Reporter digs time in Flag Fen trenches

DigVentures at Flag Fen: Peterborough Telegraph's Features Editor John Baker cleans a trench under expert supervision from archaeologist Raksha Dave
DigVentures at Flag Fen: Peterborough Telegraph's Features Editor John Baker cleans a trench under expert supervision from archaeologist Raksha Dave
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History is buried in this patch of the fens.

But the more the earth dries out at Flag Fen, the higher the risk of degradation from the timbers drying out, and the greater the chance of remnants of mankind from past millennia crumbling into the past.

So Vivacity decided to do something about it, and with the help of DigVentures, they created Flag Fen Lives.

Wannabe archaeologists have travelled from far and wide for the three week Field School project and hope to uncover more secrets of the Fengate site, once a pathway built of timber between islets of land which were swamped in the Fen waters.

The team of 25 people - made up of DigVentures members, Birmingham University archaeologists , total beginners, and even an adventurous dog called Fergus – hope to find ancient examples of occupation.

In the first day the glamour finds included 5,000 year-old flint from an axe, animal bones and ploy holes for timbers used in Flag Fen’s causeway.

The Peterborough Telegraph was invited to see the work as it progressed, and get down and dirty in the trenches ourselves.

We arrived to see flint knapper Will Lord showing an awestruck audience his skills in creating weapons from rock, which he described as “an enjoyable way of smashing your way through a day”.

Will’s evocative descriptions are a break from the hard work in the brutal sunshine in 30 degree heat, although today is actually more a case of documenting what was found the previous day in the 20-metre long trench by the 10 or so people who had paid to dig.

White tags scattered in the trench denoted the findings of interest which included post holes, possibly part of a greater structure of ancient timbers. There are also auger surveys and timber recording.

It’s the less inspiring aspect of archaeology away from the uncovering, but the enthusiasm of experts on the day, including DigVentures managing director Lisa Wescott Wilkins and Time Team regular and project manager Raksha Dave, remains undimmed.

Raksha said: “We have had six months planning and I really feel like we have hit the ground running. The weather has helped, after we have worked so hard.

“We don’t know how far we are going to go before we find a natural level. We haven’t found any signs of occupation or houses, and that’s what we are after.

“But we are taking something away that we can never put back, so each layer and feature has to be recorded meticulously.”

She took me past the camping area, with obligatory beer tent, to Trench two.

This is a smaller trench, but one where there is a chance of finding evidence of the ‘Beaker’ tribes, perhaps stretching as far back as 3,000BC based on previous findings at nearby Must Farm.

Each trowel has the name of an eminent archaeologist; mine was Pitt-Rivers, after the extravagantly-monickered Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers. Raksha’s is simply named “Pryor”.

She has dug everywhere from Netherlands to Puerto Rico, from Turkey to Texas, but Flag Fen offers something different.

As might be expected, clearing a wall is not a case of simply digging in. The trench is layered and each ‘wall’ of degraded peat needs to be stripped away in lines, so that the integrity of the wall remains.

My technique improves but the peat has baked in the sun, to a point where it is hard to break down.

I find nothing. I never expected to find a fully-formed Neolithic man, and just getting involved in some small way was good fun.

Speaking to the lovely Raksha – and learning about her broadcasting and university life – was enough to pass the time away, and after an hour, and probably six inches of wall cut back, we decide to take a look at how others are getting on,

We meet up with a master of the field. Martin Carver is known as the man behind the Sutton Hoo excavation in Suffolk, which uncovered an Anglo-Saxon Burial site of a king and his treasured possessions.

This warrior’s mask is now more one of the more well-known images in British archaeology - but as with Flag Fen, getting the word out has proved difficult.

Martin, who was due to give a lecture at Flag Fen last night on his work, said that capturing the local imagination will take more time.

He said: “I did a similar project (to Flag Fen Lives) in Scotland. We had students from Croatia and Sweden, but not a single one from Scotland itself.

“It was the same at Sutton Hoo; until we had been there three or four years no-one from the surrounding area came to see it.

“I have a strong suspicion that it will come to pass here.

“There is a big population and until we get the schools interested, and the children bring family and parents, that will improve things. But it will take time.”

Students have flown in from across the world, as far afield as Australia. Some view it as a potential future career, others wanted to know if archaeology would be a good hobby.

There was at least one student who had travelled from Peterborough - 21-year-old Becca Wells was assessing whether archaeology was for her.

While Rena Maguire briefly broke away from her archeology and paleoecology at Queen’s University in Belfast to fly across the Irish sea to The Fens.

She said: “I wouldn’t have missed this one – it’s a very special site.

“If you get a chance to take this opportunity you do it, and if I hadn’t been in the middle of my dissertation I would have stayed for the whole thing.

“It is very hot and we need a wee bit of Belfast weather but it has been great. The people here certainly know their onions.”

The results of these digs and tests will be processed by English Heritage.

Other activities on the site include the summer school, which has proved so popular that it may be extended. Some students have already signed up for next year.

Speaking the next day Sarah Stannage from Vivacity said: “It is such an iconic site.

“We knew that it would attract national and international interest and we hope that we can get it out to the people of Peterborough.

“There are a number of layers to each trench, and at Trench two they are at the Ancient Soil layer – it is phenomenal to think that people last stood on that layer 3,500 years ago.”

The thought hangs in the air, or perhaps under the ground, that they are still looking for that iconic symbol which Flag Fen needs if it is to transcend the experts and snare the hearts of you or I.

It may happen in the next two weeks.

Another aspect of the Flag Fen Lives are the DVIP lectures.

On August 4 there is a night this Francis Pryor – the man who discovered Flag Fen – plus a Q&A with members of the Time Team

One of the country’s foremost experts on prehistory, he was awarded an MBE for his discovery, excavation and promotion of this amazing site.

Now a regular on Channel 4’s Time Team, Francis will take the audience back to Flag Fen’s heyday in the Bronze Age 3,000 years ago.

Special guests Dr John Gater and Raksha Dave will also join Francis for a Time Team Q&A session after his talk.

John is head of the Geophysics team and has surveyed hundreds of sites in his time with the team. While Raksha is a regular in the Time Team trenches, as well as the Project Manager and head of DigVentures field school for the ‘Flag Fen Lives’ dig this summer!

Both Francis and the Time Team will be signing books.

On August 10, at 4pm, there is an Audience with Tony Robinson of Time Team and Blackadder.

Best known for presenting Channel 4’s hit archaeology series Time Team, and as Baldrick in TV’s Blackadder, Tony delighted the crowds at the opening of the Museum in March and Vivacity is delighted to welcome him back to Flag Fen for this special one-off event.

Having been awarded numerous Honorary Doctorates for his work in public archaeology, Tony is also President of the Young Archaeologists’ Club. He will be talking about his personal experiences in presenting various historical programmes, including Time Team, and his love of archaeology. The talk will be followed by a chance for the audience to ask questions.

Pricing and booking tickets for both events:

Ticket prices: Adults £10, Concessions (including children) £8, Vivacity Heritage Pass Holders, £5

To book tickets call the Key Theatre Box Office on 01733 207239.

Admission to the site is included in this ticket price and those with tickets to this exciting talk will also have access to a special VIP area on-site, with a barbecue and beer tent.

This is an open-air talk in the atmospheric surrounds of Flag Fen Archaeology Park, so come prepared for the weather.

Fore more information on the project itself go to digventures.com.