It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Bronze Age people with only hearth-light to keep away the gloom, tucking themselves into their roundhouses for safety and comfort as daylight faded and temperatures dropped. Now, thanks to an incredible array of visitor interpretation and living archaeology taking place in real time, the past is brought vividly to life at Flag Fen. We spoke to JACQUI MOONEY, Flag Fen’s General Manager, to find out more...
What’s it like at Flag Fen in the winter months?
When you first arrive here there’s such a sense of peace – you feel enveloped by the landscape. Although it’s so close to Peterborough, and we’re bordering an industrial estate, you wouldn’t know that when you’re here. You’re stepping into a place where you don’t hear the traffic, you don’t hear the outside world; it’s a soft, peaceful space to be. If you want to you can just walk round – there are always birds singing, you can hear the wind through the trees, the rustling of reeds. Many people find it quite a spiritual place to be.
There’s also the opportunity to go further afield and explore, and of course we now have the Must Farm boats here, undergoing conservation. This is happening in one of our barns, and people are welcome to come and talk to our conservator, Mary, who is in on Mondays and Fridays – she may even let you hold a piece of 3,500-year-old boat! She can also tell you all about the people who used the boats, where they came from, how they lived and worked.
Tell us about the causeway, because that’s pretty special isn’t it?
Our genuine Bronze Age wooden causeway is preserved in situ, where it was discovered. We stop it from drying out (and therefore disintegrating) by putting it underwater, or spraying it with water. Around the causeway we’ve put up a protective building – the preservation hall – and each wall is painted with the surrounding fenland landscape during a different season, so you can get a real sense of what it would have been like to stand in that spot, all those centuries ago.
In the Fens, long before drainage, you would have had islands surrounded by marshland – we know that Peterborough was one of those islands – and our causeway was a way people were able to cross from island to island over the water on foot.
Standing in our preservation hall means you can take a step back to the time of this huge causeway, which ran over an area that would have been completely waterlogged in winter. People would have been using the causeway to drive cattle and other livestock, making journeys between Peterborough and the East of England. You might also have found people making ritual deposits, a sort of communion with the ancestors.
Tell us a bit more about the other parts of the site, and what people can see?
There’s a lot! We have our new museum, which floats on a man-made mere that’s been installed to keep the other parts of the causeway and platform waterlogged, to prevent them from drying out. In the museum are some amazing objects, including one of the earliest-known wooden wheels in England, some crafted shears with their case, swords and axes, some beautiful bits of jewellery.
In the other half of the museum, we have our geological exhibits where you can see ‘sea dinosaurs’ – huge marine reptiles that were around in the Jurassic period – and have a look at the fossils, discover what the fossils feel like, learn more about what’s deeper under your feet in this part of the world.
We’ve got a den building area, a Bronze Age play village with round houses on stilts connected by a walk- way, a boat, there’s a mud kitchen, and sand and water tables so toddlers have something to do as well. And although it’s winter, a lot of our experiences are under cover – you never really have to walk more than about 30 metres to get to the next bit that’s inside!
And the famous Must Farm boats?
We have all the boats here, and we’re currently conserving them in the largest conservation chiller in England. We have our conservator, Mary – whom I mentioned – whose only job is
to look after these boats. At the moment we’ve got some of the boats submerged in a solution
of peg wax and water – they have to soak up enough wax so they can come out to be dried. We have three boats that have finished the process of soaking up the wax; they’ve been specially freeze dried in a conservation centre at York University then sent back to us. After that, we clean all the wax off and, like a huge jigsaw puzzle, we basically put them all back together again before we display them. Mary does all of this where she can be seen and asked questions by our visitors – she doesn’t hide away in a lab!
Eventually, when all the boats are completed and back together, they will be displayed in our museum.
Over the Christmas holidays, Flag Fen will have plenty for families to do indoors and out, including story time with Father Christmas (with a free gift!), a cookie puzzle trail (with gingerbread prizes), crafting and more.