Flag Fen visitor centre could be as important as Stonehenge

Bronze Age village dig at Whittlesey brick pits at Must Farm Quarry, Funtham's  Lane. Chris Wakefield with pot containing Bronze Age food EMN-161101-180905009
Bronze Age village dig at Whittlesey brick pits at Must Farm Quarry, Funtham's Lane. Chris Wakefield with pot containing Bronze Age food EMN-161101-180905009

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson said the proposed Bronze Age visitor centre at Flag Fen could be as important as Stonehenge of the Jorvik Viking Centre in York for the city.

He made the claim during a debate in Parliament on Wednesday.

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson. Photo: Alan Storer

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson. Photo: Alan Storer

He said: “I beg to move, That this House has considered the development of the Flag Fen bronze age park in Peterborough.

“I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs Moon, and it is an honour and privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.

“I also welcome the Minister back to her position after her maternity leave. It is great to see her reappointed to her post in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport under the new dispensation. In addition, I pay tribute to the excellent work by our colleague, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), who covered her duties during her absence, to his great credit.

“I am here in Westminster Hall today to talk briefly about the potential development of the Flag Fen bronze age park in Peterborough. Flag Fen has the potential to be one of the finest cultural, historic and archaeological sites in the United Kingdom. In talking about Flag Fen, I will refer not only to the existing Flag Fen facility, which is located in my constituency about four miles east of the centre of the city of Peterborough, but to the Must Farm site, which is in the constituency of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), and adjacent to the town of Whittlesey.

Bronze Age village dig at Whittlesey brick pits at Must Farm Quarry, Funtham's  Lane EMN-161101-181732009

Bronze Age village dig at Whittlesey brick pits at Must Farm Quarry, Funtham's Lane EMN-161101-181732009

“Not many people will be aware of this, but the Fenland area to the east of Peterborough is one of the pre-eminent bronze age areas in the whole of Europe. The Minister may well know that in 1982 the noted archaeologist Francis Pryor, working with others, discovered the site at Flag Fen, which was a well-preserved wetland timber causeway. Since then, Flag Fen has been developed into a visitor centre with an additional bronze age archive, reconstruction and landscape recreation, with metal and other artefacts. Indeed, it is now a site for leisure and culture, and I can attest to the fact that it is a multi-use site because last summer I took my family to see a production of “The Three Musketeers” in the open air theatre at Flag Fen and we had a superb time. As the Minister will know, Flag Fen is managed by Vivacity, the arts, culture, sport and leisure trust, on behalf of Peterborough City Council.

“Flag Fen itself is already considered to be a site of national importance archaeologically, and it is of course a scheduled monument. However, the site cannot be left in abeyance, because it is effectively drying out, which threatens its survival. Historic England is working with key stakeholders to see whether water levels on the site can be raised.

“That is Flag Fen, but even more exciting is the site one mile to its east, Must Farm, which, as I have said, is adjacent to the town of Whittlesey. In 2011, nine bronze age log boats were discovered on the site and they are now preserved and displayed at Flag Fen. Further excavation of Must Farm has been undertaken by Cambridge Archaeological Unit, with funding from ​Historic England and Forterra Ltd, the company that operates the brick pit in which the site is located. That archaeological work has provided us with unique insights into the late bronze age, creating a picture of life on the site 3,000 years ago.

“At Must Farm, there are five well-preserved roundhouses, as well as food deposits; if anyone is interested, let me say that people in that period largely ate red deer, pike and wild boar. Other discoveries include fabric, a cartwheel, jewellery and animal skeletons. The site was partly destroyed by fire, which has led it to being described by the media as “The Pompeii of the bronze age”, or sometimes as, “The Peterborough Pompeii”. Some people in Fenland take exception to that latter description, as the site is in Fenland and not in the city of Peterborough, but we will not dwell on that. The point is that the site was evacuated very quickly as a result of the fire and its occupants naturally left in a hurry, but in so doing they left a portrait in time of life in the bronze age.

Bronze Age village dig at Whittlesey brick pits at Must Farm Quarry, Funtham's  Lane EMN-161101-181809009

Bronze Age village dig at Whittlesey brick pits at Must Farm Quarry, Funtham's Lane EMN-161101-181809009

“Must Farm has been described by Historic England as being undoubtedly one of the most important prehistoric sites excavated in Britain for many years and the site’s academic value is undoubtedly very high. Historic England also says that many of the finds, including pottery, bronze artefacts and the largest glass collection from the bronze age ever found in the UK, are of a type never seen before or only partly seen, in fragmentary form.

“Must Farm is a site of international importance and it attracts scholars from across the world. In time, it will revolutionise our understanding of life in the bronze age, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe. So it is right to pay tribute to the diligent, hard work of the fantastic team behind the excavation over the last few years, which has cost about £1.4 million and was essentially financed by Forterra Ltd and Historic England. I was privileged to have the opportunity in February this year to go with my neighbour, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire, and the then acting Minister, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, to see for ourselves the fabulous work and the dedication shown by the team on the site.

“However, the site cannot be kept in its present state on its present location; inevitably, it must be relocated. Historic England and Forterra Ltd believe that, to continue the conservation and analysis of the timber structures that have been found, a three-year programme and funding regime is necessary. The Minister will probably know that a study was completed in 2014 that examined the potential options for and development of what was then described as a “Museum of the Bronze Age” in Peterborough. At the time, the study assessed the bronze age archive and the potential business models, viability and site option appraisals for bringing forward the museum project.

“More recently—indeed, on 27 May—key stakeholders met to take this project forward. They were Historic England, Vivacity, Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough City Council, Cambridge University, the local enterprise partnership, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and Arts Council England. It shows how important this project is that such a wide range of key stakeholders are invested in its future success. They updated the finds from 2014 to this year, reviewed the feasibility study and expanded the assessment, looking at the site’s tourism ​and research potential, its development and business modelling options and its viability. Peterborough City Council was the key stakeholder and took the strategic lead on the project, with a firm belief that all those agencies should work collaboratively, because it was imperative to move forward on this important national and international project.

Final press visit to Must Farm bronze age ssite EMN-160713-130553009

Final press visit to Must Farm bronze age ssite EMN-160713-130553009

“All parties agreed that the refreshed options appraisal should consider the most sustainable approach, including financial sustainability in respect of the future display of this hugely important fenland archaeological discovery. Flag Fen visitor centre will be central to the project, and an approach to the Heritage Lottery Fund will be the next step, with a view to bidding for between £2 million and £3 million to make it a reality. Incidentally, the Heritage Lottery Fund was not included in the key stakeholders’ discussions, so that there was not a conflict of interest and the Heritage Lottery Fund could look with fresh eyes at the efficacy or otherwise of the stakeholders’ proposal.

“We hope that the project will emphasise providing the greatest possible benefit to the city of Peterborough’s visitor economy, to Fenland District Council and to the utilisation of Peterborough’s existing assets, which over the years include the refurbished and relaunched museum and, in pride of place, our wonderful medieval cathedral. The cathedral is more than halfway through its “Peterborough 900” appeal, which celebrates the 900-year anniversary of the establishment of a Saxon abbey on the site or nearby. That appeal is well on its way to achieving its aim of raising £10 million for a new visitor centre and other key buildings.

“I am not saying that Flag Fen and Must Farm are the equivalent of Stonehenge or the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, but they have the potential to go in that direction and be a great asset. I am here to raise the profile of the project and, through this debate, to encourage serious scholars, students and casual visitors and tourists to go to the Peterborough area and see this fantastic project. I hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund is benign when it looks at our application in the next year or so and positive about the project. In Peterborough, we have a great archaeological, cultural, artistic and historic asset, which is of national and international significance.”