Current Archaeology 172 - Special issue on Wetlands
Excavating the Sweet Track,
in Somerset. As the remains are so fragile, they can only be excavated
by suspending the excavators on planks, above the wooden remains,
which have been reduced to the consistency of butter.
Current Archaeology 172 was published in February
Wetland archaeology has one
big advantage over dryland archaeology: preservation. A whole
range of material - including most notably wood - is preserved
that is not found in dryland sites.
Over the past 20 years, English
Heritage has conducted a massive Wetland Project now coming
to an end: what has come out of all this work? Current Archaeology
was invited to do this special "Wetland" issue to
mark the completion of this work.
The work was divided into four
areas: the Somerset Levels, the East Anglian Fens, the North
West, and Humberside.
The Somerset Levels
Wetlands Project began in the Somerset levels, near Glastonbury.
Here the valley of the River Brue (and others) is only just above
sea level, and is still liable to flooding - see photo left. In
later prehistory, peat began to form, burying the sedges and reeds
which formed the peat, and preserving the trackways that early
man constructed across them. And since the water was anaerobic
(did not permit air to pass through) any wooden artefacts were
This were the site of the discovery in the late 19th century
of the famous Iron Age 'Lake Villages', first Glastonbury, then
the two adjacent villages at Meare, which still remain the the
best preserved Iron Age villages yet discovered in this country.
the peat that formed in the valleys was being cut away for use
as garden fertiliser, so in the 1970s, John Coles, Professor of
Prehistory at Cambridge University, began investigating these
He found that buried in the peat were numerous trackways, mostly
of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages,where hurdles had been laid down
leading across the rising peat from the high land on either side
of the valley to the low islands in the middle of the valley.
Here we see one of the trackways known as the Eclipse track,
made of hurdles, and dated to around 1800 BC.
earliest of the trackways discovered so far is the Sweet Track.
This was built in the winter or early spring of
3807 or 3806 BC - tree-ring dating enables us to give this very
precise dating. This makes it the earliest of all these timber
trackways discovered in northern Europe - indeed it has been claimed
to be the oldest road in the world.
This is very different in style from the later hurdle
trackways, such as the one shown above. It was narrower, but rather
more sophisticated, with an elaborate system of crossed posts
enabling the track to be constructed above the level of the rising
waters, as this reconstruction painting by Edward Martelmans shows.
The track was discovered by the peat diggers, and
part of it was inevitably destroyed. However the peat digging
has now been stopped, so the rest of the trackway still remains,
preserved in the peat. However the peat is drying out, and the
trackway will crumble away unless it is kept wet. Thus a sprinkler
system has been installed along its remaining length to keep it
wet. If the drainage of our wetlands continues, it will only be
by methods such as this that sites can be preserved.
Click here for the Peat
Moors Centre museum
biggest area of wetlands in England is the Fens, the region around
the Wash in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Drainage
began in the Roman period and has been going on apace from the
17th century onwards, until today it is almost entirely dry land.
Is there anything left?
English Heritage launched a massive field walking survey, and
for six years David Hall and his team walked over 200,000 hectares
of land, discovering over 2000 sites, of which 41 were test-excavated.
The big surprise was the number of Iron Age sites; the Romans
were not the first to settle in the area. Among the more spectacular
sites were the salterns, salt working establishments where salt
was extracted from the sea and traded inland. These began in the
Iron Age and by the late Roman period some were on an almost industrial
scale. The photographs show work in progress at Middleton where
one of a number of hearths on which salt water (brine) was boiled
to extract the salt is being drawn .
For a well-known Fenland site see Flag
The North West
project was then extended to the northwest of England. Here
the problems were very different. Instead of huge flat expanses,
there were numerous smaller bogs or mires. These were of two
types: there were the valley mires, many of them essentially
extensions of the Lake District where peat had built up in valleys
that might otherwise have held lakes; then there were the larger
raised mires where the peat had grown up mainly through the
nourishment of rainfall. There are a number of these both in
Cumberland and in Cheshire.
The most famous is Lindow Moss in Cheshire from which two famous
bog bodies were extracted in the 1980s (now in the British Museum).
A more recent spectacular discovery was that of the Solway cow
(above) which was found in the course of commercial peat extraction
in the Solway Moss in Cumbria. Here the head of a cow was discovered
complete with its hair, and radiocarbon dated to around 800
AD. Only the head was recovered; was this some form of ritual
The Humber Wetlands - and Sutton Common
final area to be investigated was the basin of the River Humber.
At the end of the last ice age , around 9,000 BC, the melting
ice formed a large but short-lived lake named Lake Humber, stretching
from Hull across nearly to Doncaster, and up to York (the white
area to the left of the plan). In the following millennia the
sea level rose, and the Humber estuary became tidal, and the former
Lake Humber became a very extensive peatland.
major site for preservation has been at Sutton Common (8 on
plan above, at extreme left, and see air photo, right, taken
when the land was still being ploughed, and where one of the
two Iron Age enclosures stands out as a cropmark). This was
the site of an early Iron Age marsh fort, that was excavated
by Sheffield University from 1987 - 93. However the land was
being drained, and partly ploughed and the wood that was preserved
was in danger of rotting away.
Fortunately however the site has been saved. Ian Carstairs,
a local conservationist, who has set up the Carstairs Conservation
Trust, was persuaded to acquire the site, with funding from
English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and others. The
drains that were draining the land have now been blocked up,
a re-wetting scheme has been introduced and the archaeology
will - hopefully - be preserved. The community and local schools
have been involved, and there are plans for further excavation.
Click here for an early
English Heritage report, and the Hull
University Wetlands Project
are we to preserve the dramatic archaeological remains hidden in
our wetlands? By ourselves, archaeologists are unlikely to have
sufficient political clout to do much preservation. We are far more
likely to be successful if we join other interests, notably wild
life and bird lovers.
In particular we need to look at the
'Ramsar' Convention on Wetlands. This was established at a
conference held at Ramsar in Iran in 1971, and now there are numerous
'Ramsar sites' all over the world where wetlands are preserved
- the equivalent of World Heritage Sites.
Unfortunately the Ramsar Convention focusses on safe-guarding
the natural environment of wetlands and their biodiversity. Archaeology
is not directly included in the convention but archaeologists
are working hard to ensure that when information sheets are drawn
up for for Ramsar sites, archaeological interests are included.
The main society concerned with wetlands - WARP, the Wetland
Archaeological Research Project, was set up by John and Bryony
Coles and based at Exeter
University where Bryony Coles is Professor of Archaeology.
Created: February 2001