Some of the world's greatest archaeological finds don't emerge as a result of planned investigation. They were accidental. They were stumbled upon. And such was literally the case in 1982 when Francis Pryor, MBE, was in the midst of conducting a survey of dykes in the Peterborough area in England for English Heritage, a public commission responsible for managing historic buildings.

"I was walking back to the pub," says Pryor, "when I caught my foot on a large piece of wood. When I picked up the piece of wood, I looked at it, and then when I spotted the axe marks, about an inch and one-half wide, I knew that it had to be Bronze Age........"
© Wikimedia CommonsBronze Age dwelling at Flag Fen.
For the following several weeks, Pryor and his team proceeded to excavate along the side of a dyke, in the area where the initial wood sample had been found, and recovered hundreds of additional pieces of similar timber.

"It was fantastic," said Pryor. "I didn't sleep for weeks after that."

They had stumbled upon an archaeologist's gold mine. Dated to 1365 - 967 BC and now known as Flag Fen, excavations and research uncovered a monumental site which included a causeway composed of thousands of timber posts arranged in five 1-meter-long rows, and a small timber platform partway across the structure. Between the posts of the causeway, timbers had been built up horizontally in ancient times, providing a "bridge" or dry surface for transportation across the wet lowland upon which the timber structures were built, connecting a higher level land area on its east with a higher level area on its west.

During the period between about 2,000 B.P. and 900 B.P., the climate in the area became increasingly wet, creating conditions that made it increasingly difficult for the early farmers. The low-lying land where Flag Fen was located became a peat-like, waterlogged environment. Over time, this watery environment created conditions perfect for the preservation of the wooden timbers, including many other organic materials excavated at the site, such as leather and food items. The water had replaced the cellulose structure in the wood and other organic materials and also created an anaerobic (oxygen-less) environment, preventing the growth and activity of organisms and other processes from decaying the material.
© VivacityA misty view of the mere at Flag Fen.
Excavations have recovered a rich array of finds, including items of shale, stone, metal, jewelry, horse bone, daggers broken in half and placed on top of each other, and England's oldest known wheel. Small white beach pebbles found at the site were made of stone that suggested that they had been transported to the site from a distance. According to some archaeologists, the nature and volume of the finds meant that the site was perhaps a ceremonial or religious center. Little is known about the inhabitants or builders of the site.

To date, only about 10 percent of the site has been recovered, leaving 90 percent left to be excavated.

But continuing excavations will have to happen in a hurry. Officials estimate that the site will be gone in 30 to 50 years.

Says Pryor, "its drying out, partly because of climate change and partly because of modern development. And as it dries, the timber is basically going to crack and turn into dust. That's why it is essential to keep digging before the site dries out -- it really is a matter of time."
© VivacityPreserved causeway.
Archaeologists and preservations are making efforts to avert the cultural disaster. To sustain what they have already recovered, preservationists have applied techniques that will preserve the ancient structures from the relentless onslaught of the forces of decay. One measure has involved sprinkler systems, spraying the wood with cooled, filtered water to slow the decay. Another has involved creating an artificial "lake" or mere over the largest part of the ceremonial platform, topping it with water on a weekly basis to maintain the water table at a high enough level to preserve it. The biggest challenge, however, lies in excavating as much as possible of the remaining 90 percent of the site before it disappears due to modern drainage of the land from development projects and climate change.

One effort has been spearheaded by DigVenture, a non-profit enterprise designed to raise seed capital for sustainable archaeological research and conservation projects worldwide. In cooperation with Vivacity, the non-profit organization charged with managing the site under contract with the Peterborough City Council, DigVenture's plan is to raise funds and provide opportunities for members of the public to directly participate in the excavations and research of the site through a grass-roots effort they have dubbed "crowd-funded and crowd-sourced archaeology". Bringing dig and dig support opportunities to the general public through purchased benefits and field school participation, they hope to marshall the resources necessary to launch and sustain an ongoing large-scale excavation and research project, beginning with the first excavation during the summer of 2012.

According to Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Managing Director of DigVentures, "We will build a community with archaeology at its heart, and give people the chance to come and dig with us. Anyone who wants to try archaeology will be able to go to Sponsume (the application website) and purchase a field school benefit. Our goal is to bring the public to the site in greater numbers than ever before as part of our archaeological field school, and also as visitors to the fascinating site itself."

More information about Flag Fen and the most recent efforts to preserve and excavate the site can be found here.