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Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire

Bronze Age Archaeological Discovery


Flag Fen Archaeological Digging by Barbara Ballard Suspended on planks, workers dip their fingers time and time again into dark, peaty mud and water laced with 3000-year-old timbers, searching for the hidden treasurers of Flag Fen.

“We owe it all to the Romans. It was their first century road that archaeologists were searching for in the Fens, England’s largest wetlands. Flag Fen was an accidental discovery”, said senior site supervisor and archaeologist Toby Fox. Here on the southeastern edge of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, we’re 86 miles north of London, but we’re 3000 years away.

Flag Fen Drainage Ditch by Barbara Ballard The excavation for the Roman road began in 1982 with the clearing of waterlogged Mustdyke, a drainage ditch. Busy dredging out debris, a worker struck timber and decided to investigate. Thus the rare (for England) and important Bronze Age site containing thousands of posts and other pieces of wood was discovered.

This flat, low-lying land provided the best of all worlds 3000 years ago—the bounty of the sea and the verdant flood plains for growing wheat and barley. But, around 2000 BC, the Fens--two metres higher than today’s drained land--began to flood as rivers, denied access to the sea by tidal silts, rising sea levels and developing sand dunes, formed shallow lakes. The people needed a way to travel to their summer flood meadows and at the same time protect the meadows from use by neighbouring communities who were losing their land to the rising water.

Their solution was to construct a kilometre long, 10 metre wide causeway over the low lying Flag Fen basin (named after the flag iris growing in the area) to connect the edge of the dry land, known as Fengate with the local island, today called Northey. Part of this construction included a three-mile wide platform, being uncovered today.

What an engineering feat. Hundreds of thousands of timbers hewn from primeval oak were fashioned into posts 12-15 feet in height and hammered into marshy ground. Then a platform was placed on top. Kept in good repair for over 400 years, the area was eventually abandoned to the rising waters. The peaty ground preserved the wood by keeping it wet, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and attack by insects and fungi, readying it for discovery by modern man. But more than timber awaited discovery.

Broken pieces of spearheads, daggers and swords were found with the pieces placed side by side. Normal custom of the time would be to melt down and reuse these valuable pieces of metal. Two sheep hooves, one left and one right, were carefully placed in position. Dogs may have been sacrificed--one set of bones was found staked down. Brand new quern stones, used to grind grain, were discovered. The shaft of an axe lay beneath the large platform. Were these offerings to the gods?

Francis Pryor, founder of the Fenland Archaeological Trust and Director of Flag Fen, believes these finds reveal the platform to be a significant religious or ceremonial site. Even after abandonment to rising waters during the Iron Age many objects—swords, jewelry, and ornaments—were purposely discarded in the waters.

These practices seem to have ceased with the coming of the Romans in 43 AD when they built their road, the Fen Causeway, across Flag Fen. Today, thanks to Roman road-building ingenuity, a cross section of the 10 metre wide military road still exists and is on view at the site. The first layer consists of a black band of peat and wood showing how the Romans layered twigs and branches on the marshy land. Next came rubble and gravel. Showing clearly above this is a dark layer indicating a flood after which another layer of rubble was needed. On top of this went cobble. After the Roman abandonment of the area in 410 AD, soil began to accumulate on top of the road, burying it to its present depth of 1 ½ feet.

There is much to marvel at on a tour of Flag Fen. After viewing the informative video and archaeological finds in the Visitor Centre, head out for a tour of the site itself. First stop is "Preservation Hall", where a previous dig has been enclosed in a controlled environment building. Wood, dating from 1300 BC, some of the oldest on display anywhere in the world, is misted every 15 minutes to keep it wet. Nevertheless, after several years, it will rot away. Excavations ended at this spot in 1994 where five rows of standing posts cutting across Flag Fen show the sophisticated Bronze Age woodworking technology, including mortise holes.

Flag Fen Prehistoric Timber by Barbara Ballard Before the ancient timbers were unearthed, archaeologists drove a tent pole into the ground to cover their Roman road diggings and inadvertently broke into pieces the largest Bronze Age timber in the world. Large water tanks now help to preserve the latest finds. Among the pieces on view are a Y-shaped timber possibly used as part of a loom and the broken pieces of that largest Bronze Age timber.

Water has replaced 80% of the cellulose in this ancient wood making it spongy. You can easily break a large timber across your knee. To preserve some of the most significant finds a special technique replaces the water in the wood with water-soluble wax. The wood is then freeze dried to remove any remaining water, but the wax is left in. The wood becomes light in color and weight after being treated but keeps its original surface-detail.

Flag Fen Prehistoric Wagon Wheel by Barbara Ballard The museum at the Visitor Centre contains wood preserved in this way, but due to the sheer volume of wood only the most important finds can be preserved. Other articles in the museum include a replica of Europe's oldest wheel, gold earrings, harness rings, miniature wheels, razors, shears in their original wooden box, pins and small ornaments. Many of these were discovered in 1989 during construction for a power station on the edge of the flood plain at Fengate.

Flag Fen Prehistoric Finds by Barbara Ballard Archaeologists formed a lake on the site to protect some of the timbers. Bulrushes, flag iris, reeds and other plants of the Bronze Age are planted around the lake. Grass snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, newts, watervoles, harriers, hawks and kingfishers inhabit the area.

Flag Fen Prehistorichouse by Barbara Ballard Just beyond the lake are two replicas of Bronze Age and Iron Age huts. The Bronze Age hut, made of rush and reed, has supporting posts for the shallow angled roof. Bronze Age people turfed the roof and applied dung to the straw and mud walls to waterproof their huts. When wet, the roof weighed two tons.

Flag Fen Prehistoric House Iron Age by Barbara Ballard Iron Age roundhouse timbers were placed at an angle so that support posts were not needed. Thirty to forty people lived in the hut with a central hearth. Although there was no opening in the top for smoke to drift out, the hut was cleverly designed for the smoke to go down the thatched sides and out a gap between the roof and the sides.

Archaeologists are attempting to identify prehistoric Flag Fen sheep by comparing bones found at the site with the rare 2000-year-old breed of Soay sheep on the Scottish island of St. Kilda. The comparison is used because the fleece of the Soay sheep closely resembles wool of prehistoric times. Other animals, including pigs and swans now roam the site, bringing to life a Bronze Age settlement.

Time is not on the side of the archaeologists. The land surface, which grew by one millimeter a year before the drainage of the fens commenced, is now suffering erosion. Someday, perhaps, it will be under water again. Meanwhile, digging continues, and new discoveries change views and alter theories, casting new light on the area’s early history. Will the diggers uncover another metal scabbard with chain still attached, a pair of golden earrings or some entirely new item. One thing is certain, treasures still lie hidden at Flag Fen, an extraordinary window into life 3000 years ago.

Getting There

From London take the M1 (A1) north to Peterborough, then the A605 (A1139) ring road east towards Whittlesey. Signposted. On the Droveway, Northey Rd, Peterborough.
Open 10am-5pm, weekends only; last admission 4pm; excavations closed in the winter.
Tel. 01733 313414.
Website: Flag Fen
Car park, picnic site, light snacks

Note: This article was written after a visit in 1998, before the new visitors’ centre was constructed in 2002. Please check the website for any changes to facilities.

Photos courtesy and Barbara Ballard

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