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7 July 2013
Bronze Age fleet surface in a Cambridgeshire quarry

A fleet of eight prehistoric boats, including one almost nine metres long, has been discovered in a Cambridgeshire quarry on the outskirts of Peterborough (England). The vessels, all deliberately sunk more than 3,000 years ago, are one of the largest group of Bronze Age boats ever found in the same site.
     Most of the ancient boats are startlingly well preserved. One is covered inside and out with decorative carving; 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.
     "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,'" conservator Ian 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, even if they already knew the creek had great significance as in previous seasons they had found ritual deposits of metalwork, including spears. 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 BCE and the most recent 600 years later.
     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. "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.
     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.
     The boats are on display at Flag Fen, viewed through windows in a container chilled to below 5°C. Conservation technician Emma Turvey 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.

Edited from The Guardian (4 June 2013)

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