Flag Fen

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The site at Flag Fen sits in a basin of low-lying land on the western margins of the Fens of eastern England, at the outskirts of the city of Peterborough. Before their drainage in the seventeenth century the Fens were England's largest area of natural wetland, comprising about a million acres, to the south and west of the Wash. The Fen margins immediately east of Peterborough have been the subject of nearly continuous archaeological research since about 1900. In 1967 the central government designated Peterborough a New Town, which resulted in additional government funding and rapid commercial development. Most of the archaeological research described here took place as a response to new building projects in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

A ditched field system in use from 2500–900 b.c. is situated on the dry land to the west of the Flag Fen basin (an area known as Fengate). A similar field system has been revealed at Northey, on the eastern side of the basin. The fields of Northey and Fengate were defined by ditches and banks, on which hedges were probably planted. The fields were grouped into larger holdings by parallel-ditched droveways (specialized farm tracks along which animals were driven), which led down to the wetland edge. It is widely accepted that the fields at Fengate and Northey were laid out for the control and management of large numbers of livestock, principally sheep and cattle. Animals grazed on the rich wetland pastures of Flag Fen during the drier months of the year and returned to flood-free grazing around the fen edge to overwinter.

The center of the Fengate Bronze Age field system was laid out in a complex pattern of droveways, yards, and paddocks. This area, centered on a major droveway, is interpreted as a communal "market-place" for the exchange of livestock and for regular social gatherings. The droveway through these communal stockyards continued east until it encountered the edge of the regularly flooded land. Here the line of the drove was continued by five parallel rows of posts, which ran across the gradually encroaching wetland of Flag Fen to Northey, some 1,200 meters to the east.

The five rows of posts are collectively termed the "post alignment." The post alignment was primarily a causeway constructed from timbers laid on the surface of the peat within and around the posts. These horizontal timbers were pegged into position, and their surfaces were dusted with coarse sand

and fine gravel to make them less slippery. The upstanding posts, which may have projected more than 3 meters above the causeway surface, would have marked out and drawn attention to the route of the causeway, especially when water levels were very high. Dendrochronology shows the post alignment to have been in use for some 400 years, between approximately 1300 and 900 b.c. About 200 meters west of the Northey landfall, the post alignment crossed a large artificial platform also constructed of timber; both platform and post alignment were contemporary and part of the same integral construction. The nature, use, and development of the platform is as yet poorly understood, but it undoubtedly was linked closely both physically and functionally to the post alignment.

Conditions of preservation were excellent in the wetter parts of Flag Fen, and it was possible to study woodworking in some detail. The earliest timbers were generally of alder and other wet-loving species, but in later phases oak was used too. Wood chips and other debris suggest that most of the woodworking was of large timbers, and there was little processing of coppice (trees or shrubs that periodically were cut off at ground level), except in the lower levels of the timber construction of the platform. Examination of tool marks indicates that socketed axes were used almost exclusively. There were numerous wooden artifacts and reused pieces, including part of a tripartite wheel, an axle, and a scoop.

Study of the animal bones and pottery showed two distinct assemblages at the edge of Flag Fen (at a site on which a power station subsequently was constructed) and within the wetland proper. One was dominated by domestic material that may have derived from settlement(s) on the fen edge nearby. There was also a significant ritual component at both sites, but principally at Flag Fen; ritual finds included complete ceramic vessels and the remains of several dogs. Some 275 "offerings" of metal objects clearly demonstrated the importance of ritual at Flag Fen. The bronze and tin objects included weaponry, ornaments, and several Continental imports (mainly from France and central Europe). There was evidence that many of the items had been smashed or broken deliberately, before being placed in the water. A significant proportion of the assemblage could be dated to the Iron Age and must have been placed in the waters around the post alignment long after the structure itself had been abandoned.

The posts of the alignment were interwoven with five levels of horizontal wood, which served as reinforcement, as foundation, and, in places, as a path with associated narrow tracks. The posts, too, served many purposes: as a guide for travelers along the tracks, as a near-solid wall, and as a palisade. There also was evidence of transverse timber and wattle partitions, which may have divided the alignment into segments 5 to 6 meters in length. It is suggested that these segments had an important ritual role. The partitions were emphasized further by the placing of "offerings" or boundary deposits of valuable items, such as weaponry or unused quern stones [hand mills]. It has been suggested that the segments may have been used to structure rituals in some way—perhaps by providing different kin groups with distinctive foci for family-based ceremonies. It has also been suggested that the private or kin group rites at Flag Fen took place at times of the year when the main community stockyards at the western end of the post alignment were the scene of much larger social gatherings.


Chippindale, C., and F. M. M. Pryor, eds. "Special Section: Current Research at Flag Fen, Peterborough." Antiquity 66 (1992): 439–531.

Pryor, F. M. M. The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape. English Heritage Archaeological Report. London: English Heritage, 2001.

——. Farmers in Prehistoric Britain. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus Publications, 1998.

——. "Sheep, Stockyards, and Field Systems: Bronze Age Livestock Populations in the Fenlands of Eastern England." Antiquity 70 (1996): 313–324.

——. "Look What We've Found: A Case-Study in Public Archaeology." Antiquity 63 (1989): 51–61.

Pryor, F. M. M., C. A. I. French, and M. Taylor. "Flag Fen, Fengate, Peterborough. I. Discovery, Reconnaissance, and Initial Excavation." Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 52 (1986): 1–24.

Francis Pryor