Peatlands and the Historic Environment

A Highlands peatland landscape from Strath Brora, Sutherland, that has been cored to study its pollen record. Photo: Alistair Hamilton.
Further details of the pollen record from this location may be found here.

Historically, peatlands were considered either a useful resource (e.g. a valuable source of domestic fuel and key ingredient in whisky production) or as wasteland, in need of ‘reclamation’ to make them economically productive, often through drainage to improve grazing or sporting value, or in an effort to grow timber. In contrast with these strongly extractivist approaches, policy and practice are now informed by evidence on peatland function rather than direct economic gains, focusing instead on their role in carbon cycling and climate change.

Peatlands also fulfil other functions and values which are equally invisible but less widely known and often underrepresented in peatland policy. In particular, at the same time as they lock away carbon, peatlands preserve a record of the surrounding environment, landscape and land-use. Often, the records in these ‘natural archives’ are microscopic, in the form of pollen grains or soot from burning fossil fuels or insect remains. This is because peat’s anaerobic conditions preserve organic materials missing from much of the terrestrial archaeological record. A brief introduction to this area of archaeology may be found here:

But in some cases, the evidence is very tangible, such as the pine stumps (‘bog’ oaks and pines) that many hillwalkers will have seen eroding out of peat, that are also represented within this exhibition.  These remains can make past human interaction with peatlands seem very close indeed especially in the case of wonderfully-preserved prehistoric wooden trackways with tool marks still fresh (such as the Hatfield Moors track way, shown below), unfamiliar metal ornaments, puzzling ‘bog butter’, or startling and emotive bog bodies (in 2011, the remains of at least 66 individuals had been recovered from Scottish bogs, dating from Bronze Age to the historic period, although most of these finds no longer survive).

Glen Affric Bog Pine – probably several thousand years old. Photo: Rob Wilson.

Peat preserves some of the UK and Ireland’s’s most enigmatic and important archaeological finds; such an example includes the ‘Amcotts Woman’, a Roman age bog body from Lincolnshire. Imagery from her discovery is included in the exhibition, shown the Myths, Legends and Magic section.

Peat deposits associated with palaeo-lake Flixton, Seamer Carr, Yorkshire, have preserved these wonderful hunter-gatherer artefacts from the Mesolithic age at Starr Carr, in Yorkshire, dated to 8000 BC. These include this remarkable headdress (below) made of deer antler – interpreted as either used during hunting of red deer or by shamans during ritual activities.  The birch bark rolls from the same site (below) were probably used for tar production.

Red deer antler head-dress, Star Carr. British Museum (asset number 33826001)
© The Trustees of the British Museum under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
Birch Bark rolls, Star Carr. British Museum.
© The Trustees of the British Museum under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.

In fact, peatlands play a a hugely important role in contributing to the cultural heritage of the UK, preserving thousands of records of interactions between people and places, species, environment, climate and land-use for the entirety of the last 10,000 years. Across the UK, there are an estimated 22,500 archaeological sites located within peatlands, including 11,000 in Scotland, 7,000 in England, 3,500 in Northern Ireland, and 300 in Wales (although the Welsh total is likely to be far larger)[1]. This exceptional preservation, particularly of organic remains, means that peatland sites can generally contain up to 90% of materials from past communities, whereas dry land generally only contains 10%. 

In addition, the character of peatland landscapes are of value for their intangible heritage, including historic and contemporary small scale peat cutting, place names, local folklore and poetry, and associated cultural heritage values. These are often captured in various artistic forms; we have attempted to capture some of this variability in our online materials. The link below highlights some of the unique language and terms used to describe peat cutting in Scotland from the DASG archives, audio recordings of people remembering and describing their work, including peat-cutting by Mrs Marion Montgomery:òine/GU_Mrs_Marion_Montgomery

In the following clip John MacLean discusses an English-language reading of fieldwork notes describing peat-related activities and associated Gaelic vocabularies, on the Tobar an dualchais web page:

In other cases, these places represent the remnants of fast disappearing ways of life, that remind us that wetland living is part of our heritage, that contains a wealth of information about adaptation of living with a variety of environmental conditions.

Gathering the hay, Norfolk Broads.

It is notable that many of the historical finds have been discovered during peat-cutting and drainage. So our knowledge of natural and cultural heritage linked with peatlands has benefited from this destruction. However, it has also made palaeoecologists and archaeologists all too aware of the fragility of these finds once peat is disturbed and they are exposed to oxygen, which immediately allows decomposition to set in. However, although the archaeological remains are often included in museum exhibitions, so reach the public, but the microscopic remains are much more difficult to share. Through the exhibition we have shown a few of the images.

One way to make this visible is through community engagement: this allows the stimulation of questions and exchanges between locals and scientists. Often this can take the form of reconstruction activities, such as the example in the image below, which allows the co-creation of knowledge between practitioners and volunteers. Art also provides a means of prompting questions and creating more tangible responses to these exchanges.

Modern reconstruction of Hatfield Moors trackway, Hatfield Moors, S. Yorkshire, by a ‘Community of Builders’. Prof Henry Chapman explains the process. Photo: P. Barratt

On the other hand, how does current management and the push to restore peatlands affect these archives? In some cases restoration has only occurred after the archive is completely removed and whilst rewetting of sites may help preserve this buried history, the creation of peat dams to stop water erosion – sacrificing some peat in an effort to save the rest – also destroys stratigraphic integrity and the archive within it. 

Importantly, it should be recognised that summarising the peatland heritage of the UK includes significant unknowns. The nature of many peatlands is to gradually cover landforms and any archaeological sites present on them and make them invisible to modern aerial or walkover survey. This issue of the ‘unknown’ archaeological potential of peatlands is compounded by the high degree of survival or organic and ephemeral remains; it is often difficult to mitigate against impacts of development in peatlands, as it is difficult to know what could be lurking in the peat. 

Former peatlands converted to agricultural land through a flooding process known as ‘warping. Humber Levels. The former peatlands are buried about a metre below the ‘warp’ and contain significant levels of carbon, as well as archaeology. Photo: Kim Davies, Wildscapes project.

But peatland heritage across the UK is as diverse as the peatlands themselves, ranging from well-preserved landscapes visible in aerial survey to extensive sub-peat landscapes, where traces of human activity have been submerged by blanket peat growth over millennia or where historical land reclamation has trabsformed former wetlands into productive agricultural landscapes.

Althea Davies, Tom Gardner, Moira Piazzoli and Nicki Whitehouse

Further information may be found here: