Must Farm textile fragment (CAU/Dave Webb)

Must Farm textile fragment (CAU/Dave Webb)

Excavations 30 miles from Cambridge at Must Farm brick pits, near Whittlesea, have unearthed one of the most impressive collections of Late Bronze Age textiles ever to be found in Europe. It is understood that the settlement, which was composed of round houses built on platforms on top of stilts sunk into the river, caught fire and the buildings and contents became submerged in the river.

Among these contents large quantities of clothing have been found. Materials used in their making include lime bast fibres from the inner bark of lime trees, flax and nettles (from the non-stinging fen nettle). Both fabric and prepared fibres have been found in the form of hanks of yarn, spools and balls of thread. Alongside woven textiles, other fabrics have been found made by weft twining – a technique similar to that used in basketry.

The fibres used in the making of these textiles is superior to any other fragments found elsewhere and some have been woven with threads no thicker than a coarse human hair (around 100 microns), and woven with as many as 28 threads per centimetre. Evidence suggests that these super fine textiles, predominantly of linen, were woven within the settlement. Around 100 fragments have been found to date, many of which were folded a number of times and were likely to have originally been large pieces of cloth.

Must Farm textile fragment (CAU/Dave Webb)

Must Farm textile fragment (CAU/Dave Webb)

It is rare for any textile remains to be found from this period because they simply do not survive in dryer condition. However, the combination of charring from the fire and being submerged under water for such a long time has allowed us a precious glimpse into the creation and use of textiles in that period.

It is thought that the people who lived in the settlement rapidly fled when the fire broke out and bowls containing unfinished meals have been unearthed.

Also found within the remains of these houses are the remains of domesticated animals such as sheep which were being given shelter within the settlement. Vitrified cereal grains have been found on the inside of pots and even a wooden spatula with food still adhering to it has been excavated. Among the grains that have been found are fragments of emmer wheat, an early form of cultivated cereal.

Further evidence of farming cereal crops has come to light in the form of turf containing quantities of cereal grains that were used for covering the roofs of the houses.

But alongside these cereal grains, many hundreds of flax seeds have also been found stored in ceramic jars, indicating that the flax used to make the linen textiles were grown here as well.

Close by eight prehistoric log boats have been found, the remains of weirs and fish traps, swords and spears, and bone remains of wild animals.

It is now thought that there are most probably many more of these communities to be discovered lying below the surface of the watery Fens.

Madeleine Jude


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Must Farm article in The Independent