The Fenland Project: From Survey to Management and Beyond

By Coles, John; Hall, David | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Fenland Project: From Survey to Management and Beyond


Coles, John, Hall, David, Antiquity


The English Fenland, a million acres of drained wetlands in eastern England, is on the doorstep of ANTIQUITY'S present office. But no local excuse is needed to report once more on work in a classic region; from large-scale survey the focus has moved to assessment of what survives, and now to managing for its better future that discouragingly small proportion of its old archaeological wealth which is still with us.

The Fenland Project of eastern England has been one of Britain's largest wetland surveys, funded by the Department of the Environment/English Heritage over a period of nearly 20 years. An early note about the Project appeared in ANTIQUITY (Coles & Hall 1983) and an extensive treatment, forming a Special Section in ANTIQUITY for 1988, set out the discoveries in Cambridgeshire (Hall 1988), Lincolnshire (Lane 1988; Hayes 1988) and Norfolk (Silvester 1988a). The field surveys were associated with aerial photographic work (Palmer 1988) and a wide-ranging environmental programme (Waller 1988). These interim statements for ANTIQUITY readers were followed in 1992 by a short assessment of the survey results and an introduction to the next phase, the Fenland Evaluation Project (Hall 1992a). The thinking behind that Evaluation was non-controversial; what came afterwards has turned out less simple. To understand this, and to provide readers with the latest opinions, we will best turn back to the original concepts.

The Fenland Project began its major work in 1981 with a seven-year programme to examine as much of the drying/eroding/wasting Fenland in the three counties of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk as could be physically searched. The small piece of Fenland in Suffolk was also included in the survey but on a different time-frame, and David Hall had already started in Cambridgeshire in 1976. Over the survey period, about 60% of the entire Fenland, which in total covers 420,000 hectares (one million acres), was field-walked [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]; the aim was to discover and identify sites of all periods that were being revealed by wastage of the peat and by erosion of the silt-lands. It was known that sites, some of them waterlogged, had appeared, been ploughed away or otherwise lost, for many decades and the initial work of David Hall in the southern Fenland had clarified and demonstrated the losses. By 1988, the end of the survey period, over 2000 previously-unknown sites had been identified, ranging from the Late Glacial and Mesolithic to the medieval period. Responsibility for the control of the overall scheme lay in the hands of a Project committee; the surveys were county-based and the publication of the results, parish by parish, was the obligation of the individual field officers.

The results of the surveys have now appeared as seven monographs (Hall 1987; 1992b; 1996; Hayes & Lane 1992; Lane 1993; Silvester 1988b; 1991) with another book on the environmental work (Waller 1994). Through the goodwill of all concerned, and the close integration of results from all counties, a summary of the Fenland Project work was prepared (Hall & Coles 1994). Very much an overview, this book offered a broader, non-parish-based picture of Fenland settlement and activity. It also drew upon other Fenland work, not part of the Project and funded separately, to enhance the picture of the Fenland in ancient times. Among these other organizations, the work of the Fenland Archaeological Trust at Flag Fen and Fengate (Pryor 1991; 1992) as well as the Dyke Survey (French & Pryor 1993) and the Haddenham Project (Evans and Hodder 1985; 1986) are the most significant.

By 1988, the end of the Fenland (survey) Project, we could well appreciate that the Fenland was in serious trouble. There could have been an advantage here, for archaeology, if it had been possible to re-walk some of the black fens. The rate of peat wastage could be measured, and new sites identified; at its simplest and most obvious, an old land surface with wasting deposits upon and around it might reveal Bronze Age artefacts in a 1981 search but Neolithic debris in 1988, lower down on the shallow slopes. …

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