Flag Fen will live again this summer when archaeological experts will work tool by tool with wannabes for the first time. John Baker dug in to find out more about the world’s first ever crowd sourced and crowd funded excavation.
The Bronze age site off Northey Road will be flooded again in July and August, this time with people hoping to uncover secrets before time runs out completely.
DISCOVERED by Time Team’s Francis Pryor, who lives in Sutton St James, the site has a fantastic national and international reputation, but is not really held in the same regard by the people of Peterborough. Legend has it that Francis was on his way to the pub in 1982 when he stumbled over a piece of wood near a Fenland ditch on the outskirts of Peterborough.
The markings on that piece of timber looked unusual and were soon confirmed as dating from around 1000 BC – and from Francis’ serendipity a legend was born.
His pre-pub ambling had unearthed a piece of wood from a kilometre-long causeway linking small islands of habitation and activity in the open fen – some have described that passage as the “M25 of the era”.
But for all its current historical importance, it is estimated that only five per cent of the ancient site has been uncovered.
And time is running out, as scientific analysis of the ageing process suggests that within 20 years degradation may ruin whatever lurks beneath as the waterlogged site slowly dries out.
So this summer, for the first time in a decade, lay archaeologists can get their hands dirty and literally unearth Peterborough’s past in Flag Fen Lives, a collaboration between DigVentures – which aims to make archaeology more accessible to the public, and Vivacity.
Those who pay more than £125 can get down and dirty by booking their spot in the Flag Fen Field School, running between 24 July and 12 August.
Time Team archaeologist and DigVentures field school manager Raksha Dave and Ben Roberts of the British Museum will oversee the live dig, which is available for 17-year-olds and above.
The objective is to assess the condition of the waterlogged wood and the impact of de-watering, and to map all previously excavated features and trenches – including the one previously created by Time Team in 1999 – into a new site plan.
For those who want to contribute less, and perhaps keep tabs on the dig from the comfort of their armchair, a range of packages exist.
So, from the £10 Seed Venturer, who will get exclusive backstage access to daily content on the website in the Site Hut and a PDF of the final report, to the Field School venturer pledging £1,300 for master classes, lectures and extensive digs, there is something for everyone.
So far 148 people have signed up to the project, which is well on its way to raising its aim of £25,000 before the booking closing date of May 30.
DigVentures managing director Lisa Westcott-Wilkins said: “Crowd funding is perfect for archaeology because we often have a difficulty in reaching new audiences, but with this there is limitless potential.
“Flag Fen is a site we know about and love, a unique and incredible site with the same significance as Stonehenge. It could and should mean so much more to people.
“This is Peterborough’s thing, People should be proud of it.
“The site is almost a reverse Stonehenge – everything is buried below the ground, but it is of the same calibre. If we could rip the top of the site away and replace it with plexiglass, people would understand.
“The objects recovered from this site are unique. Look in our museum – there’s a pair of shears with a carrying case that are so sharp you could still cut your hair with them.
“There have been no large-scale excavations here for a decade, because of the massive amount of work involved.
“We have no idea what we are going to find, but we know that it is urgent.
“Twenty years might sound like a long time, but in the context of thousands of years it is nothing.”
The thought of an underground treasure trove and remnants of life three millennia ago, to add to the swords, tools and oldest wheel in England, has been enough to tempt people from across the world to take part.
The website roll call of countries interested includes Australia, Estonia, Canada, and the USA.
An array of experts including researchers from English Heritage, Birmingham and Durham Universities, and Time Team themselves will camp on the site, and will give “DVIP” talks on the findings and other items of interest.
Several of these are unsurprisingly sold out, as are some of the excavation days.
One of the speakers is Dutch archaeologist Catriona Moore, who led a team in excavating a site at Edercloon in Ireland – and found a special link to Flag Fen.
Lisa said: “They found four wheels of the same type, in the same position, as the one we have here.
“How can that be? Was there some sharing of information? That’s what Catriona will teach us.”
It is another mystical, magical story of the site which may forever remain a secret.
Other plans afoot for the future include the possibility of a fantastic interactive experience, where a visitor would walk the site and hold an iPad up - the screen would recreate what was once there 3,000 years before.
But that is a provisional idea, which will follow on from experiments like Flag Fen Lives!
Lisa said: “We will do this again next year.
“The only way it can work is if it is sustainable, and the only way for that to happen is if people from Peterborough visit us and find us.
“It’s really important that we get the local community to participate. We want to see Peterborough postcodes in the analysis.”
For more information go to digventures.com, telephone 0207 3335770 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
VIVACITY head of heritage Sarah Stannage said: “To take part in the excavations you have to be 17 or older, but we are running a children’s summer school which will provide a really good experience in the dig tent while they will learn about archaeology.
“There will also be lots of activities across the site including pot making, flint knapping (making Neolithic axe heads) and boat making.”
ROVING reporter Fergus the Dog is expected to be a star of the fortnight.
Lisa’s young dog will be digging out the scoops and sniffing for secrets during the fortnight.
A key member of the DigVentures team, Fergus is responsible for on site security, activities, and finding chips on a Friday night.
You can follow his adventures online and on Twitter (@sitedog) as he will have a camera fitted to his collar!