Heritage & Culture

Francis Pryor: Digging up the future

In August, Peterborough was invited to bid for £25 million of funding from the £3.6bn Government Towns Fund – part of the City Council’s plan to create new library and cultural facilities and improved visitor attractions, including a national Bronze Age themed extension to Peterborough Museum and a lakeside activity centre at Ferry Meadows. Coming at such a critical time when Vivacity is handing management of many key sites and leisure facilities back to the City Council, this seems to put heritage and culture in general – and the archaeological finds at Flag Fen and Must Farm in particular – front and centre. It is not yet certain, however, that those finds will remain here. The discoveries are of global significance, archaeologically speaking, but what do they really mean to the city itself? Should we fight to keep them here? Are they just relics, only of real interest to experts– or could they in fact be the key to the city’s future prosperity? We asked the man who discovered Flag Fen– archaeologist, prehistorian, Time Team member and writer Francis Pryor MBE – who also, it turns out, was responsible for Peterborough’s tourism for an entire decade…

Your whole life has been devoted to archaeology and you’ve produced a vast array of academic papers and popular books, as well as being a regular on Time Team. But what first got you interested in the subject?
While I was at school [Eton] I had an injury playing football and was out of action for about two days. And in the afternoon when I should have been going off and playing football and I was confined to the house and the house master said ‘Well, if you’re bored, why not go to the library and into the museum of Egyptian stuff at the back of the library?’ So I went to this library, and this wonderful teacher said ‘What sort of things are you interested in?’ I didn’t really know; I didn’t have any developed interests other than trains. And he said ‘Oh, well, I think you might enjoy this…’ And he brought this great big book down and said ‘Read the introduction…’ And it was Howard Carter describing how he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.I was riveted. Absolutely riveted. And I thought ‘Right, I know what I’m going to do with my life…’

Jumping forward to Flag Fen… how did you come to make that discovery?
The story really starts in the late ‘60s, when I was living in Canada and working at the Royal Ontario Museum under the Canadian archaeologist Doug Tushingham. One day he said to me: ‘I want to do a dig in England. I’d like to do a bit of reverse colonialism…’ He was quite a mischievous chap. ‘And so I’ve managed to get a small grant and we’ll send you back to England and see if you can find some possible project for us.’ So,I whizzed over to England, and while I was in England, I had a copy of the first issue of the most popular of all the archaeological magazines, called Current Archaeology, which had then just been published. And one of the articles in Current Archaeology was about the expansion of Peterborough New Town and how the Peterborough area had a lot of archaeology, because a survey had been done in 1968 by the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments. And so I came to Peterborough and I met various archaeologists working in the area. Romanists have always loved Peterborough, because of the Roman town of Durobrivae. So I went on a couple of digs for Romanists, and I got really quite a strong taste for it. Then I started looking into the Fens and what the potential was there. Before I came back to Canada, I contacted various people in the new Development Corporation and archaeological bodies working in Peterborough and they said ‘Well, look – you’re a prehistorian… There’s this area of Peterborough known as Fengate which has prehistory’ – which I knew about. And they said ‘If you can get money, come back and dig…’
So, I was given eight months to raise some money – which I did! And eight years later we finished. That was ‘71 to ‘79. On that dig we found what is still one of the oldest farms and field systems in Britain, not to mention an Iron Age village (ca. 300 BC) and a host of burials of all ages. Having now left the Royal Ontario Museum, and started working in the local area, I went up to Maxey where the gravel pits are, just north of Peterborough, and worked nearby, but the same time I was researching into the Fens and it was then that we found Flag Fen. That was back in ‘82 or ’83.

How exactly did that occur?
Well, because of the work we’d done at Fengate, we knew that the higher land around Flag Fen was completely divided up by Bronze Age fields, farms and villages. And it struck me as completely crazy to have settled all the way around the edge and have nothing in the middle. And then one day, I was driving back to the base where we were working and I noticed the jib of a dragline – you know, those crane- like excavators that they had in the ‘80s. It was being used by Anglian Water to drain and to clean out the sides of the big dyke that ran right across Flag Fen, known as the Must Dyke. And I thought ‘Hello!’ – so I parked the Land Rover and walked along the Must Dyke and got chatting to the digger driver asking if there was anything here, and it became obvious that there was. I then got permission to do a proper survey of the dyke, which I did a few days later. The dyke actually cut a Roman road – that’s why it was interesting – and walking back from having just been drawing and photographing it I caught my foot on a log lying on the top of the dyke. It was a substantial stake, which had a long pencil- like tip. Oak – I recognised that – and sharpened with the narrow-bladed axe which I recognised as being a late Bronze Age socketed axe. So I slid down the side of the dyke and found more timbers sticking up just above the water level. And I thought ‘Right, this will be Bronze Age. It has to be…’ because it was a metre below the Roman road. And that was it. That was Flag Fen.

Clearly this shifted your plans in a completely new direction… What happened next?
I got in touch with English Heritage, and said ‘Look, we made this discovery…’ and the chief archaeologist came out within a week and said ‘Right. What do you need? You can have it…’ So, we got money to hire the boat and things we used to ship the timbers out, and we did a total survey. And there were timbers extending along that dyke for 80 metres I think it was; I forget how many hundred timbers we got out. But horizontal ones too, so it was obviously a platform – it wasn’t just posts. We didn’t find any metalwork at that stage – all of that happened later. But the following spring we did a survey of the surface of the field that the dyke was cutting through, and we worked out the extent of Flag Fen and the platform. I think it was a couple of acres of searching, which was all done with a borer – a hand auger. Then from about ‘84-‘85 we started doing proper digs on a large scale, recording all the timbers – and that kept us very busy for about another decade!

Was there an overlap between Flag Fen being purely an archaeological site and being a tourist attraction people could visit? Is public engagement the sort of thing that is necessary now – and is it also a hindrance?
A hindrance? No! Is it necessary? My own feeling is if you’ve got a fabulous site, it is necessary to share that fabulousness with the public. I think archaeology is far too important to be left to archaeologists. That’s something I believe in passionately. You know, it isn’t our past. It’s everyone’s past. So, more or less from the outset, I wanted it to be a public project. The very early years we kept ourselves to ourselves because it was so complicated and the environment was so hostile. There was so much mud and rats, it was on the edge of a sewage settling ground, and we had Weil’s disease there…So initially it wasn’t suitable to open to the public, but from 1989 we decided ‘Right, we’re going to set up a proper visitor centre and have proper conducted tours of the dig…’ I think we opened for that first summer. And then thereafter we tried to make it all year round. And we had a huge tent over the excavation, a permanent tent, which we imported from Sweden because it’s one of the few places that made tents that would stand up to hurricane force wind. It was a unique tent. It was huge, and one wall was two metres higher than the other because that was the side that we’d dug and it had to be taller! We had a walkway running around the edge and every 20 minutes or so there’d be a tour through the dig. And all the diggers were told if you want to work at Flag Fen, that’s fine, we’d love to have you. But you must do tours. And one of the things that gave me most satisfaction at Flag Fen in those early days was seeing the change in some of the shy, self-effacing, lacking-in-confidence students who tried to wiggle out of doing their tours. We were ruthlessly hard on them. We said ‘No! This was a condition of coming to Flag Fen, you must take tours around, sorry!’ And they did. And this was one of the great things – after six weeks with us, seeing these now confident young people going back to wherever it was they came from – their parents, their university, whatever. It had just transformed them. Back then we were open full-time or very nearly full-time. Since Flag Fen has moved to the city, one of the things they’ve done is close it down in the winter. And I still think that’s a huge mistake because that’s when the people who live in Peterborough have time. They go for winter walks. Yes, our visitor numbers would fall off a bit in the winter, but we often found that the really keen people came there then.

One of the key factors at Flag Fen and Must Farm has been the amazing state of preservation. Is it a very close run thing between that preservation happening and not happening?
Short answer is yes! The conditions have to be pretty well just right and at Must Farm and Flag Fen, they are. What makes the Fen preservation so remarkable is that the Fens aren’t as acid as, say, the Somerset Levels or raised bogs in Ireland and extreme acid means for example, the bone doesn’t preserve. You lose quite a lot. The other thing with the Fens is that there’s no periodic seasonal drying out. When that starts to happen, preservation deteriorates very fast. So there are all sorts of things that can go against the preservation of organic material in waterlogged places. And it just happens that around Peterborough the conditions were – we’re not saying they are, but they were – pretty well perfect for preservation. I worry now with drainage and all the other things that are happening as to how much archaeology is actually going to survive below the ground. What we did at Flag Fen was we put a plastic skirt all the way round the area where we know there was a platform as a means of keeping water in. Then we’d pump water in to make sure, so we got that large lake there. I don’t know whether that’s being maintained – I hope it is! That was our bit to preserve it.

Is the conservation of these objects something that needs to be entrusted to a major institution, and should the artefacts go, say, to the British Museum, or should they stay in or near Peterborough?
With regard to the actual conservation, let’s say you’ve got a piece of waterlogged wood… There are various ways you can conserve that. You can freeze dry it – that works. You can just keep it very wet. That works up to a point, but you have all sorts of problems as you can imagine. And you can replace the water with a water soluble wax named polyethylene glycol. That’s a very efficient method and it does work well, but then the object isn’t completely stable and a conservator has to keep a careful eye on it. There are various other techniques you can use, but polyethylene glycol is the most usual way of preserving wood. Now, Peterborough has a registered museum which is listed with the museum authorities. So they will have someone there who is expert in conservation who would be able to keep an eye on it. So as long as the objects get the actual process of preservation – and that is a very specialised process – the objects could perfectly well go on display in Peterborough. The Must Farm boats, for example, will be preserved quite soon; they’ve been pickling for some time. And then I think they should come to Peterborough. One of the things I believe in passionately, is that finds ought to remain more or less where they came from. I don’t believe in taking everything off to the British Museum. You’re taking them away from the people whose landscape they came from. I just hope that, you know, Peterborough councillors and others are aware of what the city possesses.

How important is Flag Fen?
I’d say it’s of comparable importance to the cathedral and a heck of a lot older – as I occasionally remind the bishop when he comes to visit! But Flag Fen changed the way we think about the Bronze Age. Both Flag Fen and Must Farm are capable of telling us so much about life going back to 1000 years BC and earlier. And it ought to be taken far more seriously than it is. I mean, no one would even consider letting Peterborough Cathedral fall down. It would be the last thing that would happen. But in the past – distant past, fortunately – I’ve heard it suggested ‘Oh, yes, we’ll close Flag Fen down and it’ll become a caravan site…’ I’ve had people actually say that seriously. They don’t realise what they’ve got.

Does the national press attention help?
Must Farm has had some excellent coverage – there was a good BBC documentary about it – but often the media get it wrong. They called it ‘Britain’s Pompeii…’ No! They completely missed the point. It’s much more important than Pompeii. One of the most significant things about the Must Farm houses is that they had been lived in for just one year. If you’re looking for closest equivalent prehistoric site, prior to the discovery of Flag Fen and Must Farm, then that would be the Swiss lake villages, discovered in the 1850s. But those were inhabited over a very long period of time – many, many generations – and when you get that, the needs of the people inhabiting them change over time and the organisation of the dwellings becomes very much more muddled and harder to interpret. But in houses that were lived in for just one year, everything is clear – you can see exactly where they ate, where they slept. It’s all there, perfectly preserved.

Who gets to decide the ultimate fate of those finds?
Good question! I’ve always been involved in an advisory capacity in the past, but I think it’s got to be decided with Peterborough City Council who, after all, now run both the Museum and Flag Fen. But it’s got to be thought through properly. Because one of the things it’s got to do is provide a good experience for the visitors to Peterborough. One of the things that transformed York and Jorvik was the fact that York is a weekend destination. So you go to York, spend a weekend or week in that area you go to Jorvik, go to the Minster, do the city walls and the National Railway Museum and so on. But here you’ve got the cathedral, you’ve got Longthorpe Tower – which has some of the finest painted medieval murals in the country – you’ve got Flag Fen, you’ve got the Must Farm finds. And my feeling is that there’s no reason why Peterborough can’t become a weekend destination. And it’s got to be sold like that. I mean, I used to be in charge of the tourism side of Peterborough for a bit, and that was one of the things which I really promoted and people believed in, but you don’t hear it anymore. In my Fens book I promote Peterborough as a fen city. The fen city, really. It is the base from where you can explore the Fens, and the Fens should be promoted as a tourist attraction. We always think of the Fens as being about wildlife, and that’s what the Fens are famous for. But the finest medieval churches in Europe are in and around the Fens. We forget that. What other district can boast cathedrals of the quality of Lincoln and Peterborough? Dotted around the edge of the Fens, you’ve got the Boston Stump with the tallest medieval tower of a parish church anywhere. Long Sutton church is breathtaking – finest timber spire in the country. If you like church architecture, you won’t get better!

I was surprised to find that your MBE wasn’t for archaeology – which would be more than justified – but ‘services to tourism’…
That was when I did 10 years for Peterborough tourism. The people employed by the tourist office at Peterborough put me up for that. But I feel very strongly that actually, we are now on the cusp of some fairly big changes, thanks to COVID. I think that completely mindless jumping on a plane burning fuel and getting to Spain and getting skin cancer way of life is gone. I think people are coming to their senses, and staycations are going to happen more often. The British Isles haven’t been ravaged by two world wars to the extent that the continent has – that’s why we’ve got 14,000 medieval churches intact. No one else has got anything like that. And I think people are going to start discovering England and Britain again. I’m convinced of it. And I think Peterborough needs to grasp that, if anyone on the City Council has got the vision to understand what’s happening. That’s the thing that I always found difficult – getting the councillors to realise what an amazing city they’re in. And our railway heritage needs to be picked up a bit. There’s a wealth of stuff we’ve got in Peterborough which has just got to be brought to public attention.

I’ve heard archaeologists say that it’s not really about the objects, it’s about the data and what is learnt from the objects. When I interviewed Mark Knight, lead archaeologist at Must Farm, however, there was nonetheless very clearly a thrill at making these incredible discoveries. How important is it to retain that excitement?
Oh, it’s fundamentally important. If you lose it, then get out of archaeology. I feel that passionately. You do have to be systematic, of course. I remember when the very first bronzes were coming up at Flag Fen… We had employed a metal detecting club to do survey work and one of the things was explaining to them how you go down steady, because you’re not particularly interested in the object itself at that stage. You’re interested in how it’s lying in the ground. Is it at an angle? If so, why? Has it been thrown there? If it’s lying in topsoil, well, topsoil’s constantly growing, and that will remove most of its context. But if it’s in situ – in other words, it’s been buried – you have a moment in time. You have the moment of loss. And that’s what you’ve got to try to work out. How did it get there? And you’ve only got one go. If that isn’t exciting, what is?

This links back to that magical Howard Carter moment that first inspired you… Have you had any moments like that?
I had one when we were digging up Fengate, I found a thing called a loom weight, which is a cylindrical, clay object that hung from the bottom of the loom to keep the warp stiff. And we found a row of these in an Iron Age house. One of them still had a person’s thumbprint on it, and you could actually see that they’d cut their thumb. There was a little line and I was looking at the scratch on someone’s thumb, which happened to be very similar to one on mine, from three thousand years ago. And I thought: ‘Oh my God…’ That’s as good as looking into someone’s eyes from that period. So yes, we do have these moments!

The Must Farm connection

Mark Knight, lead archaeologist on the Must Farm investigations

“The Must Farm story is dependent on the long history of investigation in and around Peterborough, and in particular, the Flag Fen Basin. Without a doubt, the discovery of Flag Fen led to the discovery of Must Farm. What Pryor started in the 1970s and ‘80s we’ve continued in the noughties and beyond, and have demonstrated that it doesn’t stop at the fen edge but goes deep into it.

“On bad weather days the Must Farm team would walk to Flag Fen or drive to Peterborough Museum to look at the artefacts (the metalwork, wooden artefacts and ceramics) and make associations between our finds and theirs. This became another way of establishing the context of our site, its place in this already important landscape. In turn, our new material would cast fresh light on the earlier discoveries.

“Through Flag Fen and Peterborough Museum we came to understand the significance of Must Farm. In turn, we also became aware of the importance of Flag Fen and Peterborough Museum and the role these places (and the curatorial staff and volunteers) had in creating an established and well-informed audience for the very site we were now excavating. As anyone who has ever given a talk at Peterborough Museum or Flag Fen will know, the audience is both knowledgeable and critical, and there is always a tremendously strong sense of ‘ownership’ and pride (especially in its well-preserved prehistory).”

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