An early Iron Age boat

About the object

© Cambridge Archaeology Unit
© Cambridge Archaeology Unit

Encroaching waters

The excavations at Must Farm, near the River Nene in the east of England, revealed a landscape which had been dry in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. In the Middle Bronze Age the climate started to worsen and waters to rise, creating a fenland landscape in what is now Cambridgeshire and surrounding areas. The inhabitants adapted to this new environment by building walkways and platforms raised up on wooden stakes, and by making boats, which would have been by far the quickest way to travel in this new wet landscape.

The construction of Must Farm Logboat 1

Logboats or dugouts are a type of boat made from a single tree trunk, hollowed out using adzes, similar to the one featured in Mesolithic woodworking tool. Logboats were not seaworthy and were probably used on rivers, lakes and in the fens. The remains have been found of plank built boats, some earlier than Logboat 1 from Must Farm, that were made for sea travel. The Must Farm boats all show signs of use and repair and were only deliberately sunk, one by one over many centuries, once they were no longer usable.

Logboat 1, uniquely for prehistoric logboats in Britain, was decorated. It was incised with cross-hatchings both inside and out. This was the first logboat to be found, as it was highest up in the deposits. This makes it the most recent boat, made at the end of a long tradition of logboat making. Perhaps someone experimented with decorating a boat in these later years of the tradition.

Living in the fens

Other wooden and organic objects were preserved in these waterlogged deposits along the River Nene and reveal the detail of prehistoric life in the fens. A range of Bronze Age household items plunged into the water when a house on top of piles burned down. Rarely preserved artefacts like cloth made from vegetable fibres, glass beads, and a wooden spatula inside a pot complete with vitrified food lay undisturbed for 3000 years.

The waterway itself was used not only for travelling in logboats, but was also set with fish and eel traps made from wickerwork and identical to traps used today in many parts of the world. Bronze weapons were placed in the waters as ritual offerings, a practice that continued in the Iron Age. These were found alongside wooden walkways or caught downstream in one of the many weirs constructed for catching fish.

More information

Must Farm
The excavations at Must Farm have a very useful website with images of the finds and links to articles about the boats.

About the Must Farm boats
An article about the Must Farm boats (when there were only six found) from Current Archaeology.

Digging up boats
Professor Francis Pryor writes about the difficult process of digging up Bronze Age boats.

History of early boats
The website of the Ferriby boats provides very useful information about the history of early boats.

Next section: A bigger picture

An early Iron Age boat