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The newly discovered Bronze Age wheel at Must Farm (all photos by Dave Webb, © Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Archaeologists with the University of Cambridge have uncovered the largest and most complete example of a Bronze Age wheel, the earliest of its kind in Britain. Around 3,000 years old and measuring one meter in diameter (~40 inches), the wooden wheel emerged during excavations at Must Farm, a Bronze Age settlement near Peterborough, which lies about 75 miles north of London. Nicknamed “Peterborough’s Pompeii,” the site was once had a thriving population until a fire decimated their dwellings, causing the structures to collapse into a river. The wheel, as Must Farm representative Selina Davenport told Hyperallergic, was likely once attached to a cart, and its current preserved state is pretty extraordinary.

Close-up of the wooden hub of the wheel (click to enlarge)

“Normally wooden artifacts DON’T survive,” Davenport said. “They normally rot away completely. Our wooden artifacts are surviving because in the past, water has infiltrated the wood at a cellular level, then the type of sediment surrounding the items, and the blanket of peat — which grew over the site, protecting it and keeping the site wet. This also creates an anaerobic environment so little decomposition happens without oxygen.”

According to the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, the discovery introduces challenges to our current understanding of Late Bronze Age technology and expands previous thought concerning the level of sophistication of ancient inhabitants. Described as a tripartite structure, the wheel is constructed with three wooden boards attached by two horizontal bracers secured with a dovetail joint. Its axle is even still intact after all this time; carved from oak, it suggests that the wheel’s engineers were also making aesthetic choices. Archaeologists think the crescent-shaped markings etched on either side of it may also have helped reduce the wheel’s overall weight.

Archaeologists have previously found similar wheels in the UK, but none as complete as this latest find. The Flag Fen wheel actually predates Must Farm’s wheel by a couple centuries, but it is incomplete and measures about half a foot less in diameter. A fragment of another wooden wheel, dating to the Late Bronze Age, was uncovered near Cottenham in Cambridgeshire. Looking at the entire European continent, the earliest wheels date to at least 2,500 BCE, according to the Must Farm team.

The site has yielded many other discoveries that offer a glimpse into domestic life thousands of years ago, including extremely well preserved large circular wooden houses that balanced on stilts, textiles made of plant fibers, rare small bowls, and jars with their foodstuffs still inside — although probably well past their expiration dates. After undergoing further analysis and conservation, the objects will eventually end up on display at the Peterborough Museum Flag Fen and other local venues.

Excavation of the Bronze Age Wheel at Must Farm

Excavation of the Bronze Age wheel at Must Farm

Close-up of the dovetailed brace and charred surface of the Bronze Age wheel

Archaeologists at Must Farm uncovering the charred wooden roof structure of a 3,000 year old round house.

A Bronze Age textile made from plant fibers

A Bronze Age roundhouse in plan showing the inner and outer post rings and collapsed roof timbers, described by archaeologists ‘like spokes in a wheel’

Bronze Age piles preserved within the river silts and collapsed structural timbers

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...