Discovery of huge Bronze Age wheel sheds light on transport in prehistoric Britain

At a full metre in diameter, the wheel is one of the largest Bronze Age examples ever unearthed by archaeologists

David Keys
Archaeology Correspondent
Friday 19 February 2016 01:05
Archaeologists extract the Must Farm wheel from its bed of mud and silt
Archaeologists extract the Must Farm wheel from its bed of mud and silt

Britain may have been a few centuries late in adopting one of mankind’s most significant technological advances, but archaeologists have just discovered that when we finally did get the wheel, we at least made them bigger than anyone else.

The most complete Bronze Age wheel ever found in Britain has been unearthed during excavations in the Cambridgeshire fens. It represents the period in which wheeled transport technology first appears to have been introduced into the British Isles.

A full metre in diameter (but only around 3.5 centimetres thick), it is likely, originally, to have come from a stylish two-wheeled cart, pulled by an ox.

It is an important discovery because of the new light it will almost certainly shed on transport technology in prehistoric Britain.

First complete Bronze Age wheel discovered at 'British Pompeii'

Dating from around 1000 BC, it has just been discovered by Cambridge University archaeologists, excavating a small Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm near Peterborough. Now the site is dry land. But originally the small group of roundhouses stood on a timber platform built on wooden stilts in a river surrounded by marshland.

The wheel was preserved because the building it appears to have been kept in was burnt down in a fire which destroyed the settlement. The charred remains of buildings and their contents (including the wheel) then fell into the river and eventually became waterlogged and covered in mud and silt. The waterlogging preserved them until they were unearthed by the archaeologists 3000 years later.

Site director Mark Knight of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at the Must Farm site near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, where the earliest complete Bronze Age wheel has been discovered

It is likely that the wheel was being repaired or held in storage at the time the settlement was burned down.

The nearest surface that a cart could have been driven along was probably around 300 to 500 metres away, as the settlement was only connected to dry land by a very narrow semi-derelict timber causeway across the marsh, almost certainly suitable only for pedestrian use, and that with some difficulty!

The newly discovered wheel is one of the largest Bronze Age examples ever found. Most wheels unearthed in Europe from that period or earlier have tended to be 20% smaller.

Potentially made of alder (definitely not oak or ash), the Must Farm wheel probably came from a cart used to carry relatively heavy probably agricultural loads. The settlement was extremely prosperous and may well have functioned as a riverside trading post as well as the home of a substantial extended family. As well as the wheel, unearthed just last week, the archaeologists had previously found nine dug-out canoes – the largest of which was nine metres long.

The wheel itself, which is likely to originally have had a leather tyre, was a heavy duty one – made up of five panels of solid timber. It had a well-crafted hub with a hole in the middle for an axle which would have been some 12 centimetres in diameter where it passed through the hub, but probably up to 16 centimetres in diameter for the rest of its length. A fragment of the axle has survived. The cart was almost certainly a relatively narrow one – with perhaps just 1.5 to 2 metres between its two wheels.

A close-up of the most complete Bronze Age wheel ever found in Britain

The discovery highlights a particularly intriguing archaeological mystery. Although wheeled vehicles were first invented in Mesopotamia or on the steppes of eastern Europe and central Asia in around 3500 BC and were introduced into much of northern Europe over the subsequent three or four centuries, there is no evidence of the new technology being used in Britain until some 18 centuries later!

Apart from the Must Farm wheel, only two other, more fragmentary, examples of pre-Iron-Age wheels have ever been found in this country – and they all date from the late Bronze Age. Britain is one of the best archaeologically investigated countries in the world – so the probability exists that largescale introduction here really did occur very late.

Interestingly, adoption of the wheel also seems to have been very late in much of the rest of Atlantic Europe – i.e. in France, Spain and Portugal.

One possible explanation might be the differences in terrain between different parts of the continent. The flat plains of northern Europe would often have been ideal for wheeled transport, while the more steeply undulating and sometimes more mountainous topography of much of the south of the continent would not have been ideal.

However there is another potential reason.

Much of Atlantic Europe including Britain had had a culture characterised, at least in part, by the so-called megalithic phenomenon – the tradition of moving and erecting huge stone monoliths in circles, avenues and other arrangements.

Britain itself has more than 1500 Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stone monuments – the most famous of which are of course Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire.

“The tradition of moving massive stones to build Britain’s many famous stone circles may well have generated a humanly-powered ‘heavy haulage’ culture – a phenomenon which may potentially have slowed down the introduction of wheeled transport,” said Prof David Anthony of Hartwick College in New York state, an archaeologist specialising in ancient transport and author of a key book on the subject, The Horse, the Wheel and Language, published by Princeton University Press.

Wheeled vehicles would have been unsuitable for transporting really heavy stones (some of the Stonehenge examples weigh up to 36 tonnes) – so other forms of land transport would have had to be developed.

It is even conceivable that sledge technology – to move heavy stones and other objects – was so well developed and traditional in Britain and possibly elsewhere in Atlantic Europe that it helped keep demand for wheeled vehicles relatively low in those areas for many centuries.

The wheel is the latest in a series of discoveries at the Must Farm site which is providing remarkable insights into domestic life 3,000 years ago. It has already revealed circular wooden houses believed to be the best-preserved Bronze Age dwellings ever found in Britain. Other exciting finds – reported in The Independent and other media last month – include a wooden platter, small wooden box and rare small bowls and jars with food remains inside, as well as textiles and Bronze Age tools.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England said: “This remarkable but fragile wooden wheel is the earliest complete example ever found in Britain. The existence of this wheel expands our understanding of Late Bronze Age technology and the level of sophistication of the lives of people living on the edge of the Fens 3,000 years ago.”

David Gibson, Archaeological Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge said: “The discovery of the wheel demonstrates the inhabitants of this watery landscapes links to the dryland beyond the river.”

Historic England and building products supplier Forterra, which owns a quarry at the site, are funding a major £1.1 million project to excavate 1,100 square metres of the Must Farm area.

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