Dr Francis Pryor’s discovery of the Flag Fen archaeological site in Peterborough has gone down in local folklore, here he talks to John Baker about the site’s discovery, excavation and future:
Dr Pryor, also of course known for his exploits on archaeological television series Time Team, spoke to the Peterborough Telegraph about his discoveries and current projects, on the 30th anniversary of formal excavations.
-- Pick up a copy of this week’s Peterborough Telegraph, published on Thursday, 27 June for more.
I first had the idea that there was probably something out there in Flag Fen, in the later 1970s.
During that decade my team had excavated Bronze Age farms, houses, fields and settlements in Fengate which was then still agricultural land, but was destined to become Peterborough New Town’s Eastern Industrial Area.
Our job was to excavate and ‘clear’ any archaeological remains ahead of this development. While we were doing this work (between 1971-79) I realised that the fields and settlements we’d been investigating, all surrounded a very low-lying and watery basin, which had begun to form sometime before 2000 BC – at the very start of the Bronze Age.
Then one day in the summer of 1982 I was leaning on one of the last farmer’s wooden gates still surviving in Fengate (alongside where the Power Station now stands) and was looking over Flag Fen.
To be honest I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular: just relaxing and taking in the late summer scene before me. Then I spotted something move, a long way out, towards the river banks.
I looked more closely, but couldn’t make out what it was. So I got into my battered dig Land-Rover and headed off towards Dog-in-a-Doublet sluice, the back way, via Halfpenny Toll. As I approached the little hamlet of Northey I could see that the thing that’d caught my eye was the jib of a drag-line, a sort of dredging crane that was used in those days to clear out rivers and dykes.
I drove as far as I could, then walked along the dykeside to the machine and learned from the driver that he was working for the (then) Anglian Water Authority who owned the land and the dyke.
AWA’s headquarters was in Crabmarsh, Wisbech and after a trip down there to see the Area Engineer (who was incredibly helpful) I gained permission to ‘do what you want’ in the dyke. What I wanted to do was have a very close look at the dyke banks, where they had been scraped clear of vegetation, by the drag-line.
It took us the best part of a week to survey the dyke and we found some interesting stuff, including a small settlement about 500 years earlier than the main site at Flag Fen, which still lay hidden beneath reeds and vegetation.
Finally we decided to clean-up a part of the dykeside that had cut through a known Roman road, the Fen Causeway, which ran across the middle of Flag Fen. That job took a couple of days.
Then, early in November, 1982, and it was (I remember only too well) a cold, foggy day, we had finished drawing and photographing the Roman road and were heading back to the Land-Rover and a well-earned pint of beer at the Dog-in-a-Doublet pub, when I snagged my foot on something hard in the soft muds that slopped around the top of the dyke – dumped there by the drag-line.
I reached down and pulled it out of the smelly goo and almost shouted for joy: it was the pencil-like tip of a post, but sharpened with a very narrow-bladed axe. I immediately recognised those axe-marks as Bronze Age.
Over the following weeks and right up until Christmas ‘82, our team worked along the dykeside and eventually exposed about 500 Bronze Age timbers which lay in a horizontal band, about a metre below the bottom of the Roman road.
Most of the timbers lay in the ground horizontally – and we now realise these were part of a prehistoric platform, or artificial island. But towards the centre, where the horizontal timbers were thickest, we came across a zone of stout posts, many of them of oak.
And this, we now realise, was part of a kilometre-long causeway and barrier, which we have called the Post Alignment. It ran from directly beneath the Power Station, right across Flag Fen, to Northey, which had been sited on an extension of the very much larger, clay and gravel island of Whittlesey. The Roman military engineers had built their Fen Causeway (in AD 60 or 61) along almost precisely the same route as the Bronze Age Post Alignment. Great engineering minds had thought alike.
Over the subsequent decade, our team excavated extensively in Flag Fen and revealed that the Post Alignment had several purposes.
It was built between 1300 and 900 BC and probably followed the line of a much earlier (say 2500-3000 BC) routeway across what would then have been a damp, but passable, stretch of low-lying land.
The posts were erected a few centuries after Flag Fen flooded and it was a major construction project, involving the erection of some 60,000 vertical timbers and probably well in excess of a million horizontal ones: planks, beams and smaller pieces.
It was used as a road or pathway and there were at least three parallel footpaths, but it had other uses too. Taller posts along its north-eastern edge could have acted as a defensive or symbolic barrier and the spaces between and around the posts were used to hide thousands of special offerings, probably to the ancestors or the sprits that dwelt within the waters.
These deposits included a huge array of metal items, in bronze, iron, tin and even gold. Some came from far away – places like North Italy, the Alps or SW France.
Others were made here in Fengate (we found good evidence for the casting of bronze alongside the Power Station). But the waters of Flag Fen held more than just metalwork (so far we have revealed about 350 items).
There were corn-grinding quernstones from Wales and Kent, locally-made complete pottery vessels, shale bracelets from Dorset and jet jewellery from Yorkshire. All the evidence suggests that Flag Fen was an important regional centre. It’s also one of the best preserved and most important Bronze Age sites in Europe.
If I’d made that last statement ten years ago, a few of my archaeological colleagues might have raised their rather stuffy academic eyebrows:
‘Really, Francis, are you sure you can say that?’
Personally, I have always been completely convinced of the site and the region’s importance: when places like Stonehenge were going into a steep decline, around 1500 BC, the trend of development shifted eastwards, towards the lush low-lying river valleys of the Thames, the Trent and East Anglia.
Rather like the shift towards Asia today, this was a major and unstoppable economic trajectory. And that’s why I have always considered Flag Fen unique: and of course it is so well preserved.
And that’s why I was completely over-the-moon when the Cambridge University Unit began to make exciting discoveries, just across (the entirely modern) course of the River Nene, on the outskirts of Whittlesey.
Their excavations, which are still taking place, are on the edges of the Flag Fen basin, but on land that is, if anything, even better preserved. They are also discovering items that mirror Flag Fen in every respect and are just as fine and as exotic.
Some of their Iron Age swords, complete with their intact hilts and scabbards, have to be seen to be believed. They’ve also found woven prehistoric fabrics, which (probably due to an accident of soil chemistry) haven’t survived at Flag Fen.
And then, of course, they found those nine complete Bronze Age boats. Nothing like them has ever been found before in Europe.
So was I surprised? Yes and no. I knew they had to be there – somewhere, but I never imagined that anyone would have the archaeological guts (because, believe me, these things take courage) to actually clean-out and excavate an entire Bronze Age river channel.
And they only managed to pull it off because Hansons (who own and run the brick pits) employed astonishingly talented digger drivers and the Cambridge team are quite simply the best, and most versatile, wet-site archaeologists in the country.
One final, if sobering thought: there must still be hundreds, no thousands, of Bronze Age craft lying deeply buried beneath the extinct water-courses of the Fens.
Flag Fen is not just about the past. It has lessons to teach us about the present and the future, too. Last summer we mounted the country’s first large-scale ‘crowdfunded’ excavation. ‘Crowd-funding’ is a relatively new idea, and is based on the Internet’s ability to reach a wide audience, fast. Essentially, people ‘buy-in’ to the dig at various levels, ranging from visits to full-time participation.
Many, especially in academia, are deeply suspicious, largely, I suspect, because it takes control out of their hands.
But you can retain academic, scientific and archaeological credibility if you handle things correctly. In this case, the team running the project, DigVentures, are all fully qualified and experienced archaeologists and they called in a group of special advisors, including myself and my wife Maisie Taylor (who is the site and the project’s wood-working specialist).
Most of the main supervisory staff were all experienced Flag Fen supervisors and had worked on the site for many years. I visited the dig several times and I spoke to the supervisors afterwards.
Not only had they all had a very enjoyable, and relaxed summer’s excavation, but they had also achieved some important results and we now know a great deal more about the ‘other’ end of the Post Alignment, at the point where it strikes dry land, at Northey.
So the DigVentures Flag Fen dig proved that crowd-funding can work and provide top quality archaeological results.
Just as importantly it has revealed an entirely new way for the public to get involved with archaeology. And that is so, so important, if the subject is to have any future at all.
It would be very good if the DigVentures team could dig another season at Flag Fen, but that will depend on future discussions with the site’s current managers, Vivacity (working for the City Council). As things currently stand, I have to say, I’m not very optimistic.
I don’t want to give the impression that archaeology is just about finding things, because it isn’t.
It’s about revealing stories about the way people lived their lives thousands of years ago, and that’s something that we, and the Cambridge team, have done together.
We probably know as much about the way-of-life of Bronze and Iron Age communities in the area, as we do about the farms and villages along the edges of the Fens in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – to within living memory.
We could tell you where their livestock were raised, where their farms were sited and how they earned a prosperous living from the surrounding Fens.
I think too, our joint researches have shown that the popular myths about the Fens and Fen people, as being in-bred, poor, lawless and ungovernable are rubbish.
Yes, they were independent – as they showed when they helped form the backbone of Cromwell’s New Model Army in the mid-17th century – but they could govern themselves and superbly.
More to the point, they could exploit and prosper in a difficult environment which they realised had huge potential, provided you were prepared to discipline your communities and treat the landscape with respect. Sadly, these are lessons that we could usefully re-learn today.
If Flag Fen has taught us anything, it can be said in one word: Respect.
Must Farm log boats discovery: Bronze Age log boat find at Must Farm, near Whittlesey plans, October 2012;