Stargazing at Flag Fen

PAUL STAINTON: Now, as you’ve been hearing all week, Stargazing Live takes place on Monday night, and one of the places that the night will focus on is Flag Fen, right here in Peterborough. But why go to the site of an ancient civilisation, when so much modern technology is used in stargazing? Well, with us is Dr Francis Pryor, archaeologist at Flag Fen. Morning.
PAUL STAINTON: So we’ve got all this huge expensive technology these days, and we’re going to plant it right in the middle of one of the oldest places in Peterborough. Why?
FRANCIS PRYOR: (LAUGHS) Because the stars have always been important, that’s why. They still structure our lives, and not just because they revolve over our heads at night, but because they affect us during the day. We end the week with Sunday, the day of the sun. We begin the week with Monday, the day of the moon. So the planets and the solar system help structure our lives. It always has. And back to the days of Flag Fen, which is 3000 years ago, and a long long way back before then, I think Places like Stonehenge are entirely based around the rise of the mid-summer sun, and so on. So the stars and the moon and the sun are seen as if you like a sort of gateway to the heavens, a gateway to the dead, a gateway to the unborn, a gateway to all the magical mystical aspects of life, which make it great to be a human being.
PAUL STAINTON: We heard from a gentleman yesterday, who’d used the stars quite extensively. He was in the Royal Navy. He used them in the Falklands War on his ship. It seems like the stars have been integral to all civilisations for many many years, and the people that lived around Flag Den would have been no different then?
FRANCIS PRYOR: Absolutely no different at all. And it wasn’t just that they would have used the stars to navigate, because I suspect they would have done. People at that time didn’t go on long distance sea journeys. They went on much shorter journeys. We’ve got good evidence for that. They’d have crossed the English Channel for example, as a routine thing. They may well have crossed the North Sea over to Holland quite regularly, because we know they had good seagoing boats. But I think the sun and the moon also structured their lives in a funny way. Their houses for example from about 1000BC, the doorway always faces south east towards the sunrise in the morning. And the interior of their houses was organised in a way that followed the sun as it circled over the earth during the day. So they lived on the south side, and then they slept on the north side of their houses. And this seems to be universal. We can demonstrate it in Peterborough, in houses that are excavated there in the 1970s, and you can also demonstrate it in Ireland, in the Orkney Islands, you name it, they seem to follow a similar sun-based organisation to their lives. And there’s another site near Flag Fen, just across the county line in Lincolnshire, near Lincoln, where they’ve also got posts, hundreds of thousands of posts, like we have at Flag Fen, but they only seem to replace the posts on that site when there was a total eclipse of the moon, and that’s a very very difficult thing to predict. It requires very sophisticated mathematics, and they only actually figured out the naming of the tables that you need to do this in the seventeenth century.
ng>PAUL STAINTON: That’s amazing, way back then, they could even think about trying to attempt it.
FRANCIS PRYOR: Absolutely. So they’re sophisticated. The thing is you’ve got to bear iun mind that the really bright people, the Albert Einsteins of this world, and the Isaac Newtons, they were alive in the Bronze Age too, but because they didn’t have writing, their thoughts haven’t survived to us. But they were still there. So we musn’t underestimate these people.
PAUL STAINTON: No. You instill excitement and vibracity in everybody when you talk about Flag Fen. Talking about the stars now, I’m hanging on every word. How excited are you about Monday night?
FRANCIS PRYOR: Oh I think it’s fantastic. I really do. I think anything nowadays that takes us out of our .. we’re becoming so obsessed with ourselves in this world. The internet doesn’t help. We spend our time navel-gazing and worrying about things that really aren’t that important to us as human beings. Yes, we should be right to worry about the state of our society, and things like that, but good heavens, there are more important things to life that the price of eggs. And I think this celebration of the stars, and I think Brian Cox is an absolutely inspired chap, he’s fronting it all.
PAUL STAINTON: He was good in D:Ream as well to be fair.
FRANCIS PRYOR: Yes. (LAUGHS) Bit after my time that.
PAUL STAINTON: How do people get involved then? Very quickly Francis. How do people get involved on Monday night?
FRANCIS PRYOR: Well they come along to Flag Fen. They look us up on the BBC website. And there are going to be events there. And it’s going to be an interesting day.
PAUL STAINTON: Brilliant stuff Francis. Lovely to talk to you this morning, as always. Dr Francis Pryor, archaeologist from Flag Fen. And you can look on the Flag Fen website and see how you get involved on Monday night, as Stargazing Live takes place, and Brian Cox takes over our TV screens.

07:50 Friday 13th January 2012
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire