17 July 2016
Ancient textiles shows importance of fashion to Bronze Age Britons
Excavations at Must Farm, 50 kilometres north-west of Cambridge, have unearthed the earliest examples of superfine textiles ever found in Britain - among the most finely-made Bronze Age fabrics ever discovered in Europe. Finds include more than 100 fragments of textile, processed fibre and textile yarn - some of superfine quality, with some threads just 1/10 of a millimetre in diameter and some fabrics with 28 threads per centimetre, fine even by modern standards. Most of the superfine fabrics were made of linen, and hundreds of flax seeds have been found, some of which had been stored in containers. Timber fragments with delicate carpentry may be the remains of looms, and fired clay loom weights have been found.
Some of the textiles had been folded, some in up to 10 layers. These may have been large garments, potentially up to 3 metres square - capes, cloaks, or drapes.
Archaeologists have also discovered a different type of fabric made of processed wild nettle stems from a locally available non-stinging subspecies known as fen nettles. Well-made nettle textile was often particularly fine and silky. In ancient folklore, nettles were often regarded as having magical powers, able to protect humans and animals from sorcery and witchcraft. In one of Europe's most famous folktales, the Wild Swans, shirts made of nettle yarn break a witch's spell.
So far no evidence of any extensive patterns or coloured dyes have been found on any of the textile fragments, although the edge of one seems to have been decorated with fringes, rows of knots, and strips featuring different styles of weave.
As well as making ultra-fine fabrics, at least some of the inhabitants wore exotic jewellery made of blue, black, yellow and green glass manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean. They lived in well-built 6 to 8 metre diameter houses and had a wide range of tools and other possessions. Around 50 bronze axes, sickles, spears, swords, razors, hammers, tweezers and awls have been found along with some 60 wooden buckets, platters and troughs, as well as around 60 well preserved ceramic bowls, mugs and storage jars - the largest collection of complete bronze, wooden and ceramic artefacts ever found in a British Bronze Age settlement.
Dug-out canoes, and two wooden wheels have also been unearthed.
Yet evidence suggests that this settlement was attacked, burnt and destroyed less than a year after it was built. In the five houses excavated so far, people have left all their possessions behind - meals half eaten, salted or dried meat hanging in the rafters, garments neatly folded on or around well-made wooden furniture.
Excavation director Mark Knight says: "It's a bit like discovering the Marie Celeste. Everything is exactly as it was left. Only the inhabitants are missing."
Edited from The Independent (14 July 2016)