Nearly 3000 years ago, fire swept through a settlement of wooden dwellings built on stilts in the Fens of eastern England. The buildings collapsed into the silt, and were only rediscovered in 1999.
Dubbed Britain’s Pompeii, the extraordinarily well-preserved site gives an unprecedented glimpse of daily life in the late Bronze age. But the timeframe of its construction and demise was unknown. Now an analysis of the site shows that the settlement had only existed for a year.
The fire was a tragedy for the inhabitants but lucky for archaeologists. The silt preserved not only the structure but also the everyday items not usually found in the prehistoric archaeological record, including 180 textile items, remains of food in pots and faeces.
“We can see where things had been lost between the floorboards, textiles being made on the loom. There is a completeness about inventory of the settlement,” says Mark Knight at the University of Cambridge, who directed the excavations.
To find out how long the settlement had existed, the archaeologists pieced together different strands of evidence. Analysis of the tree rings from the timbers showed they were fresh. “We think that the wood was still green,” says Knight. Wood chips from the construction of the buildings were found around the site, but very little detritus from human occupation.
The absence of wood-boring insects and fleas indicates that there hadn’t been enough time for these creatures to colonise the buildings. Together, the evidence indicates that the site only existed for a year, perhaps even less.
No-one seems to have died in the fire. “We half expected to find bodies underneath the roof. That really would have been a Pompeii moment,” says Knight. “Our interpretation is that the occupants did a runner. They got out.”
To find out more, a fire investigator is working on the charring patterns, to establish where the fire started and how it spread. The settlement could have been torched by rivals, or the occupants could have instigated the fire themselves, says Knight. “They could have torched it themselves in some grand gesture”.
Journal reference: Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.38
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