Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape, by FRANCIS PRYOR
A not-so-famous writer recently wrote of his misfortune in hosting a book-signing with Michael Palin. No one bought his books whereas the queue next to him stretched out of the hall and down the corridor. I suffered a similar experience at the launch of this book on a spring weekend. Francis had shifted two boxes of books before my first enquiry from the public: wasn’t I Damien Goodburn, the wood expert?
Old hands will know that Flag Fen is a rewrite of an earlier book published by English Heritage and Batsford in 1991. As such, it is significantly rewritten and contains much new material as well as Francis’ apocalyptic musings in the last chapter on the impact of dewatering on the famous Late Bronze Age post alignment. The book starts with a brief introduction, a description of the Fen landscape, and a fascinating account of the history of archaeology around Peterborough. The structure of the book is then chronological, taking the reader from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Francis Pryor has been a denizen of the Fens since 1971 and, over the last 36 years, has revolutionised our knowledge of prehistoric landscape in this flat part of Britain through a series of large-scale excavations, principally of the Bronze Age settlement and field system at Fengate, the Cat’s Water Iron Age settlement and the timber alignment at Flag Fen with its enormous assemblage of bronze artefacts and other finds. It is fair to say that he is Britain’s foremost prehistoric excavator and field archaeologist.
Most prehistorians will be well acquainted with these sites and the book is aimed at a wide audience of non-specialists. The narrative is lively and personalised and there are over 100 illustrations. The discovery of an aligned monumental Neolithic landscape is an excellent piece of interpretation after the event, realizing that the rectangular enclosure at Site 11 (previously excavated by Christine Mahaney) was part of an alignment consisting of the Padholme Road ‘house’ and the Fengate multiple burial. What a shame that there is no large-scale plan which actually shows the three together.
Early in the excavation programme at Flag Fen, several archaeologists, including me, disagreed with Francis’ initial interpretation of the platform in the middle of the timber alignment as a series of Late Bronze Age longhouses. Francis describes here how his own view changed as a result of excavations at the Power Station site in 1989 when the west end of the alignment was discovered and excavated. The clincher – sadly omitted from the text - was the evidence of the beetles, which showed that conditions were too wet for any human habitation to be possible out here in the middle of the bay. Of course, we now consider Flag Fen to have been a votive deposition site and it is interesting to reflect on how this former purpose may have had significance for the Iron Age community living close by at Cat’s Water, even continuing to deposit a few small items centuries after the alignment had largely gone out of use.
Flag Fen is one of those books that should be read by specialists and non-specialists alike. It is an excellent summary of an outstanding career, a remarkable sequence of excavations on which generations of professionals were trained, and a far-sighted vision that links wetland and dryland archaeology – the Star Carr of our generation and with knobs on! Flag Fen is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe and most of it still remains unexcavated. What a tragedy it is that this threatened wetland resource of waterlogged timbers may largely disappear at Flag Fen - most probably within our lifetime - because of dewatering brought on by agriculture and industry.
Mike Parker Pearson
Review Submitted: December 2005
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