The Resurrection Of Flag Fen
In late 2010 The Moment magazine visited Flag Fen and discovered the hugely important Bronze Age site was struggling for survival. Neglected and seemingly forgotten, visitor numbers were so few that it could no longer justify staying open during weekdays. Now, thanks to some inspired management by Vivacity and an innovative new archaeological dig taking place at the site, this wonder of the ancient world is undergoing something of a resurrection. We paid a second visit to Flag Fen and are amazed at the transformation.
The weather contributed to the overall gloom that seemed to be enveloping Flag Fen in December of 2010. It was a damp, dark afternoon when The Moment visited one of the most important Bronze Age sites in Britain, and alternate heavy falls of snow and slush added to the desolate atmosphere.
The car park was empty because the site was officially closed midweek, the management unable to fund the staffing of Flag Fen when no-one bothered visiting. The man who discovered the site in 1982, Francis Pryor, seemed resigned to the fact that it would never receive the attention that it needed from fellow archaeologists due to lack of funds and an equivalent lack of interest. After enduring the rigours of time for some 3,500 years, Flag Fen would, Pryor warned, be decayed beyond help in as little as fifty years, its secrets lost forever; neglected, abandoned, and left to rot.
Now just 18 months later, the scene at Flag Fen could not be more transformed. The sleet and snow have been replaced by blazing sunshine, flowers and shrubs are blooming everywhere, the once empty car park is now choc-a-block (despite it being midweek), people are laughing and joking in the visitor centre as they enjoy teas and coffees, and the site itself is a hive of activity. This is, in large part due to the hard work of the Vivacity Heritage team who have taken over the site since July 2011, gradually improving, interpreting and promoting the site to a wider audience. The current burst of activity is centred around a team of archaeologists who are bringing the Bronze Age world of Flag Fen to life thanks to an innovative new method of funding.
Crowd-funding is an idea that originated in the United States and is now catching on in the UK. A website-based business model, it allows for various projects from movie-making to recording albums, to be funded by individuals who contribute cash in order to see the project come to fruition. In this case, the project was an archaeological dig at Flag Fen and the target budget was £25,000. That figure was reached – and surpassed – in just 60 days thanks to contributions from 193 people, some of whom paid minimal amounts of £10, and others who paid upwards of £1,300. But the utterly unique aspect of the venture is that those who paid £125 or more got the chance to actually join a real archaeological dig at one of the world’s most important Bronze Age sites.
The dig is being carried out by Dig Ventures, the brainchild of husband and wife team, Brendan Wilkins and Lisa Westcott Wilkins. Both are hugely experienced and widely respected archaeologists and they’re joined in the field by Time Team regular Raksha Dave, another of the country’s finest archaeologists.
It’s the first time anywhere in Europe that an archaeological dig has been opened up to the public and it’s also the first ever crowd-funded archaeological excavation to be carried out in Europe. ‘Crowd-funding is an idea that’s come over from the States’ project manager Lisa Westcott Wilkins explains. ‘It’s very popular over there, especially in the creative industries. For example, 10% of all the movies shown at the last Sundance Film Festival were financed by crowd-funding. It was my husband Brendan who said “Let’s do this for archaeology” so we got involved with Sponsume.com which is the largest crowd-funding platform in Europe. They had to create a new heritage category for us but we’re now the highest-grossing project that they’ve ever hosted.’
With the economic climate being what it is, a new method of funding archaeological digs could not have come at a better time, especially for a site like Flag Fen which is in real danger of decaying beyond rescue. ‘This is crucial work for this site’ Wilkins says. ‘I’m sure that, under normal circumstances, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund would have wanted to be part of this dig. But with the economic climate being what it is, it might have been another ten years before funds became available for excavations at Flag Fen and, quite frankly, we just don’t have that amount of time – the archaeology under the ground here is drying out and turning to dust and within 20 years it could all be gone forever. So we felt a real sense of urgency and a call to action over this dig.’ That call to action began in November when the Wilkins formed Dig Ventures and set about looking for a suitable first project. When Flag Fen came up after negotiations with Vivacity, it seemed an obvious choice and the fund-raising began as Lisa and Brendan sat back nervously and watched the Dig Ventures website (digventures.com) to see if any donations would start coming in.
We didn’t really know what to expect because this has never been done before on such a scale. So we were elated that, after the first 24 hours, we had already raised £3,000 and it just kept coming. £25,000 was how much we reckoned it would cost us to carry out a basic evaluation but that figure includes a lot of value-in-kind in terms of services and facilities. The true cost of this excavation would have been more like £130,000 if we’d had to pay for everything. We’ve only been able to do it at this price because people have been prepared to work for less and Vivacity (the non-profit organisation that looks after Flag Fen and other cultural and leisure sites on behalf of Peterborough City Council) has been so generous
Wilkins is in no doubt that the enthusiastic response is at least partly due to the popularity of TV’s hit archaeological show, Time Team. ‘Absolutely without question’ she smiles.
A percentage of our diggers are here because they either watch Time Team or have participated with the show in some way. And everywhere you go you hear the same story – that Time Team has inspired an entire generation into choosing archaeology as a profession
It was 2005 when the last significant dig took place at Flag Fen and with the fenland that encases and preserves the 300,000 pieces of Bronze Age timber now drying out at an alarming rate, the most important aspect of this latest project is to assess the state of the archaeology. ‘This is an evaluation dig’ Wilkins explains. It’s been a long time since anyone investigated the preservation environment here so we need to get in and see what condition the wooden posts are in. But we also aim to test out some of the assumptions about the site – like how big the main wooden platform is – so we’ve been doing a lot of plotting. Archaeological techniques have moved on a lot in the ten years since Flag Fen was studied so we need to bring the findings up to date. We’re hoping to find out enough to inform a longer project design and hopefully work with English Heritage over the next five-to-ten years on a much larger project.’
The urgency of the need for action at Flag Fen has been dramatically highlighted by the plight of the Star Carr Mesolithic site in Yorkshire as Wilkins explains. ‘About 40 years ago, they dug up a lot of wood that was in a similar state to the wood at Flag Fen, and it was put in storage. When a team went back to Star Carr last summer, they found the wood that was still in the ground was in worse condition than the samples they took out all those years ago and kept in the lab, due to the loss of water in the ground. That prompted them to put in an application to get some serious money and go back to Star Carr this year. If we find that the preservation environment at Flag Fen is in a similar poor state, then we really need to get moving and record as much as we can while we still have the chance.’
The current dig at Flag Fen is a three-week programme but Wilkins hopes it is just the first phase in a long-term plan for the site. ‘We hope it will be a five- year plan but English Heritage has got some very strong policies on how they like to see archaeological sites treated and a lot of that has to do with preservation of sites ‘in-situ.’ Digging is a process of discovery but it’s also a process that can potentially damage the archaeology. English Heritage would usually prefer to see things left as they are but if the results from this dig are dramatic enough then we will hopefully get the chance to come back. This site is ripe for re-interpretation and hopefully English Heritage will be on board with that.’
If English Heritage does approve the plans, and working with Vivacity, it is quite likely that the Dig Ventures team will be back at Flag Fen next summer to pick up where they left off and that would mean lots more places in field school for budding archaeologists. The allocated places for this year’s dig sold out quickly with people travelling from as far afield as Australia to take up the unique opportunity of digging a site of worldwide archaeological importance. But isn’t there a risk in allowing untrained and unqualified people to go rummaging around with trowels amongst potentially precious artefacts? ‘Not at all’ says Wilkins. ‘Obviously we have a strong team of professional archaeologists on-site who are helping with skills training. And we’re not throwing people straight into the really sensitive stuff, like wet wooden posts, without proper supervision.’
Wilkins is delighted with how well the project has been going but wants to encourage even more local people to appreciate the significance of the world famous site that’s right on their doorstep.
It is very gratifying to have helped generate such interest. This is our wildest dream scenario and exactly what we were hoping for and I feel certain that if the Olympics wasn’t going on and there weren’t so many more events happening this summer then we would probably have done even better in terms of visitor numbers. Hopefully staging public archaeology like this will inform people that Flag Fen is very much open for business so we would encourage everyone to come and see it for themselves
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Flag Fen is what we don’t yet know. Archaeological digs are an expensive business and the digs themselves are just the tip of the iceberg: the amount of pre-planning required, the expensive field equipment needed on-site, and the analysis of samples after they have been excavated all add to the overall cost. But with the innovative new method of crowd-funding opening up all sorts of possibilities, who knows what may ultimately be discovered at Flag Fen? Certainly, Lisa Westcott Wilkins is thinking big.
Only 5% of this site has ever been excavated, So, of the total knowledge that’s left to be learned from Flag Fen, we still have 95% of it left to gather. My ultimate dream would be to excavate the entire site and gain that 100% knowledge
What Is Flag Fen?
Flag Fen is one of the largest and most important Bronze Age sites in Britain. Buried underneath the fenland to the east of Peterborough are some 60,000 upright timbers and over 250,000 horizontal pieces of wood, still ‘in-situ’ and forming a massive causeway with a central platform larger than Wembley Stadium. Most of the massive structure is still buried underground but one section has been fully excavated and is now on display, housed in a protective building, where it is kept moist and preserved by regular dowsing from sprinklers.
It’s still not certain exactly what the site was used for but current thinking leans towards its fulfilling a ceremonial role, which might explain the 300- odd precious artefacts that have already been found there, from gold rings and bronze swords to daggers, axe heads, and metalworkers’ tools. You can see some of these objects in the on-site museum. You can also step inside replica Iron Age and Bronze Age roundhouses and walk along a section of the Roman road which passes through the site. The site is managed by Vivacity, which also runs the recently reopened Peterborough Museum and medieval Longthorpe Tower.
Can You Dig It? (Yes you can)
Ben Swain is a 19-year-old accounting student from Glasgow. As soon as he heard about the chance to dig at Flag Fen, he packed his tent, caught a train, and has been in his own personal heaven ever since.
‘I found out about the dig through an advert on the Time Team Facebook page. I thought “This is the first opportunity I’ve seen for someone my age to actually have a go at digging myself – properly too, just like you see on TV! My interest stemmed from watching shows like Time Team and other documentaries. I found any programmes that involved excavations incredibly interesting because you just never know what they’re going to find.
I originally signed up to dig for one week and that cost me £450 so I just packed a tent and caught the train. But by the time I got half way through that first week I thought it would be too much of a shame to leave on the Sunday so I asked if I could stay for another week and they said yes and then they said I could stay for a third week – which meant the full duration of the dig – so I was over the moon.
I had no experience of archaeology at all when I arrived but the team has been incredibly helpful. The main thing is that they trust youalottogetonwith what they’ve taught you and that makes you really raise your game. You can then go and practice what you’ve been taught and learn from your mistakes along the way. I mean, I’ve only been here for a week- and-a-half and already I’m passing on what I’ve learned to other people who are joining the dig as novices.
The most exciting part for me so far was when we first struck the wooden posts in the test pit – to see the first piece of Bronze Age wood that perhaps hasn’t been seen in 3,000 years. That was a special moment.
I’m doing accounts at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and I’ll probably go into accounting for a few years to get established but eventually I would love to get into archaeology full-time – it’s much more exciting than accounting.
VISITING FLAG FEN
Flag Fen is open daily from 10am to 5pm from April to October. Refreshments and gifts are available in the visitor centre. Car parking is free of charge.
Under 5’s FREE
Family (two adults and up to three children) £13.75.
You can keep up with all the findings of the Flag Fen dig by visiting digventures.com