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DigVenturers at Flag Fen

Andrew Selkirk Editor-in-Chief

CA’s Editor-in-Chief investigates a new approach to excavation funding at Flag Fen.


n 1 August this year I went down to Flag Fen, where digging is once again under way. Every evening during the dig a distinguished – or in my case perhaps not so distinguished – archaeologist is invited along to give a talk. The previous evening had gone very well, when Bob Bewley, now the very distinguished head of the Heritage Lottery Fund, talked for an hour and a half about aerial archaeology, his great passion. But it was also something of a homecoming for him, as his first dig had been at Flag Fen. I had not been to Flag Fen for a decade or so – not since Francis Pryor’s trailblazing excavations at this hugely important Bronze Age settlement finished (see CA 87). It has subsequently become one of the major heritage attractions in the East Midlands, run for Peterborough City Council, and open throughout the summer and most weekends in the winter. I thought it looked very smart with a fine visitor centre, a couple of reconstructed roundhouses, and the Preservation Centre where the original line of timber posts is preserved — along with much more beside.
Below Thanks to DigVentures’ crowd-funding initiative, archaeology has returned to Flag Fen.

I gave my talk in the site museum. After supper in the Visitor Centre we retired to the site pub – the Wattle and Daub – which had been established in one of the roundhouses. Here one sits around in the gloom with a wood fire burning at the centre, and tell tales of your prowess, while discussing whether it was an otter or a coypu that had been glimpsed in the mere. Off to one side, the flickering light of a computer betrays where the day’s blog is being written up. It was, it is true, a little bit smoky – standing up invites fumigation – but it did keep away the midges. Anyway, that is how our ancestors spent their evenings, and it was a fascinating experience.

Nothing ventured, nothing dug
The dig at Flag Fen is part of a new enterprise called DigVentures (see CA 266), set up by Lisa Westcott Wilkins, the former Editor of Current Archaeology, and her husband Brendon Wilkins, with the help of Raksha Dave of Time Team fame. Together they have set up DigVentures with the idea of making archaeology available to a wider market. There is a big appetite for activity holidays and experiences, and they thought that archaeology should be part of it. The volunteers are called Venturers, and it costs £125 a day and pro rata for up to a three-week stay. The costs are perhaps a little higher than the usual training excavations – though not as high as the American organisation Earthwatch, which has some parallels with this scheme. It is based on a concept called ‘crowd funding’, where instead of getting one big sponsor for a project, you find a large number of small sponsors. This has been very successful as a way of financing films in the movie industry, as well as work in other creative industries such as music and fashion, and now Brendon and Lisa have applied it to archaeology, by funding Flag Fen through many sponsors rather than just one. It is very different to the usual ‘community archaeology’ excavation, where there is just one big sponsor, and everything is ‘free’. The trouble with this ‘freedom’ is that it generally comes with a cost. A lot of funding comes from the government, for example, and their support brings all manner of Nanny State baggage and hoop jumping. The
November 2012 |



current archaeology |

LEFT The waterlogged deposits at Flag Fen are the reason why this is such a major site. The timbers need to be kept damp though, requiring regular spraying. BELOW Inside the Wattle and Daub pub. Here the digging team experience the smoky reality of roundhouse life. And drink Fosters.

Venturers at Flag Fen, however, are treated as full members of the team – even if they come only for one day. Indeed, many of those present when I visited were there just for the day – though virtually all said they wished they had come for longer and will do so when DigVentures returns to Flag Fen next year. It is also possible to become a supporter for just £10, which gives access to the hidden part of their website – the ‘Site Hut’ (see Here you can read the complete project design – all 60 pages of it. This has to be submitted to English Heritage for Scheduled Monument Consent under their over-the-top MoRPHE system. Here you can peruse an example in all its horror. Flag Fen is turning out to be an interesting choice of site. Lisa and Brendon had several potential sites for their first project. The Head of Heritage at Vivacity, however (Peterborough City Council has hived off its leisure activities to a not-for-profit company called Vivacity, and among its responsibilities is Flag Fen), knew that the best way to increase visitor numbers is to have a dig, and so Lisa and Brendon were persuaded to have Flag Fen as their first project. They would provide the dig and the diggers, and the buzz from the dig would bring in

DigVentures would provide the dig and the diggers, and the buzz from the dig would bring in more visitors to Flag Fen.
| Issue 272

more visitors. In return the dig could then use their facilities on site. So far everyone has been very happy with the results and the site saw a 24% increase in visitors for the three weeks of the dig. Not bad, given that other big summer event vying for national attention! Flag Fen may have an interesting future. Despite its splendid cathedral, Peterborough is best known as a transport hub, and for its industry (Perkins diesels). It deserves better, so the City council is seeking to rebrand it as a city of arts and culture – like York. In this, Flag Fen has a major role as the prime, internationally renowned archaeological site. In the Neolithic, the Peterborough Pottery people used to be one of the two major components of the late Neolithic landscape, and Flag Fen has become perhaps the best known example of the ‘water disposition’ rituals that dominated in the Late Bronze Age. Indeed a further component has been added to the melting pot with the discovery at Must Farm, only a mile and a half away, of eight Bronze Age boats in a watercourse alongside an enviable set of bronze weaponry (see CA 263). But what should be done with the Must Farm material? One possible solution would be to move the boats to Flag Fen and make this into a major Bronze Age Centre – as important for the prehistory of eastern England as Stonehenge is for Wessex. The problem of rebranding a city is an interesting one. But if a change of image is to be attempted, then Flag Fen is already there, as a major, if perhaps under-used and under-appreciated heritage centre. But it must be publicised. There is no doubt that the best way of achieving this is by undertaking a major and long-running excavation. In this, DigVentures’ Lisa, Brendon and Raksha, with their knowledge and enthua siasm, surely have a major role to play. C | current archaeology