Archaeologists have uncovered what they say are the best-preserved Bronze Age houses ever found in the United Kingdom, calling the discovery "Britain's Pompeii."
Circular wooden houses dated from about 1,000 to 800 B.C. sat on stilts in Cambridgeshire, and when the stilts were destroyed by fire, the dwellings settled into a river where they were preserved by silt, in the same manner that volcanic ash preserved much of Pompeii in Italy.
The fire may have happened very quickly, as pots with meals still inside were found at the dig site, researchers said.
The settlement and its artifacts are "an extraordinary time capsule," says Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, which is helping fund the excavation.
"A dramatic fire 3,000 years ago, combined with subsequent waterlogged preservation, has left to us a frozen moment in time, which gives us a graphic picture of life in the Bronze Age," he says.
So much material and so many artifacts have been preserved, they give a full portrait of everyday life for the settlement's inhabitants, researchers point out.
The finds so far include jewelry, daggers and spears, food storage pots and finely-made drinking cups, they report.
They've also uncovered glass beads from part of a necklace, hinting at a level of sophistication not normally associated with Bronze Age people, they add.
"It's prehistoric archaeology in 3D, with an unsurpassed finds assemblage both in terms of range and quantity," says David Gibson with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, which is heading the scientific excavation.
The preservation of the site is of such a high level that footprints of people living in the settlement are still visible in the sediment layers.
The reason for the fire that caused the inhabitants to flee quickly, leaving everything behind, is unclear, the researchers say; it could have been something as simple as a cooking fire accident or possibly an enemy attack.
The number of weapons found at the site suggests an enemy attack is not out of the question, says site director Mark Knight.
"This is a world full of swords and spears — it is not entirely a friendly place," he notes.
The excavation effort is halfway through a projected four-year scientific examination.
The Bronze Age denotes a period in human history when metalworkers discovered that combining tin and copper created a new alloy — bronze — which could be used to make tools and weapons that were much harder-wearing than had been possible before.