How climate change is washing away precious evidence of England’s distant past


Share post:

As well as threatening biodiversity, food systems and human health, climate change has another victim: ancient artifacts. At some UK sites of archaeological interest, unusually heavy rainfall is eroding layers of protective peat to damage the preserved relics that lie beneath.

How climate change is washing away precious evidence of England's distant past
Heavy rainfall and degrading peatland are putting archaeological artefacts at increased risk of decay
 [Credit: Pixabay]

Some of the UK’s finest archaeological remains have been found buried in peat, a type of soil that’s naturally high in acidity and low in oxygen. That means it preserves wood, leather and textiles extremely well, as the microorganisms that would usually cause these materials to break down can’t thrive.

Peat has helped to keep Britain’s ancient environments alive for modern analysis: from neolithic trackways marking where our ancestors traveled between settlements in Somerset, to preserved bodies like the Lindow Man found in a bog in Cheshire. The peat environment in which Lindow Man was buried dramatically reduced decay, meaning that his hair and beard have remained visible even after almost 2,000 years.

How climate change is washing away precious evidence of England's distant past
Whole bodies have been found in peat soils, like the famous Lindow man discovered in Cheshire
 [Credit: Getty Images]

But climate change is bringing increasingly hotter summers and wetter winters to the UK, including unprecedentedly heavy local rainfall. This changes the landscape by washing away layers of soil and peat to reveal archaeological buildings, items and human remains.

To better understand how fast these changes are taking place—and what their consequences might be for future archaeologists—our colleagues are studying what’s happening at Magna, the site of an ancient Roman fort in Northumberland.


How climate change is washing away precious evidence of England's distant past
Vindolanda, a Roman fort, holds a huge range of archaeological evidence
[Credit: Francis/WikiCommons]

Magna is one of the most fascinating, well-preserved sites in the UK. As a strategic army base, it would have held a commanding position at the junction between three key Roman roads: the Stanegate, Military Way and Maiden Way. Surveys suggest that it was occupied from AD80–85 to the end of Roman Britain, in around AD410.

To study it, archaeologists dug boreholes and inserted devices called piezometers to collect data on groundwater levels and temperature. They’re also sending peat samples to a laboratory for chemical and microbiological analysis. This information will help us to understand how the local environment is changing and what effect this might have on archaeological degradation.

How climate change is washing away precious evidence of England's distant past
Items like these Roman black leather shoes are often found preserved in peat
[Credit: Dan Diffendale/Flickr]

Another Roman fort just a few miles east of Magna, Vindolanda, has provided some of the most significant finds from Roman Britain. Here, archaeologists have discovered the first evidence of handwriting by a woman (Claudia Severa writing to invite her friend Sulpicia Lepidina to her upcoming birthday party), the world’s oldest boxing gloves from around AD120, and the largest Roman leather shoe collection ever found—consisting of an astonishing 7,000 items.

These remarkable finds are due to the fort’s unique, peat-rich environment, which means that they’re also threatened by climate-driven deterioration. We fear that finds which haven’t yet been discovered may soon be irreversibly damaged due to the effects of climate change.

Peatlands cover about 3% of the world’s land area but are one of its best natural carbon stores, holding twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

In England and Northern Ireland, peatland makes up 10%–12% of all land, while Scotland has 20% peatland cover. Historically, these landscapes have been drained for use in farming, with peat dried to burn for fuel: releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

How climate change is washing away precious evidence of England's distant past
Peatland stores huge amounts of carbon [Cifor/Flickr]

Across Europe, an estimated 100,000km² of peatland has been lost over the last 50 years. Much of what remains is poor quality. In the UK, only a fifth of UK peatlands can be described as “near pristine”. The drainage, cutting and agriculture that have damaged these ecosystems have caused equal damage to the archaeological finds buried within them. Peat growth is slowed or stopped when peatlands are drained, leading to oxidized soil that encourages destructive microorganisms to proliferate.

Archaeologists and policymakers are now working side by side to keep peatlands protected environments, to help capture and preserve both carbon and the evidence of the UK’s history. And this commitment to protecting peatlands and the heritage they shelter has gone global. Last year, a session at the UN climate conference COP26 was dedicated to highlighting the importance of protecting peatland. But this is only the beginning of a long journey to ensure that peatlands, and the treasures they hold, will remain safe for generations to come.

Authors: Gillian Taylor & Rosie Everett | Source: The Conversation [February 02, 2022]

Support The Archaeology News Network with a small donation!



Related articles

Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

The Danish medieval town of Odense is the final resting place for hundreds of people who died with...

Cambodian children discover thousand year old Buddhist statues

Archaeologists in Cambodia got some help over the weekend from a group of grimy kids. The children were...

5,000-year-old house ruins discovered in north China

Chinese archaeologists have discovered house ruins dating back 5,000 to 7,000 years ago in north China's Shanxi Province,...

4,500-year-old baby bottles discovered in eastern Turkey

Archaeologists have discovered ancient baby bottles dating back to 2500 B.C. during excavations at Norik Mound in Turkey's...

Stone age surgery: earliest evidence of amputation found

A team of Indonesian and Australian researchers have uncovered the oldest case of surgical amputation to date in...

Eastern Zhou and Jin Dynasty tombs found near ancient city of Pingyao

Chinese archaeologists have discovered two ancient tombs, one from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC-256 BC) and the...

2018 excavations at Katalymata ton Plakoton on west coastline of Akrotiri Peninsula concluded

The Department of Antiquities, Ministry of Communications and Works announced the end of the 12th excavation season at...

Ancestral Puebloan pottery-making wasn’t ‘women’s work’

New research from Dr. John Kantner, a University of North Florida professor specializing in anthropological archaeology, suggests that...