GALLERY: Extraordinary Bronze Age artefacts discovered at Hanson quarry in Whittlesey

PUBLISHED: 17:17 09 December 2011 | UPDATED: 17:39 09 December 2011

Major archaeology find of several oak tree carved boats dating back 1300BC at Must Farm, Hanson brickyard, Whittlesey.

Major archaeology find of several oak tree carved boats dating back 1300BC at Must Farm, Hanson brickyard, Whittlesey.

Archant

ONE of the best preserved examples of prehistoric river life ever found in Britain has been unearthed at a Fenland quarry - including six logboats some 3,000 years old.

The extraordinary find at Hanson’s quarry in Must Farm, Whittlesey, has doubled the total of Bronze Age logboats found in the UK.

One of the logboats could date from as long ago as 1300BC - making it the oldest ever discovered.

Swords, spears, fish weirs and eel traps have also been found in the ancient water course, which runs along the southern ends of the Flag Fen Basin. It is home to the Oxford Clay that Hanson uses to create its bricks.

Even the stumps of trees, which once lined the river, have been uncovered.

Mark Knight, senior project officer for Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which is carrying out the excavation, said: “It’s archaeology like it’s never been preserved before.”

Mr Knight said that Mark Dunkley, maritime designation officer at English Heritage, described the finds as “rewriting history” when he visited the site.

Archaeologists are now in the middle of the painstaking task of cleaning the logboats, eel traps and fish weirs before they are removed from the channel.

The site is also being scanned with lasers in the hope of creating a 3D model of what the channel would have looked like 3,000 years ago.

Conditions ‘perfect for preservation’

EXCAVATIONS are regularly carried out at the site under Cambridgeshire County Council planning regulations.

Mr Knight said: “The most important aspect of the site is the brickworks, the smoke coming out of Hanson’s chimneys. But we make sure that the archaeology of this landscape is given good treatment prior to the extraction of clay.

“Normally archaeologists use aerial photography or walk an area to find places to excavate but the Bronze Age is too deep below the surface. The only way to discover it is by digging a big hole and the only people or company doing that are Hanson at the brickworks - for the Oxford Clay which Hanson uses it has to dig about 20-30 metres deep.

“So we are making full use of our opportunity to excavate this site. What’s more, the soil is soft and it’s wet - perfect for preservation.”

Mr Knight said: “A group of Bronze Age academics came here two weeks ago and were gobsmacked. Most archaeological sites you go to there is a hole in the ground and an archaeologists will tell you about it. Here, you are standing in a Bronze Age channel looking at it.

“You don’t have to be an archaeologist to savour this.”

He added: “We don’t think we are good archaeologists, we think what we are finding might be typical of the rest of Fenland.

“The channel heads towards Peterborough in one direction and towards March in another - we think excavations will reveal more of the same.

"It’s archaeology like it’s never been preserved before."

Mark Knight, senior project officer for Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

“This couldn’t have happened without the brickworks being here - the brickworks and archaeology are inseparable.”

Kerry Murrell, site director for the excavation, said: “I have never worked on a site like this before. It has been a privilege to do so - everyone who has visited says they want to work here because it is exceptional.

“We will be in this landscape for as long as there is smoke coming from Hanson’s chimneys - and we could find more of the same or something even better next year.”

• THE six logboats discovered are of varying lengths - the longest is 8.3 metres. They are made from a single piece of oak and closed off at one end with a wooden board held in place by a groove.

But one of logboats could be the oldest ever discovered in this country.

Mr Knight said: “One found in Scotland dates from 920-1150BC but we have good evidence that the boat found in our dig is from 1300BC.”

Ms Murrell said: “There’s a chance some of these may crack when we try to lift them out of the ground so we are doing as much as we can while they’re still in the ground to understand how people lived in the Bronze Age.”

Once removed, the logboats will be taken to York Archaeological Trust for conservation and further examination. This will include firing a nail through it - testing its strength.

Mr Knight said: “We can also use dendroarchaeology (study of vegetation remains) so we will know when the tree used to build the boat was felled.”

• TWELVE eel traps have been discovered so far, each of differing shapes and sizes. But only one of the traps still has a top half remaining.

Ms Murrell said: “We are fortunate enough to have found one which has part of the top surviving. We have also found one with what looks like bait inside it.

“Some of them even had handles woven into them - enabling us to imagine people picking them out of the water.”

• NUMEROUS swords, daggers and spears have been recovered from the channel - all carrying evidence along the blades that they were used regularly.

Mr Knight said: “In 1100BC I think you might have wanted to carry a sword with you - and might have used it.

“In the beginning of the Bronze Age people were very mobile. Their community was the Nene. But by the end of the Bronze Age the buildings people were living in were becoming more permanent, they were becoming settled in their landscape. This was their home.”

Mr Knight also said it was possible that some of the boats may have been deliberately sunk. Another possibility was due to a fierce fire, which caused the artefacts to sink rapidly into the peaty Fen waters.

• THE discoveries are the latest in a long line at Must Farm. Last year, a pot filled with food and elaborate textiles were found.

Rare pottery, wooden walkways and bronze tools have been also been revealed previously, as have glass beads which could have been European imports because they were previously unknown to this late Bronze Age.

Hanson has arranged for archaeologists to excavate sites ahead of clay extractions for about 15 years.

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