This article was originally published in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
The drive from Peterborough Station to Flag Fen involves a journey across former marshland, drained centuries ago and now covered with industrial buildings. But beneath the modern factories lie the remains of prehistoric settlements, says archaeologist Francis Pryor as he throws his battered Land Rover into gear.
Formerly an expert on Channel 4’s Time Team – now a sheep farmer and author – Pryor has excavated much of Peterborough in his 40-year career. He is perhaps best known for his discovery of Flag Fen – a 3,500-year-old site comprising more than 60,000 vertical posts and 250,000 horizontal timbers that once formed a near 1km-long wooden causeway across the fens.
The site is the only place in the world where original Bronze Age timbers can be seen in their original location. And entering the darkened Preservation Hall you get a sense of just how truly remarkable the discovery is. Water drips constantly onto the Bronze Age posts and timbers that date to c1200-1100 BC – it is the waterlogged peat that has preserved the site for so long. The seemingly haphazard arrangement of the wood below the viewing platform hides a much more organised history.
“It’s difficult to imagine now, but the wood we see here once formed part of a huge walkway with a central platform,” says Pryor. “The sand and gravel still visible on the surface isn’t there by chance – it was put there deliberately, probably to stop the wood becoming slippery in wet weather. This was clearly somewhere people visited regularly and, judging from the wealth of artefacts discovered during excavations, it had real spiritual significance. I believe it would have been the Bronze Age equivalent of a parish church, or even a cathedral, where people came to make offerings to the water.”
The period around 1500 BC (the middle-late Bronze Age) saw a new set of religious beliefs come into play, says Pryor, with huge centralised structures like Stonehenge abandoned in favour of localised religious sites like Flag Fen. Here, men, women and children would mark rites of passage – births, marriages, the completion of apprenticeships – with symbolic offerings.
“Flag Fen wasn’t a burial site, but it would have marked the passage to the next world,” says Pryor. “Mirrors didn’t exist until c500 BC so the only way people knew what they looked like was by looking at their reflection in still water. It must have been very powerful: water was a symbol of the self but also, beneath the surface, a symbol of death.
“One thing we do know about Bronze Age people is that they held their ceremonies at liminal zones, those at the boundaries. Flag Fen is liminal – you couldn’t have lived out here. It’s a watery wilderness in many respects.”
Some of the artefacts discovered during excavation of the site are displayed in glass cases located outside the Preservation Hall. These give a fascinating, and often surprising, insight into the apparent sophistication of Bronze Age life.
A set of worker’s tools (looking remarkably like a modern socket set), a quern stone for grinding corn and even a flesh hook (used for pulling joints of meat out of cauldrons) are all on show. Analysis of one piece of domestic pottery, a small bowl, apparently revealed evidence of a milky porridge. What is also apparent, from the pieces on display, is that almost all the items were intentionally broken or damaged before being cast into the water.
“And there is even evidence of Bronze Age trade, although not in the sense that we would understand it today,” says Pryor. “We found items made of tin mined in central Europe: tin that was probably exchanged among the more powerful members of Bronze Age society for other items – perhaps on the marriage of a family member, for example. Coins don’t turn up for another 1,000 years or so, but this was still trade of sorts.”
Outside the chamber building, a small flock of sheep wanders the site. These are Soay sheep, a hardy breed that would have been bred in the Bronze Age, as bones uncovered at Flag Fen have revealed.
The dyke where Pryor first discovered the site, in 1982 – quite literally stumbling upon it when he tripped over a piece of what he quickly recognised as Bronze Age timber – is still visible. And on the other side of the narrow bridge spanning the dyke is a reconstructed Bronze Age house. The roof of the circular dwelling is both thatched and turfed, as was the tradition 3,500 years ago – the turf insulating the house against the cold. Inside, the building is dark, with no windows, but the space is larger than might be expected.
“Thanks to excavations of Bronze Age settlements, we know now that the organisation of these houses followed the rotation of the sun,” says Pryor. “Doorways faced south, with food prepared around a central hearth. The most important member of the household would have sat opposite the doorway, on the north side of the house – in the Bronze Age, this would probably have been the grandmother.
“People would have slept on the north and east sides of the house. Interestingly, when we have found Iron or Bronze Age burials, the bodies are always found on the north or east of the burial chamber – the side of sleep and darkness.”
The remains of a Bronze Age eel trap is displayed outside the Preservation Hall – hams, sturgeon, and eels would have hung from the roof, smoking above the fire. The Bronze Age diet, it seems, was a healthy one, and tasty to boot, according to Pryor.
Farming the land
The reconstructed roundhouse – based on one excavated in Peterborough by Pryor in the 1970s – gives a real sense of life 3,500 years ago, but the nearest settlement to Flag Fen was in fact about 800m west of the site.
Houses weren’t built near one another until the Iron Age, says Pryor, and in the Bronze Age, houses tended to be carefully spread out among the fields. “By 1500 BC,” he continues, “we’re seeing a landscape that was fully developed, with a network of roads covering Britain and rivers that were being navigated. In 2013, at Must Farm, two miles east of Flag Fen, a length of the river Nene was excavated. In just a 250m section, eight Bronze Age boats were found, presumably abandoned. Rivers must have been the Bronze Age equivalent of motorways: they would have been packed with people.
“The traditional idea of this period of history being one of subsistence agriculture – a family with a few dozen sheep and a couple of moth-eaten old cattle – is old hat. Farming was already intensive. We’ve found whole field systems, as well as yards where sheep would have been handled. As a sheep farmer I know that such areas were intended to handle hundreds, not handfuls, of sheep. These weren’t people scratching a living; they were prosperous, civilised people.”
But the Bronze Age was about more than farming and surviving, according to Pryor. People led remarkably rich lives with plenty of time for leisure and spiritual activity. They even, it seems, enjoyed a tipple.
“I believe people began drinking alcohol as early as 2500 BC,” says Pryor. “After all, fermentation is a pretty basic process – it happens all the time. If you’re a farmer growing wheat and barley and your storage pit gets wet, pretty soon you’re going to get a beer of sorts.
“What’s more, in around 2500 BC we start to see evidence of an extraordinary type of pottery, all over Europe – highly decorated mugs known as beakers. The average beaker holds around two pints and its decoration may well have signified one’s family. These are not the sort of drinking vessels you’d use for a mug of river water!”
Other decorative items have been found during excavations at Flag Fen, including fragments of a bronze shield. But one of the most remarkable finds is a set of shears in a wooden box, dating to c600 BC – to shear sheep, one might assume, but Pryor has another theory.
“Bronze Age sheep like the ones we have here at Flag Fen wouldn’t have needed shearing – they shed their wool naturally. Which means the shears we found were probably used for trimming beards and clipping hair – for looking nice. Caring about one’s personal appearance is not something many people would attribute to Bronze Age society, but I would argue that it formed part of everyday life.”
An excited group of primary school children clad in ‘Bronze Age’ woollen capes borrowed from the visitor centre reminds us that Bronze Age history is now part of the National Curriculum – something Pryor campaigned passionately for. But the future of Flag Fen is far less certain: the site is under constant threat of drying out. Less than 10 per cent of the site has been dug, with an artificial lake created over the largest portion of the ceremonial platform, preserving the Bronze Age timbers, and the site’s history, for future generations.
“It’s time to re-educate people about what life in the Bronze Age was really like,” says Pryor, “and dispel the age-old image of wool-clad people huddling around fires in mud and rain, like cavemen. It was a period of great domestic and spiritual change. Civilised life in Britain did not begin with the Roman occupation of AD 43”.
Flag Fen, The Droveway, Northey Road, Peterborough PE6 7QJ
Five more places to explore
Dover Museum, Kent
Where a prehistoric boat is displayed
In 1992, a Bronze Age boat was discovered during construction of the A20 between Folkestone and Dover. Thought to be around 3,500 years old, the vessel once carried cargos of supplies, livestock and passengers across the Channel, and is tangible evidence of Bronze Age trading. A 9.5m section of this, the world’s oldest known seafaring boat, is on display.
Where a megalithic stone circle stands
Built in c2500 BC, Stonehenge was an important site of early pilgrimage until the early Bronze Age, when one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows in Britain was built in the surrounding area. The henge monument at Avebury, a 26-mile walk away, was built and altered between 2850–2200 BC but, like Stonehenge, the reason for its existence is still debated.
Skara Brae, Orkney
Where ancient houses are preserved
Discovered by chance after a storm in 1850, the remains of the late Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae offer an insight into life between c3200 BC and c2200 BC, when the village was inhabited. Orkney itself boasts some 600 Bronze Age burial mounds, including a complex around the Ring of Brodgar, not far from Skara Brae.
Lynn Museum, Norfolk
Where Bronze Age timbers are on show
The remains of the Bronze Age timber circle discovered on Holme beach on the north Norfolk coast in 1998 are on show in Lynn Museum, along with a life-size replica. The wooden structure comprised 55 oak posts. In its centre was a huge upturned tree stump, which may have been used as part of a burial ritual.
Great Orme Mines, Gwynedd
Where copper was once mined
Mined for copper ores from nearly 4,000 years ago, some four miles of tunnels have been uncovered at Great Orme. Visitors can explore its huge caverns and prehistoric landscape, as well as view Bronze Age mining tools and artefacts.
Historical advisor Francis Pryor is the author of Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory (Allen Lane, 2014).