Race against time to preserve Bronze Age find

Specialist techniques used to preserve the historic Mary Rose warship are now being deployed to protect a fleet of Bronze Age logboats found buried in a quarry outside Peterborough.

Race against time to preserve Bronze Age find
One of the Bronze Age log boats, above, that will be protected using techniques used to preserve the histroic Mary Rose warship [Credit: Peterborough Today]
The vital work is being led by the highly respected Ian Panter, the principal conservator of York Archaeological Trust, who 30 years ago headed up the team tasked with preserving the famous Tudor warship, the Mary Rose.

The flagship of Henry VIII’s navy, it sank suddenly in the Solent off Portsmouth in 1545 where it remained forgotten until it was spectacularly discovered in 1971 and brought to the surface in 1982.

Mr Panter, who was conservator for the Mary Rose Trust from 1980 to 1986, has overseen the use of complex techniques that continue to preserve the Tudor ship’s timbers for generations to come.

Now he plans to use the same methods to care for the eight Bronze Age log boats plus two small fragments that were discovered at Must Farm, near Whittlesey, in 2011 following a dig by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

The discovery was part of a major find of Bronze Age remains at Whittlesey that has been described as being of international significance.

Mr Panter said: “The conservation of the Mary Rose involves a slow process of impregnating the ship’s timbers with polyethylene glycol (PEG) wax. The same conservation techniques will be used to protect and preserve the log boats. We are looking to move the log boats to refrigerated storage at Flag Fen, Peterborough. There they will be subjected to a spraying system which will continually saturate the boats with a wax substance for the next three years. After that we run chilled air across the boats.”

But the experts are involved in a race against time. The boats are so aged at about 3,500-years-old that if left unprotected they could quite simply fall apart.

Mr Panter said: “We need to move the boats as soon as possible. Winter is not the ideal time to start moving the log boats but they have already been out of the ground for six months. It is a massive task - the boats are so delicate. Quite simply, the boats could just fall apart at any time. The timbers are in danger of drying out and then they will disintegrate. At the moment the boats are wrapped in large plastic covers and are being kept in a number of old brick kilns not far from where they were found. But the kilns are earmarked for demolition by the site owners Hanson Brick and, anyway, are not suitable for storing the historic wooden artefacts.”

It is planned to build a specialist cold store at the renown Flag Fen Bronze Age encampment and move the boats in convoy by the middle of next month to their new home.

Officials of Vivacity, which is Peterborough City Council’s leisure and heritage services trust, hope to open the unit to viewing by the public at least by the start of the Easter half-term holidays.

However, the key to the success of the venture is funding. The total cost of the project is put at £250,000. This covers the construction of the conservation facility at Flag Fen and associated costs of spraying the boats with PEG wax over the next three years.

Only then will the boats be stable enough to go on open display.

Sarah Stannage, Must Farm/Flag Fen, Vivacity director, said: “English Heritage has approved in principle a £101,000 grant application and the Robert Kiln Trust has agreed to make a further £25,000 available, We have lots of small grants and donations totalling just over £20,000. We also have grant applications in with two major funders.”

As previously reported in the Peterborough Telegraph, the council has agreed to underwrite the project to the tune of £140,000. But project leaders are keen to underline the fact that they are unlikely to call on the council cash.

Ms Stannage said; “I am confident that we can raise all the money we need from other sources and we will not need to touch council money." 

Dr Will Fletcher, inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage, said: “The log boats are an extremely valuable find and need to be preserved but their age makes them vulnerable to change.

“The boats are of international significance. In fact, they are the most significant find that has been made in recent years.

He added: “I hope that when the boats do go on show that the people of Peterborough will be interested enough and to and view them.”

Dr Fletcher added: “Ian Panter is the leading expert in this field and there is no one else better qualified to do this work.”

City council leader Councillor Marco Cereste said: “It is planned to create a learning centre, university faculty and museum as a result of this find. It could be worth tens of millions of pounds to the city, and create up to 50 jobs.”

New discovery will help to fill knowledge gap

The area around Flag Fen is rich in evidence of the life and times of the people who lived during the Bronze Age.

Flag Fen is an internationally recognised site of Bronze Age heritage and the discovery of the log boats will hugely enhance its reputation among experts and the public.

Sarah Stannage, of Vivacity, said: “This is a find of international significance and will help fill in the gaps of our understanding of life in the Bronze Age. The boats are all different and they have some remarkable detail that has stayed intact but all of this will be lost if we cannot preserve them.”

Dr Will Fletcher, inspector of ancienet monuments for English Heritage, said: “They will help us understand the way people lived in the Bronze Age - the environment in which they lived, the tools they used, their work and the difficulties they encountered. It is a very exciting find. These boats are tangible. They are objects that people can easily understand and help them appreciate how our ancestors lived.”

Author: Paul Grinnell | Source: Peterborough Today [October 26, 2012]

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