Peatlands maintain a unique archive of our cultural past. Beneath the peat, large tracts of prehistoric landscapes lie protected from modern disturbances. The waterlogged peat matrix itself is an oxygen-free environment and in such conditions, objects and structures made of wood and plants survive for millennia. It has been estimated that in excess of 20,500 archaeological sites exist beneath and within the peat in the UK (Gearey, et al., 20101).
Peatlands themselves form part of the historic landscape and contain evidence of peat cutting, which goes back to the Roman period and continued through the Middle Ages, used as an alternative source of fuel to wood. Peatlands also record environmental change, as the peat layers of different depth can be dated. This archive includes the history of the particular peatland, in the form of the remains of the plants that make up the peat and of the insects that lived on the bog. We can also learn of past changes in the landscape beyond the peatlands, which can be reconstructed from the pollen that blew into peatlands.
Peatlands provide many people with a ‘sense of place’. As large seminatural landscapes, they dominate all but two (Pembrokeshire Coast and South Downs) of our 15 UK National Parks and can provide local communities with a sense of inspiration and connectedness with their natural environment. Whilst peatlands have come to be regarded and valued a wilderness in some places, elsewhere peatland landscapes have been formed through the centuries-long utilisation of the peat itself, and this activity has contributed to the way communities understand peatlands. The challenge ahead is to manage peatland use in ways that minimise the damage and to look at economic and employment opportunities such as recreation and tourism (e.g. hill walking) or work in peatland restoration with volunteers and contractors to optimise the biological, cultural and economic value associated with healthy peatland habitats.
1 Gearey, B., Bermingham, N., Chapman, H., Charman, D., Fletcher, W., Fyfe, R., Quartermaine & Van de Noort, R. (2010). Peatlands and the Historic Environment. Edinburgh: IUCN UK Peatland Programme - see below.
This Review, undertaken as part of the Commission of Inquiry in 2011, summarises available information about the potential of peatlands to preserve historical evidence and describe the distribution of known archaeological sites in peatlands.
The Review Team discusses the unique character of the peatland historic environment and its relation to policies regarding ‘cultural value’, and consider current and possible future threats to the resource, including changes in land use and anthropogenic factors, synergies with climate change and possible conflicts with current policies and management.
Issues of the management of the historic environment of peatlands in relation to other review topics are also considered.
- Download the scientific review Peatlands and the Historic Environment
Please note, the views expressed in this review are those of the authors. The IUCN UK Peatland Programme is not responsible for the content of this review and does not necessarily endorse the views contained within.
This Review is funded by English Heritage.
This review is lead by Dr Ben Gearey of the University of Birmingham.
Ben Gearey is Research Fellow in the Institute of Archaeology, University of Birmingham. His current research interests include the environmental archaeology of wetlands with a particular focus on lowland mire systems.