This post was originally published on Francis Pryor – In the Long Run, and is reposted here by kind permission of my uncle, Francis Pryor.
Francis Pryor’s new ebook, Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide, is an engaging and informative look into the archaeology of this fascinating site. Having visited Flag Fen shortly after the opening of its new visitor centre in 2001, when I must have been nine or ten, my memories of the site are somewhat hazy – they feature mainly as snapshots of the things that obviously captured my imagination at the time. I therefore clearly remember the Preservation Hall, where you could view prehistoric timbers in situ, and the replica Bronze Age round-house – but not much else. With my limited memories of Flag Fen, I can confirm that the Archæoguide is of interest both to those with no knowledge of the site and also those familiar with it.
The concise book covers a great deal of information, from the Fens in general, through the discovery of Flag Fen and its archaeological repercussions, to the opening of the site to the public and finally the threats to the archaeology at the site and Flag Fen’s naming as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. While the guide gives details on subjects such as the post alignments and the platform, it also gives an easily accessible overview of current interpretations of the site. It ends with a look at Flag Fen as a site of public interest, and the short chapter on ‘Flag Fen and the Public’ focuses on the importance of making archaeology accessible to the public, and the interest that Flag Fen has generated over the years. The site has now been handed over to Vivacity, a Charitable Trust set up by Peterborough City Council. Recently launched is the web-based subscription dig, ‘DigVentures’; this is Europe’s first crowd-funded and crowd-sourced archaeological excavation.
Francis in no way suggests that everybody should become experts in archaeology, but rather that archaeology should be made accessible to everyone. Very few people have the patience to spend week after week in the rain in a trench looking for something that may not even be there. Or to become so knowledgeable about their specialism that they can estimate the age and sex of an individual from a small piece of bone or how old a piece of pot is just from looking at it. But I think that it’s incredibly important that there are people who do and can, and when they have I find what they can tell us about the past fascinating. I don’t know anyone who didn’t enjoy studying the Romans, or the Greeks, or Egyptians at primary school, and anyone can appreciate how amazing it is to look at an artefact that’s thousands of years old and know that this bowl, or sword, or whatever once belonged to a real living, breathing human just like us. Not only that, but it has survived and been preserved over all that time and then been found by someone with the ability to excavate it safely (and someone has been able to tell us how old it is, and what it was for). Francis’ anecdote about his venture into splitting timber (as experimental research into ancient carpentry techniques) demonstrates both how skilled and knowledgeable ancient people were but also how important it is to cast attention on how these people thought as well as what they did.
While I recently graduated with a degree in History, in one module on Anglo-Saxon culture I relied quite heavily on archaeological reports and academic writing – in particular regarding the burial site at Sutton Hoo. As someone with no archaeological expertise some of these were quite heavy-going, yet the information that they could offer was fascinating. Francis’ books (both this Archæoguide and his other works which cover British archaeology from Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans to The Birth of Modern Britain: A Journey into Britain’s Archaeological Past: 1550 to the Present) take the expertise that he has accumulated over a long and varied career and distils it into a format accessible to the masses. While the Archæoguide doesn’t stint on detail it is a very readable work giving a useful overview of the archaeology and importance of this site.
‘The ebook was something new to me. I’m used to Kindle versions being made of my conventional, printed books, but doing it digital from the word go was great. There was so much flexibility. I also suspect we’re just at the start of a very long process of re-inventing the written word and I’m so glad to have been there, right at the start. I really enjoyed the informality of the project. Far too often printed books are an exercise in academic humourless stodge and stodginess: I can remember once an editor insisted that I style myself F.M.M. Pryor on the title page, rather than Francis Pryor. Damn and Hell! If you can’t insist on how your own name appears in print, it’s a pretty grim outlook. I suspect if I’d wanted to style myself ‘Francis Flaggers Pryor’ Tom Vivian (my editor) would have let me. That’s what I like about the new format: it’s more immediate and informal – just what archaeological publication needs. The future looks very exciting.’