The largest and most perfectly preserved bronze age wheel ever discovered in the UK, made of oak planks almost 3,000 years ago, has emerged from a site in Cambridgeshire dubbed a Fenland Pompeii.
“This site is one continuing surprise, but if you had asked me, a perfectly preserved wheel is the last thing I would have expected to find,” said the site director, Mark Knight, from the Cambridge university archaeology unit. “On this site objects never seen anywhere else tend to turn up in multiples, so it’s certainly not impossible we’ll go on to find another even better wheel.”
Archaeologists are carefully excavating the wheel, which was found still attached to its hub and scorched by fire that destroyed the settlement built on stilts over a tributary of the river Nene.
The site was first revealed by the deep pits dug for a brick clay quarry at Must farm, on the outskirts of Peterborough, overlooked by a row of wind turbines and a McCain’s crisps factory.
A neat round hole punched through the wheel was left by a 20th century geologist who inadvertently bored straight through it but could have had no idea of the significance of the timber fragments in his soil sample.
In the fire, possibly started by a cooking blaze that got disastrously out of control some 3,000 years ago, the roundhouses collapsed into the river with all their contents.
The site was abandoned and gradually buried deep below the present ground level, sealed in wet silty clay with all the roof and floor timbers, the woven willow wall panels and sedge thatch eerily well preserved, along with the the bones of the animals they were eating, remains of the last meals carbonised in their cooking pots, textiles, jewellery, benches, boxes and wooden platters, knives, spears and other tools and weapons.
A skull believed to be of a woman remains half buried in the mud, possibly originally casually buried in the river bank just outside the door of the larger house. Some of her teeth have survived so scientific tests may reveal more of the origins of the people.
Knight described the site as by far the best preserved from the period, and archaeologists from all over the world have already come to see it, including a group from Tokyo. There have also been experts much closer at hand. Collar turned up and cap pulled down over his eyes, trying to remain anonymous, Francis Pryor, one of the best-known archaeologists in the country, was paying a discreet visit with his wife, the prehistoric timbers expert Maisie Taylor.
Until now Pryor had the best bronze age wheel in the UK, found at Flag Fen, the site to which he and Taylor devoted decades. His wheel, although older, is smaller and incomplete.
“This is the site I have been looking for all my life,” he said, looking down at the outline of the roundhouses, the neat palisade which surrounded them and the stacked plastic tubs of finds. “This was one of the most prosperous parts of Britain at this date. All the attention has gone to sites like Stonehenge, but they were on the periphery. Economically, this was where it was at.”
The wheel was found lying on top of a massive floor timber – believed to have been part of a third house on the site – and may originally have been hanging on a wall. Knight believes it was probably brought in for repair: “My hunch is that 3,000 years ago there was a cart parked up on the dry land, with a wheel missing.”
He said the discovery was further evidence of how the people of this settlement lived on and in the water and were rich enough to all but ignore the abundant food a few feet away – the fish, eels and water fowl swimming around their foundations.
Instead the bones and food traces reveal that they were eating quantities of lamb, along with pork, beef and venison, and various grains. They clearly had large numbers of domesticated animals pastured on the nearest dry land, and though the superbly preserved log boats found five years ago on another part of the site must have been the main form of transport, the wheel proves that they also had horse drawn carts.
Lizzy Middleton, who has been working on the site since the first trial trenches in 2008, heard the whoop of excitement from a colleague as the wheel was uncovered last week. “But that happens almost every day,” she said “Somebody is always finding something extraordinary.”
The £1.1m excavation, jointly funded by Historic England and the quarry owner, Forterra, was originally intended to finish in late March but with finds still coming thick and fast may be extended. The settlement cannot be preserved in situ in a working quarry, but it is intended to display some of the timbers and the major finds in local museums and at Flag Fen.