story" and , along with Niall Ferguson, declaims a desire to re-introduce a love of History and narrative to history in schools, relegates pre-history society to one measly chapter in his 4 volume story that is 10% mesolithic-iron age and 90% Romans. Think about it. Neolithic-Bronze age equates to 8000-800BC. It's a LONG TIME to ignore. But it's just people in loinclothes eating mud, right? Till the Romans came along?

Er, no. But most assuredly, apart from that tranche of people who admire that long haired Scottish TV historian who pops up for pre-history on the odd occaision,  for varied reasons, this is what a large amount of people think. Civilization, farming, clothing, probably speech, started with the Romans. Except not. Complex communities, trading between countries, wars, farming, were undoubtedly happening before togas appeared. And Fenland is uniquely placed to show just how amazing these pre-history societies were.

Bronze age scythe. I love the screw hole.
A fantastic combination of geology and business has combined to preserve, and then explore, one of the biggest Bronze age and earlier archaeological sites in the UK, if not Europe. Must Farm, in Whittlesey, is owned by Hansons, the brick makers, who use it as a quarry for the Fenland Blue Clay. Hansons are able to dig deep, way down below the usual scoping trenches offered in a planning application, and way, way back, the first inklings that Must Farm held something special were proven correct when the Bronze age platform, a bridge between islands, was revealed in 2006. Since then, the dig has thrown so much pre-history wide open that academia will have to seriously reconsider some of the perceptions of Bronze Age life. The site  is a gigantic 3D experience, with a Bronze Age River channel, and digs revealing land back to a Mesolithic base, sloping seawards.  The dig aims to push further back. What becomes apparent is that Fenland was not ever thus: it was once dry and forested, then wet, then dry, then wet.(I think i've got that right....) In the Bronze age, the (vast) time period that the majority of the dig currently focuses on, the population existed on islands, with bridges between them.

Riverbed, showing fishing traps.
It is at once clear, as soon as you walk into the dig area, that these people were canny workers, exploiting the landscape. The river channel, although dry, is nonetheless clearly indicative of a working community, and you can see instantly how the river was utilised. The boats lie there, the channel is regularly dotted with fish traps and weirs. These could be contemporary, a mediveal, early modern and aquatically inclined fenlander of today could recognise, and use the fish traps, and probably make them. Effective then, effective now. It feels, in fact, as if the river has simply drained away, and if you whipped round the bend quick enough you might catch the last Bronze Age fisherman paddling away in his longboat. Of which there are many.

Longboats had been found, in Bradly Fen, and Peterborough, but not in this joyous amount. 8 so far and counting, this is clearly a race of water babies, and possibly seafaring ones (much of the Bronze age finds here relate to those found in Norway, there may well have been a link betwen the cultures, they may well have been, in fact, one culture). The boats are dug out, not fired out, mostly oak (with 2 ash) and carved. The flotilla contains probably one of the earliest examples of a log boat made from a single trunk, with a separate panel for the rear. Even to a complete novice like me, they can't fail to impress.

A great deal of domestic pottery, textile and implements have been found, including farming tools and cookware, all beautifully preserved, due to the clay and, a ruddy great fire. (The pot to the right shows food still carbonised in the pot). The platform bridge and the surrounds were quite clearly burnt in a huge fire at some point, and what we can't know, of course is why.Cooking gone wrong, or attack? When you look at the huge array of weaponry found, you can't help but think that the times were perhaps less calm than "Time Team" might have you believe. Less building bridges to meet and trade, than to attack and defend. There are hundreds of finds lining the dig,  some swords nicked and clashed with signs of battle,and this, combined with the amount of bone found in  the river channel, may lead you to conclude that it wasn't always farming and fishing the community concentrated on. No burial chambers or sites have been found, but plenty of bone and ceremonially broken swords in the river,  leading you to ponder whether the river was also a cemetary as well as dinner source.

Rapier. Not for playing with.
After a stomp around, and an enthusiastic commentary from Mark, the CAU chap, it was impossible to feel anything other than awe at the site, which is surely unique in Europe. Nowhere but Fenland has such a geological past, and nowhere else can you go back this far and cleanly to the past. The mussell shells I picked up from the river bed were from 800BC, but fresh. The gravel we trod on at one point was mesolithic. The clay pits have preserved it all. And industry has made this dig possible. Without our modern expansion and pressing need for brick and new housing, the quarry would not be here. The history would remain buried. And we need the development to go on for the dig to go on, which is funded purely by Hansons, as part of the dvelopment procedure. And they more they find, the more it costs. The more they find, the more important it becomes to continue. There is an almost impossible balancing act between the needs of business and the needs of the dig, but thus far it's holding. Mark was openly grateful to Hansons for the efforts they had made to accomodate the archaeology, and when you are onsite it's not hard to see why; it's a massive undertaking and the costs of keeping a Bronze Age boat preserved are not small.  But Hansons need people to keep buying bricks (and have recently laid people off) and need development to continue, for the quarry, and the dig, to continue. There is much much more to find, so I found myself in the unlikely position of wishing for some more toytown housing pods to pop up merely so I can see what else they dig up.

Oak longboat
What they dig and have dug up will be, eventually, housed in a variety of homes, most likely Cambridge archaeology and anthropology musuem, Whittlesey museum, and Flag Fen musuem and centre, so you will be able to see a lot of it. What I would like to see is a co-ordinated effort to ensure that the finds are part of an overview of Fenland aracheology, properly promoted and funded, so that tourists visit and locals are proud of what they walk on. I'd like to see the research published, and academia interested. Academic and business money is needed here. Fenland, lord knows, whilst a beautiful place when  you've got a ken for it, is not a universally acknowledge visitor attraction, it's no Norfolk Broads, but in Must Farm we see a frankly amazing heritage that is little understood and unexploited. I'd like to see schools on board, the local history section of GCSE focusing on the Bronze Age. I'd basically, just like to see it again. And catch a Bronze Age fisherman out of the corner of my eye.

 Map showing the platform (bridges) between islands, and the river channel in blue. Sword deposisitions are marked in yellow. Quite a bit of defending and fighting round bridges going on, I surmise !

You can see my flickr set of the visit here:


Unknown said...

Thanks for this. Fascinating and an education for somebody whose school history amounted to not much more than the industrial revolution.

Fenwitters said...

If you get the chance to go, do! The U3A have been, and I believe they are taking another group from March museum soon. I'm sure you did more than the Industrial Revolution, it's just that it *feels* as if that's all you did......Textile mills can only hold interest for so long!