Flag Fen, funerary landscape?

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The Preservation Hall at Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire houses a moment frozen in time, the carbonised remnants of an ancient Bronze Age walkway, or causeway consisting of some 60,000 or more timbers that extend for more than a kilometre. The hall only presents a preciously small, excavated section of the walkway, the rest remains enigmatically buried beneath the site and some of its buildings, which have been engineered to “float” above the timbers on a synthetic membrane, in order to protect them for future archaeologists to unearth. The timbers are maintained in damp, artificially “misted” conditions in order to preserve them, and protect them from shrinkage and cracking. Most fascinating of all are the artefacts recovered from deep within the ancient waters, and paleochannels surrounding the site, consisting mostly of shards of bones, horse mandible, pottery, and more significantly broken swords, small pins, brooches,  and shale bracelets, and even the earliest recorded wooden wheel in Europe.

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Something magical, elemental, intangible permeates these finds, the significance of which is only barely discernible. There is an element of ritual here, of earth magic. These perhaps propitiatory, votive offerings which litter the site, indicate that this community consisted of so much more than a simple, agrarian culture. Moreover, the walkway presents itself simply as that, a wooden trackway that people and livestock could easily negotiate. A line of connection,  suspended above this often flooded landscape. It is interrupted by a small wooden “island”, the whole structure consisting of ‘thousands of posts with long pencil-like tips’ through the ‘accumulating peaty muds’ and into the firmer ground below, which then continues off into the distant fen. Dendrochronological analysis concludes that these timbers were set in place around 1365 – 967 BC, and that much of the structure was not local to the area, indicating that there was perhaps some vital religious impulse behind the whole undertaking, not dissimilar to the almost inexplicable, herculean effort that ancients required to transport bluestones from the Preselli Mountains in Wales to Stonehenge.

Part of the site, around Northey Island, is given over to barrows, which house(d) the remains of chieftains.  The site founder,  archaeologist Francis Pryor, initially referred to the area as a “land of the dead”, a theory which has since been challenged and revised, but nevertheless, still open to debate. The fact that this whole area spent much of its time submerged, particularly during the winter months, would indicate that there was a powerful attraction to this place. Doubtless, the surrounding land was rich and fertile, with an abundant supply of crops and water, and yet these people were, on the basis of evidence, intelligent, resourceful, creative and ingenious (analysis of the unearthed log boats from nearby Must Farm will confirm this ) yet still chose to live and subsist in the most difficult conditions, which begs the question, why?

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Having spent only a day at the site, one views the landscape in a different way. An alternate narrative begins to materialise, once all the trappings of the 21st century have been eliminated, and the landscape of the deep past is superimposed upon it.  The topography of the Fens itself lacks definable  contours, it is supremely flat, indeed the earth (water) and sky appear to meet and fuse into one vast, translucent canvas. I have little doubt that the communal observation of sunrise and sunset here at key moments 1000 years BC was a compelling, transcendent experience, and that any religious experience would have been invested with something intense, powerful, beyond words. The site indeed does have a funerary atmosphere to it, which I find difficult to explain, yet in attempting to dowse its energy, it would appear to me at least, that this was a place of greater importance than is at first realised.

When all of the components are combined, it would seem that this site was perhaps central to some arcane belief system, lost in the murky sediment of time. Pryor himself, when interviewed on TV about Flag Fen, further suggested that the causeway itself, far from being purely utilitarian,(or perhaps some form of processional route) might actually represent a barrier, or portal, the dividing line where land meets water and merges with it, where earth meets sky, a mythic horizon;  a liminal pathway that separates this world from the next. Perhaps.

I will be writing more about the area surrounding Flag Fen, to tie in with an ongoing investigation into Britain’s lost pathways, tracks and “Green Roads”. Please visit frequently for further information.

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