thinking about archaeology

Who then will tell the story of our last hunters?

The new British Archaeology is now in the shops, a particularly strong issue, from Spoilheap’s analysis of new MPs at the front to an interview with photographer Don McCullin at the back, and lots of news, digs and stuff in between. The Council for British Archaeology’s survey of “community archaeology” – volunteers, amateurs, enthusiasts, unpaid archaeologists – is surprising and fascinating.

It’s not the biggest thing in the issue, but I liked the letter from Tim Marshall. He questions archaeologists who bring an unthinking attitude to criticising alternative energy schemes because of their real or apparent threat to archaeological remains or landscapes – a feature in the previous issue had ended with a swipe at the proposed Severn barrage. “Surely”, he writes, “archaeologists above all should be aware of the historical flow we are currently in, with our high consumption life-world showing no sign of slackening its thirst for energy”.

I should repeat here that these blogs are my own views, and nothing (necessarily) to do with the magazine or the Council for British Archaeology. By coincidence a few days before that letter arrived, I received a fat package of material from an objector to a windfarm on the Isle of Lewis, part of which would be visible from the megaliths at Callanish. The writer, who had compiled masses of charts, maps and photos in support of his case, suggested that British Archaeology might “wish to take a stance”. The grounds for objection seem to be mostly cosmetic – the effect on the view from the stones, not the impact of construction on the ground.

Now, I’m sympathetic to such pleas (and out of respect to Adrian Hyde and his cause, I reproduce a couple of his pages here), but why should British Archaeology take a stance? I remember long ago hearing a talk on Radio 3, I think by a poet, who argued that the duty of modern society was to fight the threat of global annihilation by nuclear wars, for one reason: if humanity destroyed itself, the universe would be deprived of the knowledge that once there was circulating around space a civilisation we know as Classical Greece.

My duty to the past – if I have one – is not to try and preserve every last bit of pot or ditch, or even just the views, but to foster life, humanity, to sustain the wealth of the changing present. Without societies sophisticated enough to do the research, the past loses its voice. If a windfarm is efficient at generating energy – an important proviso, of course – then it’s good for all of us, and that’s good for archaeology.

I wrote on this subject once for the Big Issue. I haven’t got a copy of the magazine, and the text doesn’t seem to be on the web, so here it is.

From Big Issue Cymru, June 2008

Between low and high tide in the Severn estuary, the water rises by 15 metres – enough to submerge all but the wind cowl topping the National Assembly for Wales. When the sea goes out on the Severn, it really goes out.

This huge twice-daily change has created unique coastal environments, recognised at the Newport Wetlands Reserve in April, when it was designated a National Nature Reserve. Here, upstream from Cardiff, reedbeds, grasslands and lagoons attract a wide variety of life, including bearded tits and avocets (unique or rare breeders for Wales), otters and hares. Beyond the reserve, 5km of sand and mudflats support flocks of wading birds.

All of this – and similar sites along both shores of the estuary, where the fish population is one of the most diverse in Britain – is threatened by a Severn barrage. A hydro-electric barrier joining Wales and England has been discussed for many years, but last September the government launched a two-year study with intent. Times have changed. A barrage could generate sufficient electricity to make a substantial contribution to reducing carbon emissions. There are people out there who deny artificial global warming – as there will always be those who say the earth is flat and balanced on a banana – but the government, public bodies and many private institutions take it very seriously, and seek urgent responses. A Severn barrage might suddenly seem attractive.

But, of course, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature have objected to the proposal. There are other ways of reducing emissions, they say, without the ecological loss. But suppose those other ways are necessary, too? Britain struggles to meet emissions targets even as research shows them to be inadequate: global warming does not do us the favour of holding back while we dither. Will the last family on earth look at a view, and thank their ancestors that noone spoilt it with a wind farm?

We live in a crowded country. We value our neighbourhoods and local landscapes: the rich, historic settlements and rural spaces that help us pace our busy lives, that add colour and perspective. There are always going to be good local reasons for fighting off new developments. But what if national or global needs are stronger? What if a Severn barrage – however much it might distress us and the birds – benefits the population of China?

Out on the mudflats, one of the rarest creatures of all has only recently appeared. Your best chance of a sighting is mid afternoon when the sea is lowest, in late summer or early autumn. The tide exposes muds and peats, and the season favours the summer vacation: for these are archaeologists.

Archaeology barely gets a mention in the barrage debate, yet what has been recorded beside the Newport Wetlands Reserve and elsewhere along the Welsh shore are some of the most profoundly important finds in modern times (as I will explain). And like the bearded tits and avocets, they would be endangered by the Severn barrage. Well actually, not like the tits and avocets. The birds can fly and, perhaps with help from us, find homes elsewhere (the Newport reserve was itself created to replace habitats lost to the Cardiff Bay barrage scheme). Endangered archaeology, unknown and unseen, ends up in the bin.

When I was a student in the 1970s, protecting archaeology went hand in hand with preserving the environment. New motorways ripped through fields as they did ancient sites; inner city developments trashed historic remains as they did modern communities. Being a campaigning archaeologist was like being an environmentalist, with insight.

Not now. Press headlines suggest archaeologists care more about the appearance of a historic window than a householder’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions (and increase comfort) by double glazing. On a larger scale, archaeologists have objected to the demolition of entire areas of historic housing deemed unfit for living and impossible to adapt to modern environmental needs. Yet on close scrutiny, most such cases turn out to be misleading, at best. Numerous studies by bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, when properly conducted, have shown that sensitive adaptation of older homes is often better both for the character of a home and community, and for carbon emissions.

Archaeology has learnt to adapt. “Conservation”, says a recent National Trust statement on climate change, “is about the management of change”. English Heritage is showing new sympathy to listed building alterations. Informed flexibility is one of the themes of the heritage protection bill, which overhauls ancient monument and historic building legislation for England and Wales: the bill is welcomed by archaeologists.

In fact we signed up to such realism some time ago, with a planning system that obliges developers to pay for excavation and study of significant remains they would destroy. The political wrapper is gruesome. Such destruction of a site is “preservation by record”. Of course it isn’t: it’s destruction.

Yet this destruction has changed our understanding of the past. With developer funding, far more excavation and recording has taken place than was conceivable 30 years ago. And the discoveries have not just added to what we already knew: they have rewritten the story of Britain. That is what the finds around the Severn estuary have done – particularly those close to the Newport Nature Reserve.

There’s a forest out there. The trees may be gone now, but seven or eight thousand years ago, tall oaks clumped closely together on the edge of the estuary. People made paths through the woods and salt marshes, out on to the mudflats to fish and gather plants, and to set out to sea in canoes. Tree stumps and fallen trunks are preserved in the peats. Trails of wading birds, wild cattle and bare-footed adults and children cross the muds. There are indications of cooking fires, and even toilet areas – remarkably, perhaps the only ones yet found in prehistoric Britain.

These ephemeral traces offer unique insights into the world of the last hunter-gatherers to roam Britain. Theirs was a way of life that reached back – through myriad changes in culture and across climate changes that saw almost all of Wales repeatedly buried beneath mountainous ice – hundreds of thousands of years.

Suppose the Severn barrage is shown to be economically and environmentally viable? Suppose it really can knock down our carbon emissions? What do we do about those unique archaeological deposits that the barrage and its impact on tides would destroy? How do we value the children whose prints lie undiscovered in the mud?

It’s difficult, but I believe we should not stop the barrage. Destruction is forever, but information can be salvaged from the process. With appropriate mitigation, we can learn more about these ancient people, and that seems to me to respect them. Yet if we let our own world go to ruin, if we destroy through neglect the global environment and consequently the fabric of our own society, who then will tell the story of our last hunters and fishers? The tools by which we seek knowledge of the past, are also those with which we build our own future.

One response

  1. Amanda

    Sorry but the barrage is a bad idea. If you actually live near the area which I do, you’ll know why. The area is an important area for wildlife and would be wiped out if the barrage goes ahead. There are alternatives which are less damaging to the environment which have not been considered.
    Those against the barrage are not against renewable energy. What we are against is hasty decisions without looking at less damaging alternatives.

    http://www.stopthebarrage.com/

    June 19, 2010 at 12:58 pm

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