Considered one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Europe, excavations at Must Farm in Whittlesey have revealed more about what life was really like for our ancestors living 3,000 years ago than ever before – as well as casting new light on the discoveries open to visitors at Flag Fen, just two miles away. And those surprises just keep coming. As a new, free exhibition at Vivacity’s Peterborough Museum puts some of these amazing artefacts on show for the very first time, Vivacity’s Julia Habeshaw, curator of the exhibition, and Cambridge Archaeological Unit’s Mark Knight, Must Farm site director, discuss the exhibition and the site’s significance.

Must Farm first made big news in 2011, when archaeologists investigating an old quarry pit unearthed a wealth of Bronze Age artefacts. ‘In 1999 an upright timber was found at the quarry near Must Farm,’ explains Julia Habeshaw. ‘It was similar to those forming the huge Bronze Age causeway at our site at nearby Flag Fen, so it was known then that there was something there. Experimental trenches were dug in 2004 and 2006, then there was the river channel dig, which turned up the incredible – and now very famous – log boats, as well as elaborate fish weirs and fish traps.’

There were also personal items such as swords and pottery – and not just two or three log boats, but nine. According to lead archaeologist Mark Knight the sheer profusion of finds at the ‘river channel’ caught them completely by surprise.

‘Every time we looked at that channel and those sediments, it turned up log boats, swords, spears, settlements. It’s busy and its rich, so if we went 30km downstream or further into the fens, would we find the same? Those are the implications.’

This part of the story, relating to the river channel, is around the middle Bronze Age – about 1600 to 1300BC. (See Must Farm 2011: Bronze Age River)This was when the river was a deep river and there were field systems around Bradley Fen,’ say Mark. ‘We don’t see much evidence of settlement, but there is a lot of fishing activity, with fish traps and fish weirs and lots of log boats going up and down, with bits of metalwork being deposited into it. It’s that kind of world.’

By the time of more recent pile-dwelling excavation (See Must Farm 2016: Bronze Age Settlement) – which belongs to 1300 to 800BC – the waters have risen. ‘Here we’re looking at a channel that is very shallow, that is silted up and more like a lake with lots of adjacent channels, but with many more signs of occupation. People seem to have made a conscious decision to move out onto those waters. So, the period the exhibition is about is a time when people are living on land but crossing water, and using the rivers as routeways and to fish in, while the next phase of that story is about people actually living on the rivers and settled in the wetlands. The Flag Fen Causeway bridges both those stories. Quite literally!’

Connecting Flag Fen and Must Farm in context

‘At Flag Fen there were no dwellings found, even though we have a reconstructed roundhouse there,’ explains Julia. ‘But there is this enormous causeway – an incredibly long raised wooden walkway. That has a practical function, going from one area of dry ground to another, but it also has this massive platform in the middle of it – the size of Wembley Stadium – and most of the finds from there suggest ritual practices. This is from an earlier date than most of the findings at Must Farm, although they have found timbers there which match the date of the Flag Fen causeway timbers, so there is a continuity between these two sites.’

Cambridge Archaeological Unit is still analysing many of those materials from the platform settlement, and even those that have been analysed are going through conservation. Mark explains: ‘We came off site last August and we’re going to be drawing out the latent detail from those artefacts for the next three years. But with the early channel excavations from 2009- 2012, most of that analysis is now done and we’re at a point where we have an understanding of that landscape. The exhibition focuses on that earlier story of the channel.’

Both Mark and Julia are keen to emphasise the continuity and connectedness of Flag Fen and the two Must Farm sites, all of which have the potential to shed light on each other. According to Mark, ‘The way that we talk about our landscape when in the field or writing up our material is that it is the Flag Fen Basin, with its relationship to the Nene and that whole sense of a wetland landscape. The reason they built a causeway at Flag Fen is the same reason they built at Must Farm, so it’s that relationship; there are things going on at our site that often went on at Flag Fen and vice versa.’

One of the swords excavated at the 2011 Must Farm excavations Credit: CAU
One of the swords excavated at the 2011 Must Farm excavations Credit: CAU

The exhibition will help to bring all these strands together – as well as giving local people first glimpse of some of the extraordinary objects that put the area in the national and international news so many times over the past five years. Julia says: ‘We have many objects from the river channel excavations that have never been on public display before which are really amazing, including swords that were placed into the river – probably as ritual deposition. There are larger Iron Age swords as well as Bronze Age ones, which show, like the boats, that this part of the river was a special place for a long period of time.’

There will also be an item from the more recent excavations at the platform settlement – a pot preserved with its spoon and still containing food. It’s the first time this and the swords have been seen anywhere in the world. In addition to the objects themselves there will be photographs, CGI, film and other interpretation which will bring the finds to life, as well as a series of associated events. ‘I think people will really be able to get a lot out of the stories behind the objects – and the stories behind the excavations,’ says Julia. ‘The opportunity to show these finds in Peterborough Museum, so close to where they were found, is really fantastic.’’

Must Farm: The Story So Far 5 May – 10 September 2017
Peterborough Museum FREE

Please note Peterborough Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday from 10am – 5pm (last entry 4pm) plus Mondays (inc bank holidays) during Peterborough school holidays.

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University of Cambridge