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BRONZE AGE RIDDLE UNCOVERED AT FLAG FEN- Cover Page: Mar. '97 British Heritage Feature

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1997 
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Bronze Age Riddle
Uncovered at Flag Fen

By Bruce Heydt

Flag Fen is the site of some of the most recent and unusual discoveries of ancient British culture. In 1982 archaeologist Francis Pryor tripped over a piece of wood while walking along a dyke in the Fenlands near Peterborough. Noticing that the wood showed signs of deliberate shaping, he poked around in the peaty, wet soil and soon discovered a series of posts. The wood was set deeper into the ground than the surface of a nearby Roman road, so Pryor knew the wood had to have been placed into the ground well before the Roman engineers arrived on the scene. He estimated the date of his find at about 1000 BC.

As Pryor and his team worked to uncover more of the ancient remains, they were astonished by the size of the site. The wood covered an area of 2 full acres, amounting to an astounding 50,000 posts, with overlying planks and poles numbering in the millions. Careful analysis of the wood has revealed that the Bronze-Age builders felled more than 2 million trees in the process of creating the immense structure. Since the nearby Fenland landscape was not heavily wooded, most of this lumber must have been transported to the site from far off.

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It is extremely rare for Bronze Age wood to have survived into the 20th century. The timber at Flag Fen owes its excellent condition to the waterlogged ground in which it was set, which helped to preserve it. But the extensive nature of the remains have not made it easy to reconstruct the site's original appearance or purpose. Many of the upright posts appear to be in the original position, with wooden pegs still holding individual pieces together. The overlying wood seems to be composed of flooring planks and collapsed walls and roofs. Originally, this led Pryor to suspect that he had discovered a prehistoric village built something like a Scottish crannog–a raised wooden platform forming an artificial island in the midst of a Fenland lake and linked to the shore on opposite sides by wooden causeways. Perhaps, researhers thought, this was done to keep the buildings above water as the North Sea encroached on previously dry land.

As excavation progressed, however, this explanation seemed insufficient to account for some of the unusual aspects of the site. The presumed causeway connecting the timber platform to the dry land, for example, would have been below the level of the water, and even the higher central platform would have been much too damp a place for a comfortable permanent home. As work continued at the site, Pryor recovered dozens of metal artefacts that gradually convinced him that the main concern of the builders was ritualistic. Many of the metal objects, including weapons, tools, and jewellery, bore no indication of ever having been used, and many seem to have been deliberately broken. Pryor theorizes that these were offered as sacrifices in some sort of ceremony. Other gruesome finds, such as that of a dog with a stake through its body, suggest that animal sacrifices may have been performed there as well.

Research continues at Flag Fen and visitors to the site get a rare glimpse of an archaeological find that has yet to yield up all of its treasures.

The Flag Fen Excavations are located at Fengate, Peterborough. The Visitor Centre includes a gift shop, cafe, and book shop. Guided Tours are conducted hourly from April to October. Ancient breeds of livestock graze year round in the adjacent Bronze Age Park. Admission costs L3.20 for adults, L2.75 for seniors, and L2.75 for children. Family and season tickets are available. Tel: 01733 313414.

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