Excavating the CA archive: Francis Pryor

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 1 February. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI336, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

In the next few explorations of the CA archive, I will take the opportunity to examine some of the great excavations – and the great teams that undertook them – that have been covered in the magazine over the years. But what makes an excavation ‘great’? Is this about the project’s leadership? About its teamwork, camaraderie, and dig parties? About the publications that resulted? About the public or media profile generated? All of the above can be reasons for an excavation to be called ‘great’. In fact, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists debated this question back in 2007; the results were published in an excellent book of 2011 edited by John Schofield and entitled – not-so-coincidentally – Great Excavations.

Taking my lead from that book, the sites that I will explore in the next few columns are those that, as reflected in the pages of CA, had a ‘great’ influence on the discipline of archaeology, be this through making discoveries that significantly changed our understanding of the past, by undertaking work that led to fundamental changes in our approaches to archaeological investigation, or by influencing people who went on to play a major role in the practice of archaeology.

Francis joins Tony Robinson on a Time Team shoot. (Image: Francis Pryor)

By any standards, one of the ‘great’ archaeologists of our age is Francis Pryor, a prehistorian who has featured regularly in the pages of CA and whose work – on site, in countless publications, on television, and more recently online (he is @PryorFrancis on Twitter, and well worth following) – has profoundly shaped our thinking about the past. The site that Pryor is synonymous with, Flag Fen near Peterborough, first appeared in CA 87 (June 1983) – more on that later. But the pleasure of excavating the CA archive is highlighting lesser-known sites too, and it was on one of these, Fengate on the eastern edge of Peterborough, that Pryor cut his teeth and first appeared in the pages of CA, much further back in CA 17 (November 1969).

Fengate had been partially excavated by a team led by Christine Mahany in the late 1960s, but from 1971 Pryor led a larger project excavating over five acres of the site on behalf of the Department of the Environment. Off-and-on, teams led by Pryor kept working on this site across the 1970s, and it was here in 1982 that he discovered the specific part of the site that became known as Flag Fen. CA 87 broke the story of Flag Fen’s discovery, reported in an article written by Pryor himself. Here, Francis outlined the fortuitous circumstances surrounding the discovery of the site, made by chance in November 1982 during work on another (medieval) site nearby. His evocative description of the moment of discovery is worth repeating in full, since it shows Francis’s considerable literary abilities (he is also a thriller writer of some acclaim):

Francis pumps out a Bronze Age ditch at Fengate in 1971. (Image: Francis Pryor)

It had been a very cold morning, replete with freezing fog and the usual complement of bloated rat corpses which floated by on the sewage from time to time, and we had decided to find somewhere warm for lunch. To get back to the site, we had to walk along the dykeside for about 25 minutes. We had been walking for some 15 minutes when I noticed a piece of split oak timber lying on the spoil heap left by the dragline that had been removing sludge from the dyke bottom. I had seen vaguely similar timber in Somerset and, more recently, with Maisie Taylor in Holland… Without really thinking, I let myself over the dykeside and slid towards the sewage. Nothing whatsoever could be seen; indeed the dragline had barely scratched the surface of the couch grass and reeds which cloaked the dyke at this point. Much to my relief, my progress towards the effluent was stopped by a hard piece of wood, just above the water level… Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I carved myself a platform, then used my trowel to investigate the wood that had saved me from a loathsome fate. It was split oak, and once prised from the clay, proved to have been sharpened with numerous axe blows…


Pryor returned to the pages of CA in issue 96 (April 1985) with what became the first of numerous updates. The pace of work on the site since its discovery is visible in this report, which also highlights why Flag Fen is unquestionably a ‘great’ excavation both in terms of its historic significance and also its influence on the practice of archaeology, with Pryor outlining the steps taken to first survey the site and then to conserve it. In turn, Pryor’s third update on the site came in CA 110 (July 1988), this time enjoying the splendid new colour format that had recently begun to grace the magazine.

Early updates from Francis in CA 96.

Further updates followed in CA 119 (March 1990) and CA 137 (March 1994), the former providing a useful site diagram that placed Flag Fen in its larger ‘Fengate’ context. This report also highlights the efforts taken by the team at Flag Fen to encourage and enable public access. As Pryor writes: ‘Last year we had nearly 16,000 visitors, more than double the previous year, and already in 1990 we have had more bookings from parties before we open than we did in the whole of 1989’. This endeavour was rightly celebrated in CA 132 (January 1993), which reported that the Silver Trowel of the British Archaeological Awards was presented to Pryor for his work at Flag Fen at a ceremony in November 1992, the first of many accolades for the project and its director. For nearly a decade after this, the pages of CA barely mention Flag Fen; Pryor and his team had moved on to work on other projects both near and far away, and also to undertake the lengthy process of writing up the full site report. That publication was reviewed in CA 179 (May 2002), where it was noted that ‘there seems little doubt that without the dogged determination of Pryor, digging in all weathers, fundraising, campaigning, drawing in colleagues from every corner of the profession, the Flag Fen project would not have happened’.

CA 110 was Flag Fen’s first appearance in colour in the magazine.

The more recent history of the site is not always a happy one (especially as regards the finances of the museum at the site), but in issue 267 (June 2012), CA’s ‘Sherds’ column reported that the first of the projects by the now well-known Dig Ventures team would be at Flag Fen in partnership with Pryor – a fine example of the ongoing innovation at the site. Most recently, CA 300 (March 2015) provided a wonderful synthesis of work at the site down the years. And it is surely fair to suggest that without the inspiration provided by the success of this project, many other wetland sites might never have been explored, right up to the stunning discoveries of the last few years at Must Farm (see CA 312 and 319), only a stone’s throw from Flag Fen.

We have set the bar high with this first great excavation – a fortuitous find of an internationally important site by an individual with the vision to see and to seize on its potential; a team down the years willing to move (almost literally in the fens) hell and high water to see the project succeed; innovative approaches to exploration and conservation; strenuous efforts of public engagement and access; and rigorous publication. Watch this space to see what comes next.

Discover old issues

Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 1 February. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI336’.

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