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How climate change is washing away precious evidence of our distant past

Writer : Gillian Taylor, Affiliate Professor in Archaeology, Teesside College

In addition to threatening biodiversity, meals methods and human well being, local weather change has one other sufferer: historic artefacts. At some UK websites of archaeological curiosity, unusually heavy rainfall is eroding layers of protecting peat to break the preserved relics that lie beneath.

A few of the UK’s best archaeological stays have been discovered buried in peat, a sort of soil that’s naturally excessive in acidity and low in oxygen. Which means it preserves wooden, leather-based and textiles extraordinarily properly, because the microorganisms that will normally trigger these supplies to interrupt down can’t thrive.

Peat has helped to maintain Britain’s historic environments alive for contemporary evaluation: from neolithic trackways marking the place our ancestors travelled between settlements in Somerset, to preserved our bodies just like the Lindow Man present in a bathroom in Cheshire. The peat setting wherein Lindow Man was buried dramatically lowered decay, which means that his hair and beard have remained seen even after nearly 2,000 years.

However local weather change is bringing more and more hotter summers and wetter winters to the UK, together with unprecedentedly heavy native rainfall. This adjustments the panorama by washing away layers of soil and peat to disclose archaeological buildings, gadgets and human stays.

An ancient stone fort with low walls
Vindolanda, a Roman fort, holds an enormous vary of archaeological proof.

To higher perceive how briskly these adjustments are going down – and what their penalties is likely to be for future archaeologists – our colleagues are learning what’s occurring at Magna, the location of an historic Roman fort in Northumberland.


Magna is likely one of the most fascinating, well-preserved websites within the UK. As a strategic military base, it might have held a commanding place on the junction between three key Roman roads: the Stanegate, Navy Manner and Maiden Manner. Surveys recommend that it was occupied from AD80-85 to the top of Roman Britain, in round AD410.

To check it, archaeologists dug boreholes and inserted gadgets referred to as piezometers to gather information on groundwater ranges and temperature. They’re additionally sending peat samples to a laboratory for chemical and microbiological evaluation. This info will assist us to grasp how the native setting is altering and what impact this might need on archaeological degradation.

One other Roman fort only a few miles east of Magna, Vindolanda, has supplied among the most vital finds from Roman Britain. Right here, archaeologists have found the primary proof of handwriting by a lady (Claudia Severa writing to ask her buddy Sulpicia Lepidina to her upcoming birthday celebration), the world’s oldest boxing gloves from round AD120, and the biggest Roman leather-based shoe assortment ever discovered – consisting of an astonishing 7,000 gadgets.

Mannequin feet wearing black leather shoes
Objects like these Roman black leather-based footwear are sometimes discovered preserved in peat.
Dan Diffendale/Flickr

These exceptional finds are as a result of fort’s distinctive, peat-rich setting, which implies that they’re additionally threatened by climate-driven deterioration. We concern that finds which haven’t but been found could quickly be irreversibly broken as a result of results of local weather change.

The purpose of peat

Peatlands cowl about 3% of the world’s land space however are one among its finest pure carbon shops, holding twice as a lot carbon as all of the world’s forests.

In England and Northern Eire, peatland makes up 10%-12% of all land, whereas Scotland has 20% peatland cowl. Traditionally, these landscapes have been drained to be used in farming, with peat dried to burn for gas: releasing large quantities of carbon into the ambiance.

Throughout Europe, an estimated 100,000km² of peatland has been misplaced during the last 50 years. A lot of what stays is poor high quality. Within the UK, solely a fifth of UK peatlands might be described as “close to pristine”.

A forest viewed from above
Peatland shops big quantities of carbon.
Cifor/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The drainage, reducing and agriculture which have broken these ecosystems have triggered equal harm to the archaeological finds buried inside them. Peat development is slowed or stopped when peatlands are drained, resulting in oxidised soil that encourages harmful microorganisms to proliferate.

Archaeologists and policymakers are actually working facet by facet to maintain peatlands protected environments, to assist seize and protect each carbon and the proof of the UK’s historical past.

And this dedication to defending peatlands and the heritage they shelter has gone world. Final yr, a session on the UN local weather convention COP26 was devoted to highlighting the significance of defending peatland. However that is solely the start of an extended journey to make sure that peatlands, and the treasures they maintain, will stay secure for generations to come back.


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