With the DigVentures project in full swing, I felt it was time to pay Flag Fen a personal visit and see what was going on there for myself. We set out from London early on Saturday morning, and arrived just in time for public opening (10:00am) to find the car park full to bursting!
Inside the visitor centre, the staff were friendly and helpful, sorting out a electric scooter for my partner, who was then able to join me on my perambulation around the site. A tour group were preparing, and I spotted Brendan Wilkins (Project Director of DigVentures) and said hello. He explained that questions were welcomed on site, the many volunteers (Venturers) being only too happy to explain what was going on in the various trenches and test pits. Raksha Dave (Project Manager, DigVentures) was also there, and I told her how her response to our ‘Inside the Mind’ series is one of our most visited pages here on the Journal, which pleased her immensely. Also in the building was Francis Pryor, discoverer of the Flag Fen site, who was leading a special organised morning tour.
Having had a cup of tea and brief chat with Raksha and Lisa Wescott-Wilkins (Managing Director of DigVentures), we headed out onto the fen grounds to see for ourselves what was going on. The field school for the project runs from 23rd July – 12th August, so two weeks into the project, the trenches and test pits are well established.
The first (main) trench is to the south-east of the site, across the line of the wooden causeway. As I approached, one of the diggers was showing some recent finds from the trench to a young family including a 7-year old girl who was fascinated by the archaeology on show – a future YAC member perhaps? Post holes, and other features including the line of the main causeway were pointed out and explained, and a lot of hard work was obviously being undertaken in the background by the Venturers.
I moved on to the nearby test pit, where discussions were under way on the best way to possibly lift some of the fragile timbers which have been exposed by the excavation.
After a look inside the Preservation Hall, which includes a display of some of the finds from the area along with some interesting interpretation boards, we’d hoped to look at the second trench, but this was covered by a tent which was closed off, so we moved on to look at the reconstructed Bronze Age roundhouse, which had obviously been used by the Venturers for some evening entertainment judging by the lingering smell of wood smoke, which all made it very evocative of a much earlier time.
At this point, disaster struck as my camera batteries refused to function any further! Added to this, the next part of the route around the site across the arena and alongside the mere, was all ‘off path’, and quite dangerous for the electric scooter which dipped and tilted several times on the uneven ground – a warning for any other disabled visitors hoping to visit this part of the site.
Outside the Iron Age roundhouse, another reconstruction showing the difference in styles between the two ages, was another test pit. This was much deeper than the first we saw, attempting to find the edge of a ‘platform’ which the causeway crosses. Unfortunately, nothing has yet been found in this pit and we moved on to the site museum.
Unfortunately, it looked as if many of the interpretation boards and displays were being updated and replaced, which is good news for future visitors who will have much better access to the latest information. Outside the museum is a reconstructed Roman Herb Garden, sited on the path of a Roman Road which runs alongside the much earlier wooden causeway.
Having finished most of our circumnavigation of the site (but missing the Big Dig Tent! How did that happen?) we headed back to the main visitor centre, and just in time as the heavens opened with a downpour of biblical proportions! Trapped in the visitor centre, we undertook some retail therapy and took the opportunity to ask Francis Pryor to sign a copy of his 2005 book about the site, Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape. In turn, he took the opportunity to mention his more recent e-book about the site, Flag Fen: A Concise Archæoguide, so we came out even on that one
Eventually the storm broke, and we returned to the car, wondering about the possible damage done to the trenches by such a downpour which had partially flooded the carpark in the space of some 10-15 minutes.
So what did we bring away from the site? An admiration for the dedication and enthusiasm of all the volunteers and amateur archaeologists taking part, many taking part in a dig for the very first time. A perception that crowdfunding really can work as a concept. And the realisation that every excavation, though essentially destructive by it’s very nature, can add to our knowledge of the distant past. That’s especially true in the case of Flag Fen as so little of the site has been fully excavated, and while the site is slowly drying out, the irretrievable loss of further knowledge this would cause is a very real possibility. Did you know that the earliest recorded wheel was found at Flag Fen, purely because of the anaerobic conditions found in the wetlands there? What else can the site tell us before it’s too late?
Do visit the DigVentures and Flag Fen web sites (see links above) for more information, and try to get along to the site for a personal visit that I think you’ll find both educational and rewarding.