Located just outside of Peterborough, Flag Fen has a vibrant history and is internationally acknowledged as one of the most important Bronze Age sites in the world. Due to extensive drainage and development of the surrounding area, the archaeology is in jeopardy. It is estimated that a large part of the site will be lost within the next 20 years if work is not carried out now.
Flag Fen was discovered in 1982 by Francis Pryor MBE, during a project to complete a dyke survey for English Heritage. It’s a classic story along the lines of how so many truly amazing sites are found: through chance, a bit of a stumble, and a lot of luck. But from the moment he picked up that first piece of pointed, shaped wood – showing clear tool marks made by an axe roughly 1.5 inches wide – Francis knew that he had found something special. It would take him years to untangle the archaeology at Flag Fen, and what it might have meant to the ancient people who built it.
The Flag Fen basin is an area of low-lying land on the western margin of the Fens, just south-east of Peterborough. To the east and west, the land gently rises and is flood-free. The eastern dry land is known as Fengate, and the west as Northey. In the middle lies Flag Fen, where peats began to form in the increasingly wet environment, around 2000 BC.
The archaeology of the area has been studied in detail, but our focus in on what began to happen at Flag Fen in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1300 BC), when farmers in the Fengate and Northey area began to experience difficulty in their fields with increasing wetness from rising water levels.
A causeway, built of timber, was driven across Flag Fen, linking the two areas of higher and drier ground. This causeway, known as a post alignment, was constructed of large posts arranged in five rows. Between the posts, timbers were built up horizontally, which provided the surface for transportation. Closer to the Northey side of the causeway, an artificial timber platform was constructed, the purpose of which is yet to be fully revealed.
We do know that some part of the purpose of this platform must have been ceremonial, however, as the area around it has produced thousands of finds, including metal, stone, shale, ceramic and other objects, along with cuts of meat, food and perishable items. These items were placed in the water around the platform deliberately, with many showing evidence of having been broken or damaged prior to placement in the water.
The last timbers of the post alignment and platform were added approximately 900 BC, but the site continued to be visited throughout the Iron Age. One of the most important aspects of the archaeology at Flag Fen is the preservation environment created by the peats. Many items of leather and wood were kept in nearly pristine condition by the lack of oxygen in the peat, and thus the artefacts are an incredibly important and unique record of Bronze Age life.
Flag Fen Today
Flag Fen is open to the public, and makes for a fantastic visit back to the Bronze Age. The site has a Museum, which displays many of the artefacts found on site, including the famous Flag Fen shears and the oldest wheel in England. Additionally, you can visit the Preservation Hall, which shows a 10m section of the excavated timbers, and is the only place in Europe where it is possible to view this kind of archaeological remains. There is also an extensive archaeological park, including two reconstructed roundhouses, a section of Roman road, gardens and – beginning in July 2012 – the DigVentures excavations.
Flag Fen is now managed by Vivacity, an independent, not-for-profit organisation with charitable status. Vivacity manages many of Peterborough’s most popular culture and leisure facilities on behalf of Peterborough City Council.
most recent book about the site: Flag Fen: Life and death of a prehistoric landscape. The History Press, ISBN 9780752429007, £17.99. Available from Amazon.