British Archaeology, no 7, September 1995: Letters

Landscape change

From Dr Keith Bennett and Dr Kathy Willis

Sir: Brian Huntley argues that major changes in vegetation during the postglacial have been largely controlled by past climatic change, rather than by human impacts - or, presumably, other potential forcing factors (`Swept along by the climate machine', June).

The original explanation for the elm decline was that it was due to climatic change. The idea that people might have been responsible was raised in the 1950s, and was current for a couple of decades. But this notion was laid to rest when the North American hemlock decline was linked to pathogens, coupled with the dramatic effects of Dutch Elm Disease, and completed by Oliver Rackham's arguments about the scale of the event (in Ancient Woodland, 1980). We have not heard a palaeoecologist ascribe this event to human activity for many years, and by mentioning it in this context, Huntley is merely erecting a straw man.

Recent work in the blanket peat landscapes of the far north west of Britain suggests that blanket peat growth began in the early postglacial, and was always tending to increase. The rate of increase, however, was dramatically accelerated in the period between 5,000-3,000 radiocarbon years ago, typically associated with evidence for human activity (eg, cereal pollen and charcoal). In the Faroe Islands, with no human activity, but within the same general Atlantic climatic regime, this acceleration did not take place. Additionally, there is no need to postulate climatic change for increases in the extent of blanket peat. The landscapes concerned are in high-rainfall, acidic, nutrient-poor regions. Several thousand years of leaching will do the job very well, and adding grazing animals to such a system is the final straw.

Human impact is certainly an over-simplistic explanation of all changes in postglacial environments; but the same is true of climatic explanations. There are many interacting forcing factors, and the problem of disentangling them can only be resolved by obtaining independent lines of evidence for each. Huntley uses pollen evidence to derive information on past climates; and asserts that vegetation change (also based on pollen evidence) is forced by climatic change - a circular argument. So who or what is `swept along by the climate machine'? Natural landscapes or Brian Huntley? We suspect the latter.

Yours faithfully,
Department of Plant Sciences
University of Cambridge
29 June

Roman genocide

From Dr Graham Dawson

Sir: I was very interested in Colin Martin's article, `To Scotland then they came, burning' (July). I have always been convinced that the Severan campaign in Scotland must have been very destructive because of the peace which followed it, though I had always thought in terms of the destruction of the political structure (eg, by removing the ruling class) rather than of genocide.

Another piece of evidence on this is that when trouble started again on the northern frontier at the end of the 3rd century, Rome's enemy was no longer the Caledonii but the Picti. Roman historians were reluctant to change the names of barbarian tribes, and this suggests that a considerable change had occurred during the 3rd century. The Pictish royal genealogies also probably begin in the 3rd century, using the rough and ready calculation of generations (cf MO Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, page 84).

If, as Martin suggests, the Caledonii had been wiped out, they must have been replaced by people from elsewhere, and clearly these must have seemed very different from the Caledonii to the Romans. The obvious candidates would be people from south of the Forth (who do not seem very different) or from north of the Moray Firth. It may well be significant that the brochs, sited mainly to the north of the Moray Firth, were largely abandoned as defensive structures in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, showing that the threat to which they had been a response had been removed.

There is also some evidence for peoples who were friendly to the Romans, and sometimes allied to them, to the north of the Caledonii, who may be the broch dwellers; and if so, their expansion southwards might have been welcome to the Romans though later they would regret it.

Yours faithfully,
27 July

Rubbish floors

From Mr David Andrews

Sir: I was interested to read your account of Monmouth (`Rubbish in the floods', May). The deliberate raising of ground levels in response to environmental pressures is by no means unique to that town.

The process can be paralleled in Essex at Harwich, a medieval new town built at the tip of a sandy promontory. In the 13th century, as buildings were replaced, so ground levels rose. In about 1300 there was, in some parts of the town at least, a major phase of dumping, though whether this was caused by flooding is uncertain. In short, Harwich sits on about 6ft of archaeological deposits (cf Essex Archaeology and History, 1990).

The problem at Harwich and other small towns is finding the resources to excavate on a large scale. Developer funding is no solution. What is needed is a commitment from English Heritage to fund work in small towns with rich deposits.

Yours sincerely,
20 July

PPG16 research

From Mr Tim Strickland

Sir: Much as I support Martin Biddle's belief in research-led archaeology, my own experience suggests James Symonds is not correct in saying PPG16 `discourages research-led archaeology in the private sector' (`A long look to archaeology's future', June).

We in Giffords are constantly developing research initiatives, and we by no means lose interest the moment our developer-funded commitments end. This, I think, is because we refuse to give jobs to archaeologists who have lost sight of their research interests. I am disheartened, however, by many of the recent products of universities who apply to us for jobs - so many seem to lack the instinctive curiosity about the past which was the hallmark of earlier generations.

What we need is not the abandonment of PPG16 so much as archaeologists who actually want to be archaeologists and not just `managers'. The blame for the presumed conflict between scholarship and private sector work cannot be laid at the door of PPG16 or contracting, but rather at that of the increasing number of young archaeologists in all sectors who are not `real' archaeologists at all.

Yours faithfully,
Director, Gifford and Partners
8 June

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1995