Review – Flag Fen Basin: living in prehistoric wetlands

13 mins read
Iron Age and Bronze Age swords and daggers excavated from the Must Farm river. The Iron Age sword on the left has been broken in two, and bears a dot-and-swirl mark left by its maker. (Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Remarkable finds from Must Farm take centre stage in a new exhibition at Peterborough Museum, which tells the story of excavations at the ancient river channel and settlement, and explores their connection with other prehistoric sites around the Fens. Lucia Marchini delves into Bronze Age life at Must Farm and Flag Fen.

When the remains of the Must Farm roundhouses were unearthed, their exceptionally well-preserved contents gave a uniquely detailed snapshot of ordinary life in the Bronze Age (CA 312 and 319). Textiles, pottery with food residues, and striking quantities of metalwork have all survived thanks to the waterlogged conditions of the special landscape that is the Flag Fen Basin. The basin’s flagship site, Flag Fen, lies just two miles from Must Farm and boasts similarly high levels of preservation. With evidence of prehistoric activity from various other locations around this part of the Fenland, there is a good possibility that other sites like Must Farm await discovery along the River Nene.

Back in 2011-2012, before the excavation of the Must Farm settlement, archaeologists from Cambridge Archaeological Unit uncovered nine logboats in an ancient river channel 200m from the site of the roundhouses (CA 263). The condition of the excavated boats is equally astonishing, as is that of the fish traps, weirs, and metalwork unearthed in the former watercourse. At Peterborough Museum, Must Farm: the story so far focuses on artefacts from these excavations, but brings together other prehistoric finds from elsewhere in the Fens to build a picture of life across this ancient landscape, in the Bronze Age and beyond.

This Bronze Age pot may have been shattered by the heat of the fire that devastated the roundhouses at Must Farm. (Image: L Marchini)
Blades of glory

One find from a Must Farm roundhouse may bear the scars of the fire that devoured the settlement. Excavated during an archaeological evaluation in 2006, the fragments of a large storage vessel have now been reassembled to show their original form. One side of the pot carries scorch marks, and it was probably the heat of the fire that reduced it to the shattered state in which it was found.

Other artefacts from Must Farm include swords recovered from the river channel in 2011. It is the first time these weapons have been on display, and they range in date from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age. One Iron Age sword still has its wooden handle – a rare survival – and was decorated with its maker’s mark. It was also deliberately broken in two before deposition, just like a Bronze Age sword from the site, showing a continuity of ritual activity at the river over some 700 years.

Iron Age blades of another kind were most likely deposited as votive offerings at Flag Fen. A pair of shears and their accompanying wooden box, found in 1989, were both well crafted and presumably highly valued by their owner, who, it is thought, would have used them to cut hair rather than to shear sheep.

These shears from Flag Fen, thought to be a votive offering, were probably used to cut hair rather than to shear sheep. (Image: courtesy of Vivacity)

Axes found at different Fenland sites and exemplifying different styles across the Bronze Age offer a further glimpse of working life. These have been taken from the museum’s permanent prehistory displays upstairs, which feature a range of artefacts from the area, such as Palaeolithic flint handaxes, decorated Neolithic antlers, Bronze Age pottery, and probably deliberately deposited Late Iron Age swords found in the River Nene at Orton Meadows in 1980.

Preserving the past

As well as taking a close look at these artefacts, the exhibition explores the various processes that make up archaeological research. One aspect that is covered particularly well is post-excavation work. The finds from the 2015-2016 excavations at Must Farm are currently undergoing further research and conservation, and, although these most-recent objects are not on display, detailed panels and videos featuring archaeologists tell the story of their discovery and what is known about the settlement so far.

The Neolithic boat from East Rea. (Image: L Marchini)

Different approaches to preservation are also evident among the artefacts making up the exhibition, including a fragment of a Neolithic dugout canoe found in East Rea, in the Flag Fen Basin, in 1979. Now on display after a spell in storage following its return from the Mary Rose Trust, the canoe demonstrates that Fenland people had been navigating the local waterways long before the Must Farm boats (the oldest of which dates back to c.1500 BC) were in use. The East Rea boat does have something in common with the Must Farm boats, which are pictured but not physically present in the exhibition: it has been sprayed with polyethylene glycol (PEG) for several years and left to dry. The logboats from Must Farm are in the process of being treated with PEG.

Excavation at the Must Farm river site uncovered 24 fish traps. (Image: Cambridge Archaeology Unit)

A close relationship with the water is also evident from other artefacts. Some 24 traps and ten weirs were identified along a 324m stretch of river channel, pointing to it being a hive of activity from c.1600-1000 BC. The V-shaped weirs are thought to have been used to fish for eels, by directing them towards either a trap or the surface where it is easier to catch them. This type of fishing was seasonal, and the weirs may have been removed to make way for boats at other times of the year.

One fragment of a Bronze Age eel trap from Must Farm is on display, but – unlike the boats – it has not been given PEG treatment, as the gaps in the finely woven willow would hold the wax solution and the overall form of the trap would be lost. Instead, knowing that the trap will not last for ever, the curators have decided to make sure it is seen before it deteriorates. Looking at the eel trap, the quality of the craftsmanship involved is apparent, and the Bronze Age weaving techniques used are explored further in a video that charts the creation of a replica. It is also on display alongside fish bones and scales that reveal how Must Farm was fed.

Out in the Fen
The Must Farm boats undergoing conservation at Flag Fen. (Image: courtesy of Vivacity)

Near to Peterborough, the Flag Fen site offers a chance to see post-excavation work in action. Not only does the archaeology park house remains of its Bronze Age causeway, a recreated roundhouse, a Roman road, and artefacts found on the site, it is currently home to the Must Farm boats. These are being treated with PEG by technician David Savory, who is overseen by Ian Panter of York Archaeological Trust, in a barn that has previously been used for tasks as diverse as lambing and conserving Seahenge. All nine boats are, depending on their size and condition, either being soaked in or sprayed with the solution, in the biggest archaeological chiller unit in the country. The windows are splattered with PEG wax and, when the boats are not being actively worked on, they are covered in bubble wrap, making it clear that their conservation is (an at times messy) work in progress.

Elsewhere at Flag Fen, it is possible to admire the different techniques being used to preserve its remarkable archaeology. Only a small portion of the site has been excavated, so it is of the utmost importance to keep the remainder in a stable environment. What is now the site museum sits on lightweight Styrofoam foundations on a mere that was created to keep organic remains from the causeway waterlogged. The plants that flourish across the park have been carefully selected from the vegetation report, with no oaks in sight to avoid any risk of future root damage. Despite this precaution, the roots of the fast-growing common reeds that throng the banks of the mere also present a risk, so they are regularly cut back. A close eye is kept on the charming herd of Soay sheep (thought to be the closest breed to prehistoric sheep) that roam the picturesque expanse.

A small section of the causeway is visible. It is constantly sprayed with water to prolong its life. (Image: courtesy of Vivacity)

Flag Fen’s crowning glory lies in the preservation hall. Here a section of the timbers from the vast causeway are kept in a square pool and constantly sprayed with water. Displays by the entrance showcase finds from the site and others nearby, including swords, the remains of one of the two dogs known from Flag Fen, and various tools – above all, a stunningly well-preserved one-piece axe haft – with tool marks made when it was manufactured still visible. Together, objects such as these bring prehistoric activity across this exceptional landscape into sharp focus.


Must Farm: the story so far runs at Peterborough Museum until 10 September 2017. Entry is free most days, but admission charges apply on Tuesdays and Wednesdays until 31 August: £4 for adults, £3 for concessions and children (5-16), free for children under 5.
Flag Fen is open April-September 10am-5pm daily. Entry is £6 (concessions available).
Visit to find out more.

This review was published in CA 329.

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