Eight prehistoric boats surface at Fens creek in record bronze age find

04.06.2013 16:29

A fleet of eight prehistoric
boats, including one almost
nine metres long, has been
discovered in a Cambridgeshire
quarry on the outskirts of
Peterborough.
The vessels, all deliberately
sunk more than 3,000 years
ago, are the largest group of
bronze age boats ever found in
the same UK site and most are
startlingly well preserved. One
is covered inside and out with
decorative carving described by
conservator Ian Panter as
looking "as if they'd been
playing noughts and crosses all
over it". Another has handles
carved from the oak tree trunk
for lifting it out of the water.
One still floated after 3,000
years and one has traces of
fires lit on the wide flat deck
on which the catch was
evidently cooked.
Several had ancient repairs,
including clay patches and an
extra section shaped and pinned
in where a branch was cut
away. They were preserved by
the waterlogged silt in the bed
of a long-dried-up creek, a
tributary of the river Nene,
which buried them deep below
the ground.
"There was huge excitement
over the first boat, and then
they were phoning the office
saying they'd found another,
and another, and another, until
finally we were thinking, 'Come
on now, you're just being
greedy,'" Panter said.
The boats were deliberately
sunk into the creek, as several
still had slots for transoms –
boards closing the stern of the
boat – which had been
removed.
Archaeologists are
struggling to understand the
significance of the find.
Whatever the custom meant to
the bronze age fishermen and
hunters who lived in the
nearby settlement, it continued
for centuries. The team from
the Cambridge Archaeological
Unit is still waiting for the
results of carbon 14 dating
tests, but believes the oldest
boats date from around 1,600
BC and the most recent 600
years later.
They already knew the
creek had great significance –
probably as a rich source of
fish and eels – as in previous
seasons at the Much Farm site
they had found ritual deposits
of metalwork, including spears.
The boats themselves may
have been ritual offerings, or
may have been sunk for more
pragmatic reasons, to keep the
timber waterlogged and prevent
it from drying out and splitting
when not in use – but in that
case it seems strange that such
precious objects were never
retrieved.
Some of the boats were
made from huge timbers,
including one from an oak
which must have had a metre-
thick trunk and stood up to 20
metres tall. This would have
been a rare specimen as sea
levels rose and the terrain
became more waterlogged,
creating the Fenland landscape
of marshes, creeks and islands
of gravel.
"Either this was the
Bermuda Triangle for bronze
age boats, or there is something
going on here that we don't yet
understand," Panter said.
Kerry Murrell, the site
director, said: "Some show
signs of long use and repair –
but others are in such good
condition they look as if you
could just drop the transom
board back in and paddle
away."
The boats were all
nicknamed by the team,
including Debbie – made of
lime wood, and therefore
deemed a blonde – and French
Albert the Fifth Musketeer, the
fifth boat found. Murrell's
favourite is Vivienne, a superb
piece of craftsmanship where
the solid oak was planed down
with bronze tools to the
thickness of a finger, still so
light and buoyant that when
their trench filled with
rainwater, they floated it into
its cradle for lifting and
transportation.
Because the boats were in
such striking condition, they
have been lifted intact and
transported two miles, in
cradles of scaffolding poles and
planks, for conservation work
at the Flag Fen archaeology site
– where a famous timber
causeway contemporary with
the boats was built up over
centuries until it stretched for
almost a mile across the fens.
"My first thought was to
deal with them in the usual
way, by chopping them into
more manageably sized chunks,
but when I actually saw them
they just looked so nice, I
thought we had to find another
way," Panter, an expert on
waterlogged timber from York
Archaeological Trust, said. "I
think if I'd arrived on the site
with a chainsaw, the team
would have strung me up."
Must Farm, now a quarry
owned by Hanson UK, which
has funded the excavation, has
already yielded a wealth of
evidence of prehistoric life,
including a settlement built on
a platform partly supported by
stilts in the water, where
artefacts including fabrics
woven from wool, flax and
nettles were found. Instead of
living as dry-land hunters and
farmers, the people had become
experts at fishing: one eel trap
found near the boats is
identical to those still used by
Peter Carter, the last traditional
eel fisherman in the region.
The boats will be on display
from Wednesday at Flag Fen,
viewed through windows in a
container chilled to below 5c –
funded with a £100,000 grant
from English Heritage which
regards their discovery as of
outstanding importance – built
within a barn at the site. At the
moment conservation
technician Emma Turvey,
dressed in layers of winter
clothes, is spending up to eight
hours a day spraying the
timbers to keep them
waterlogged and remove any
potentially decaying impurities.
They will then be impregnated
with a synthetic wax,
polyethylene glycol, before
being gradually dried out over
the next two years for
permanent display.
Murrell is convinced there
is more to be found down in the
silt.
"The creek continued
outside the boundaries of the
quarry, so it's off our site – but
the next person who gets a
chance to investigate will find
more boats, I can almost
guarantee it."