Why the archaeology of peatlands matters as we look to COP26

by Henry Chapman 

Peat and peatlands have received considerable coverage in the media in recent months and remain in focus due to the positive contributions they make to climate change challenges at the heart of COP26.

In the UK, new support has been provided for peatland restoration, including the announcement in April of Natural England’s ‘Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme’. The following month saw the publication of the England Peat Action Plan (EPAP)  which included measures including phasing out the sale of peat compost.

With these new initiatives, there is a welcome emphasis on the valuable heritage that peatlands present. Heritage was highlighted within the EPAP, which also draws on the recent publication of Historic England’s ‘Peatlands and the Historic Environment’ paper, focusing on the cultural and heritage value of peat.

But why is heritage so fundamental to peatlands?

Peatlands encapsulate millennia of landscape change, coupled with human adaptation, from populations that lived and foraged within these environments to the final stages of industrial heritage associated with processes of peat extraction.

However, their key importance lies in the detail of the stories they can tell, and this results from their unparalleled potential for preserving organic materials – from wood and leather to perfectly preserved remains of the bodies of animals and even people – that, in most other contexts, would rot away and be lost.

The principal factors that decay organic material are fungi and certain types of aerobic bacteria. In a saturated and stagnant peatland, the impacts of these perpetrators of decay are diminished. Long-term preservation is achieved through stasis - a lack of change within their saturated burial environment.

The remains of preserved structures such as trackways not only inform about past human activity in an area, but also about changes in woodworking and carpentry techniques. From the wood itself, we can learn about past choices of different species for different tasks, and about the woodland management techniques used to procure it, such as the use of 35-50-year-old, overgrown oak coppice in the construction of a causeway on the Waveney in Suffolk. Furthermore, the differential growth of the tree rings in this wood tells us that the whole building enterprise took place within a three-month period – the spring of 75 BCE.  Just this example shows how communities over 2000 years ago worked to ensure the future for future generations. Within the context of COP26, this is ever more relevant.

But peatlands do not just preserve the objects and structures that people made in the past. The peat itself forms an archive of past environments. By analysing the macroscopic and microscopic plant and animal remains we can construct detailed understanding of past environmental changed, human response to such change and, in some instances, human impact on their environments. An example from Derryville bog in central Ireland showed how the construction, use and repair of a road through what was a developing bog in the Bronze Age impeded the bog’s hydrology resulting in a catastrophic bog burst. A salutary story of human agency creating environmental damage nearly 3,500 years ago.

Although rare, perhaps the most tangible of all archaeological discoveries from peatlands has been the perfectly preserved remains of humans. These examples, known as bog bodies, offer an unparalleled opportunity to be literally face-to-face with our prehistoric ancestors. Most bodies were discovered in times and places where peat cutting was undertaken by hand, although more recent, sometimes very fragmented, remains have been made following mechanised peat cutting.

A perfectly preserved body can tell us so more than just the miracle of being able to see a prehistoric face. Soft tissue and hair, alongside evidence of disease and healed injuries, tell us about who these individuals were in life. Textiles and clothes, where they were buried (for many bodies were placed naked), inform us about their status, but also about how such objects were manufactured. For many bodies, unhealed wounds tell us how they died, in some instances raising questions about the likelihood of ceremonial killing, or rituals of human sacrifice. Their stomachs contain the remains of their final meal, not only giving indications about their economies, but also about the final hours of these individuals’ lives.

With such exceptional preservation potential in peatlands, it is perhaps not surprising that our understanding of ancient peoples - of where we come from - builds from the intricate detail that peat presents us with.

We hopefully look to a future of reduced peat loss with plans for restoration, with benefits that are paralleled in issues of biodiversity and climate change. But there is still a need for care and caution. Locally, challenges of peat loss through developments persist, with the potential for devastating impacts. And even where we seek to re-wet and restore peatlands, the processes are far from easy, with far reaching implications for heritage. For much archaeology, the impact of the damage is already felt and, unless we act quickly, more will be lost. Re-flooding requires infrastructural manipulation and, once a peatland becomes wet again, the chances to find new sites is severely diminished. Even where sites are found, they become logistically challenging to deal with.

These challenges can be addressed through multi-agency and multi-interest collaboration. To do this, we need to ensure a wider public understanding of the heritage value of peatlands. Recently, such collaboration can be seen in places such as Hatfield Moors in South Yorkshire. Here, within a landscape actively being restored, access and understanding of heritage has been through community ventures and reconstruction projects, the first of which focused on an internationally important Neolithic site towards the centre of the bog.  Whilst the site itself cannot be seen on the ground due to the needs for its continued preservation, it can now be experienced through the co-produced replica.

Collaboration on projects such as this provides a framework for engagement and discussion around how the different priorities relating to peatland can pull together. Whether your starting point is climate change, biodiversity, or heritage, their interrelatedness is fundamentally important. 

This article was originally published in the Birmingham Brief