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A complete 3000 year-old Bronze Age wheel believed to be the largest & earliest of its kind found in the UK

Ian Harvey

A 3,000-year old wooden wheel has been found at a Bronze Age site dubbed the “Pompeii of the Fens”. It is undoubtedly the oldest British wheel that remains intact to this point. This wheel depicts how the Ancient Britons were finding innovative ways to mobilize across land when it was it was previously thought they only utilized transportation when going across rivers.

This old wooden wheel is solid and stands about three feet (one meter) in diameter. Archaeologists describe it as the last word in sophistication for that time. Some believe that it may have been a part of a cart that was pulled by horses or even human hands.

However, these artifacts also have brought to light some puzzling questions. They were found in the wetland by a river in Cambridgeshire. In this location canoes would have been a much more obvious mode of transportation. The wheel is complete with the hub and part of the axle. It had been buried in that spot underneath the mud sometime between 1,100 and 800 BC. It is the most recent discovery at a former brickworks at Must Farm in Peterborough.

To this point, remains have been found of five or six Bronze Age roundhouses. They had been built on wooden stilts above side channel of the River Nene.

Historians have tried to figure out how the wheel ended up submerged. They think the settlement might have burnt to the ground in some kind of arson attack. The timbers were charred by the fire before they sank into the river mud which allowed them to remain preserved. With time the site became a clay quarry pit for brickworks, which later became flooded.

In 1969, a sword and a rapier were also found at the site. Not much else was found until 2009 rolled around. Due to diminished water levels, a timber beam was seen poking through the mud. Excavations revealed that some of the items were abandoned during the fire. This led experts to conduct comparisons to Pompeii in Italy, which was preserved after being buried from a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

To date, the oldest known wheel in the world is around 5,150 years old. It was located 12 miles (19km) south of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in 2002. However, this new British find is undoubtedly the oldest complete wheel to have been found in the country. There were some fragments located nearby at Flag Fen. It appears to be part of an even older wheel dating back to 1,300 BC. The panel from the wooden wheel is thought to have been 31 inches (80cm) in diameter. This is a little smaller than the complete wheel at Must Farm.

Mark Knight, of Cambridge University’s Archaeology Unit, explained at the site, “What you see behind us is a wheel. Previously in the United Kingdom, if we could point to a wheel we only had one panel. This is complete and appears to have its axle inside its hub, it’s a wheel made of planks of wood braced together with a reinforced hub in the center. It’s the most complete, oldest, largest wheel found in the United Kingdom.
It might be odd to have a wheel in wetland by a river, for something that would get you round on dry land, but it demonstrates the ‘schizophrenia’ this site is giving to us.” He further explained that the wheel could have potentially been used on a cart on the nearby island of Whittlesea or the foreshore of Peterborough. Wheels of this nature were possibly symbolic of status back in those days. Carts were by no means something that everyone had. Therefore, it served as a means to show off your worth or status in society.

Villagers were definitely well off since they had enough resources to afford luxuries. This included the glass, beads, metalwork, and textiles that were also found at the site. Alongside the wheel, a horse backbone was also found. There is no way to confirm if this horse ever pulled a cart with the wheel. Experts think the wheel was made out of oak and alder, but the exact type of wood has yet to be confirmed. Everything including the wheel has been burnt at this Bronze Age settlement.

Mr. Knight feels, “There is a real sense the pristineness of the structures, the pristineness of the artifacts is happening because the fire shortened the life of the settlement.” This excavation gives people a real sense of what happened in a few hours in its entirety. It is really something to think about an entire settlement being burnt to the ground. The unearthing of previous weapons also confirms that this settlement did not operate only in peace and harmony. Therefore, the houses could have been burnt down on purpose.

Historic England has put forth £1.1million to fund the excavation of this site. The wheels do suggest rudimentary land transport, but the rivers were the motorways of the Fenland area. Eight canoes of varying sizes were also dug up from a nearby location. According to Iona Robinson Zeki, who is a researcher, it is possible the wheel was found here because it could have been a job for some locals. Perhaps they made the wheels inside their homes, or simply repaired them. There are a variety of reasons that could explain why these wheels are here. She also suggested that it could have been a form of decoration, saying, “If you go to a farm yard there’s always a wheel up against a wall. It’s a bit of a red herring. But there you go.”

Even today, stilt dwellings (crannogs) are found in Scotland and Ireland. These houses are known as pile dwellings, and can be seen around the Alpine Lakes, in Friesland and the Netherlands. Historic sites truly provide incredible insight into the past, but also encourage lots of speculation of what really went on.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News