ID: CZN_BRZ / Oliver Hutchinson, CITiZAN

TitleBronze Age Mersea
AbstractThe Bronze Age (c.2500 - 800BC) was a period of dramatic change in the material culture, economies, and structure of society in early Britain. A rapid rise in population, supported by an improved climate in the early part of the period, allowed the colonization of larger tracts of land. Increases in trade and communication networks with cultures in continental Europe led to communities developing distinctive styles, characteristics, and customs. Significant quantities of tools were made using Bronze, and weapons such as swords and daggers armed a new warrior elite. The practice of depositing bronze metalwork in watery places became popular, suggesting the development of a belief system based on offerings in environments such as marshes and wetlands. Burial customs evolved across the period, in the Early Bronze Age (c.2500 - 1500BC) barrow mounds were constructed, but by the Late Bronze Age (c.1000 - 700 BC) cremation became more prevalent. Natural phenomena would also play a part in shaping society. During the Middle Bronze Age (1500 - 1000BC), the eruption of the Hekla volcano in Iceland sent a cloud of ash skyward that would affect the climate, increasing rainfall and reducing temperatures. The immediate effects were likely devastating for the harvest of cultivated crops. This event coupled with the cultural changes of the age may have influenced the subsequent reapportionment of land for farming, creating new field boundaries and affecting the relationship with the landscape for generations. Within the archaeological record of Mersea Island is a body of evidence spanning the Bronze Age that illustrates the story of the age.

The map above highlights the known sites and artefacts associated with Bronze Age Mersea. It is comprised of data from archaeological excavation and survey on the island and its foreshore, coupled with chance finds of artefacts by members of the community made over many decades. There is relatively little direct evidence of specific settlement sites linked to the period, however concentrations of pottery gathered in West Mersea indicate that a settlement of some form existed there. To the east, barrows and timber trackways suggest an established community that lived and worked a landscape quite different to that which we see today. Lower sea levels during the Bronze Age affected the islands' topography, increasing the accessible landmass and providing a range of environments to exploit. To the north, where the modern Strood crosses the Pyefleet channel, the land was likely drier, with more terrestrial connections to the mainland. To the south, a sprawling wetland covered much of the land exposed at the lowest of tides today, with a shoreline well over a kilometre seaward of the present beach. It provided a resource rich environment for Bronze Age inhabitants of Mersea to exploit including timber for construction, food and patches of fresh and salt marsh on which to graze livestock.

The Mersea Timbers
The three large oak timbers displayed in the floor of the museum date from between 952 - 860BC, the Late Bronze Age, nearly 3000 years ago. They were found in 2016 by local oysterman Daniel French, 700m offshore to the south of Coopers Beach holiday park in the intertidal zone. They survive as a small but complete section of a much larger structure, indicated by three more timbers spread over 100m along the same alignment. They were found in situ (in their original position) and likely look the same to your eyes as to the last person to walk over them thousands of years before. Due to their incredible level of preservation, the result of being sealed in an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment, the timbers provide archaeologists with a rare opportunity to study the landscape, environment, and technologies of one of Mersea Islands earliest communities. They were recovered in March of 2017 by a team of local volunteers, archaeologists from the CITiZAN project and specialists from Historic England in the face of increasing coastal erosion and imminent loss.

What is a trackway?
Trackways are constructed routes that connect people to places in the landscape separated by difficult terrain. Simple woven hurdle tracks wide enough to accommodate a single person are common throughout the archaeological record. Where the movement of larger, heavier loads occurred, for example grazing livestock, more substantial structures were required. The Mersea Island timbers likely represent such a trackway. Its size and scale make it a rare and important find, being the only example of its type known in the Greater Thames estuary.

Why was it built?
The main function was likely to provide access to a resource rich environment. It was designed to take heavier loads, not just the movement of people. Smaller trackways likely connected with it at various points, leading to areas linked to specific activities. Transportation of timber, bundles of reeds and brushwood, harvests from coastal fish traps or the seasonal driving of grazing livestock are all potential cargos. Access to the lower Bronze Age coastline is likely. A coastal staging point may have ferried goods across the river to modern day Bradwell or to be traded further afield. Access to the watery places also served ritualistic purposes. A Middle Bronze Age sword was found on the foreshore in the 1980's, perhaps cast from a similar trackway into a body of water.

Trackway across the wetlands - painting by Paul Thrales

How was it built?
Oak tree trunks were radially split (along the length of the trunk) using axes and wooden wedges. Sockets were then cut at each end of the plank. The toolmarks made by such an axe are still clear to see on the socket of one of the timbers (see image below). The timbers were carried into position and laid on a brushwood raft or platform to stop them from sinking into the soft ground below. Timber stakes driven through the sockets pinned them firmly to ground, holding them in place and protecting against occasional flooding. The dimensions of the Mersea timbers suggest at least 30 trees would need to be felled to build a trackway 100m long, a serious investment of effort and resources. If the trackway was a route between dry land and the sea, then it could have conceivably extended for at least 200m. This would require a large area of relatively mature (c.60 year old) oak woodland to be cleared.

Bronze Age axe

Clockwise: A Bronze age axe head perfectly fits the toolmarks on the timbers; a close up of the tool marks on timber 2 with the curved stop mark of the axe clearly visible; some replicas of the different types of Bronze Age axes.

What can it tell us about the environment at the time?
Samples taken from beneath the trackway included preserved pollen, microflora and fauna (microscopic plants & animals) all present at the time the trackway was laid. It included plant species suited to salty environments (halophytes) alongside small, salt tolerant organisms. Small bore holes dug close to the timbers provided evidence of stratigraphy (layers of sediments built up over time) common with an infrequently flooded, raised saltmarsh environment. Pockets of prehistoric woodland consisting of oak, lime and hazel (amongst others) were present, with large, fallen trunks and root bowls recorded nearby. Finally, outcrops of ancient peats define former land surfaces upon which the trees fell and sections of the trackway were laid. Creeks and ponds will also have dotted the landscape, providing land for animals to graze on.

Crucially, the Mersea timbers provide a precise indicator of the relative sea level for the Late Bronze Age. The trackway was constructed on ground -1.52m below current sea level (ordnance datum or OD) and the timber to build it felled in 952BC, meaning archaeologists can accurately redraw the ancient map of Mersea at that precise moment in time. Using computer modelling it is possible to lower sea levels to -1.52m OD, exposing the shape of landmass that would have been above water at that point, as seen in the map of the island further up.

What does the trackway tell us about the Bronze Age Community of Mersea?
The investment of effort and resources to build the trackway suggest that the Mersea landscape was ideal to support a sizeable permanent settlement that, by the Late Bronze Age. The resources of the wetlands were plentiful enough to warrant investment in a relatively permanent structure to exploit them, one that was in use over several decades, evidenced by the scientific dating of the timbers. The community likely farmed livestock, grazing them on the wetland and perhaps herding them along the trackway. They may also have engaged in direct trade via the Blackwater.

Bronze Age Barrows
The practice of raising barrows over burials occurred mainly during the Early Bronze Age between 2200 - 1000BC. Largely circular, they range in size from a few meters to tens of metres in diameter. It is likely that they also were also used as sites for ceremonies serving to cement relationships within and between communities. Evidence for two groups of barrows exists on Mersea, situated to the east of the island on the highest ground. When constructed they would likely have been visible from some distance away, forming one of several groups located in the area, such as those found at nearby Brightlingsea.

In 2019 a team of local volunteers and archaeologists from CITiZAN and UCL excavated one of the barrow complexes near Fen Farm. An aerial photograph by Jim Pullen (above) had shown some very interesting cropmarks and they were tempting enough to come to an arrangement with the farmer to dig some test pits in the field. The results were very interesting.
Buried just inside the edge of one barrow were two partially complete ceramic cremation urns. The urns were modestly decorated with fingerprints, the size of which indicated the artist had been a child (below), part of a family forced to bury one of its own. A small fragment of bone was found in one of the urns, currently awaiting analysis to establish the gender and age of the occupant.

The positioning of the urns at the edge and not the centre of the barrow is a re-use of the monument many years after its initial construction. A shift to cremation as the predominant burial rite occurred towards the second half of the Bronze Age, suggesting that the site was in active use over an extended period and indicating a swell established Bronze Age community on Mersea. The timber trackway found on the Mersea foreshore, dated to 952BC, supports this theory.

Archaeologist examining a cremation urn

Both urns and bone are currently undergoing further study and conservation by specialists at University College London, when complete they will be be displayed in Mersea Museum.

Written by Oliver Hutchinson for Mersea Museum Summer Exhibition 2021

Oliver Hutchinson after the unveilling of the Board Walk at Mersea Museum 28 April 2022

Read More
Woodworking aspects of the Board Walk by Damian Goodburn MOLA
The Bronze Age Board Walk - a trackway across the wetlands

Excavation of a Bronze Age Site East Mersea 1963-64

AuthorOliver Hutchinson, CITiZAN
Published10 July 2021
SourceMersea Museum