The Excavation Transforming Great Britain

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tags: Bronze Age, britain, Archeology

The biggest skies in England loom above the fens, in the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Lincolnshire, on the country’s eastern edge. It is a flat landscape, low-lying and damp; much of the ground sits only a few feet above sea level. From Must Farm, the site of an old clay quarry, four miles east of Peterborough, you can see the squat medieval tower of the city’s cathedral, the hulking mass of a brickworks, and a McCain fries factory. Below the everyday noise—the rumble of the roads and the railway, the whine of the dragline excavator pulling up clay, the cry of the occasional seagull—is the sound of pumps, which work nonstop to keep the land drained. Without them, the fields and quarries would be flooded, either from the sea or from the rivers that flow out into the Wash, an estuary that opens onto the North Sea. Twelve thousand years ago, before the Ice Age ended and the water levels rose, the sea was dry land and Britain was a peninsula, a tail attached to the body of Europe. One could walk from the land now occupied by Peterborough across to the spot where Amsterdam now stands.

Britain’s geology tells a slow and phlegmatic story, but its early human history is opaque. Archeologists know that Stonehenge, its best-known prehistoric monument, was begun in the Neolithic Age, around five thousand years ago, but they have failed to divine its exact purpose and meaning, although theories abound. The island’s Bronze Age, which lasted from 2500 to 800 b.c., saw the appearance of farming and field systems, roundhouses and settlements, and tools and weapons forged from bronze. But compared with the same period in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, Bronze Age Britain feels remote and dumb. It produced no great palace cultures, like Knossos or Mycenae; it left its traces in no Homeric epics. Writing did not arrive until the Romans invaded, in the first century a.d.; before that, Britain was the stuff of travellers’ tales. At the turn of the fourth and third century b.c., the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia wrote the first account, now lost, of the curious people who lived at the northwestern edge of the known world. But their lives are obscure to us; the British Museum’s display on the Bronze Age in Britain doesn’t even fill a whole room. There is a Welsh cape made from gold, dating from somewhere between 1900 and 1600 b.c.; there are swords, and bronze cauldrons and clay dishes with incised decorations. On the whole, however, what is conveyed is an impression of absence rather than presence. Much of the material has been gleaned from burial sites. Archeologists “have known more about Bronze Age people in death than in life,” Neil Wilkin, the museum’s curator of Bronze Age Europe, told me.

Each day, they are making discoveries that are radically expanding the knowledge of Bronze Age Britain.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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