Ancient wheel unearthed in Britain most likely from a horse-drawn cart

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The well-preserved wheel still had its hub. Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit
The well-preserved wheel still had its hub. Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The discovery of a remarkably preserved 3000-year-old wheel at an archaeological site in Britain has cast further light on the technologies and transport systems of the country’s Bronze Age inhabitants.

Archaeologists exploring the site which has been dubbed Peterborough’s Pompeii have already discovered the remains of a horse nearby, lending credence to the view that the wheel may have belonged to a horse-drawn cart.

“This remarkable but fragile wooden wheel is the earliest complete example ever found in Britain,” the chief executive of Historic England, Duncan Wilson, said.

“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 3000 years ago.”

The completeness of the metre-wide wheel and its relative size will likely shift views about how people travelled in the Bronze Age.

The wheel, still fixed to its hub, was found in sediment close to the remains of a dwelling. It is thought to date from 1100-800 BC.

An incomplete Bronze Age wheel was found nearby at Flag Fen in the 1990s, but the latest find, at a site known as Must Farm, is unprecedented in terms of size and completeness.

The find is the latest in a series of discoveries at Must Farm, which is providing extraordinary insights into domestic life 3000 years ago.

Excavation has revealed several circular wooden houses.

The wheel is estimated to be 3000 years old. Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit
The wheel is estimated to be 3000 years old. Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The wheel was found just a few metres away from the biggest round house on the site. Other finds include a wooden platter, a small wooden box and small bowls and jars with food remains inside. Textiles and Bronze Age tools have also been unearthed.

Evidence suggests the village was destroyed in a catastrophic fire, causing the houses to collapsed into the immediately adjacent slow-moving, silty river. This resulted in the fine preservation of so many items.

Well-preserved charred roof timbers have been recovered.

It is possible that those living in the settlement were forced to leave everything behind when it caught fire. Such is the level of preservation due to the deep waterlogged sediments in the area that the footprints of those who once lived there were also found.

David Gibson, who is archaeological manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in the Division of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, said: “The discovery of the wheel demonstrates that the inhabitants of this watery landscape had links to the dry land beyond the river.”

The wheel adds crucial new evidence to the picture of Bronze Age transportation. The remains of eight boats were recovered from the same river in 2011.

The oldest Bronze Age wheel in Britain is the Flag Fen wheel, which dates to around 1300 BC. However, it is incomplete and is smaller, at 0.8 metres in diameter.

Part of a Late Bronze Age wooden wheel is also known from Lingwood Fen, near Cottenham, in Cambridgeshire. In Europe, the earliest wheels date to at least 2500 BC, in the Copper Age.

The Must Farm site is close to modern-day Whittlesey, in Cambridgeshire, and sits astride a prehistoric watercourse inside the Flag Fen basin. The site has produced large quantities of Bronze Age metalwork, including a rapier and sword in 1969.

The wheel is thought to be from a horse-drawn cart. Cambridge Archaeological Unit
The wheel is thought to be from a horse-drawn cart.  Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

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One thought on “Ancient wheel unearthed in Britain most likely from a horse-drawn cart

  • February 22, 2016 at 5:39 am
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    Curious: Why is there an almost perfectly round hole near the edge of the wheel? Could this wheel have been used in a man-drawn or animal-drawn grain grinder, water pump or some other system rather than in a transportation system?

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