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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 78

September 2004

Contents

news

Third Neolithic longhouse found in Scotland

Rare Medieval track excavated

Decorated shears trimmed Celtic hair

Iron Age 'bender' in Margate

Barrow saved from walkers

In Brief

features

Pagans
Robert J Wallis and Jenny Blain report from the other side

Boscombe grave
The truth behind the latest Stonehenge Beaker finds

Digging up art
Clive Waddington reveals first dates for British rock art

Bronze bog hoard
Surprising objects in prehistoric hoard in Armagh

Seahenge story
Mark Brennand excavates on the beach

Forest fire
Peter Fowler describes new discoveries in the Languedoc

letters

Ethnicity, mysticism, Roman disputes and hedges

opinion

Peter Drewett bemoans the lack of field skills

Spoilheap

Neil Mortimer fights stone circle power on Ebay

books

Past Poetic: Archaeology in the Poetry of WB Yeats & Seamus Heaney by Christine Finn

Antiquaries: the Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain by Rosemary Sweet

Trethurgy: Excavations at Trethurgy Round, St Austell: Community & Status in Roman & Post-Roman Cornwall by Henrietta Quinnell

Urban Growth & the Medieval Church: Gloucester & Worcester by Nigel Baker & Richard Holt

Behaviour Behind Bones: the Zooarchaeology of Ritual, Religion, Status & Identity by Sharon Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer & Anton Ervynck

Public Archaeology by Nick Merriman

The Victoria History of the Counties of England. Stafford vol IX: Burton-Upon-Trent by Institute of Historical Research

Archaeology, Ritual, Religion by Timothy Insoll

Charter Quay: the Archaeology of Kingston’s Riverside by Wessex Archaeology

Melrose Abbey by Richard Fawcett & Richard Oram

Places of Special Virtue: Megaliths in the Neolithic Landscape of Wales by Vicki Cummings & Alasdair Whittle

Human Evolution Cookbook by Harold L Dibble, Dan Williamson & Brad M Evans

CBA update

tv in ba

Looking back on a season of wars and battles

science

Chief archaeological scientist Sebastian Payne's new column

my archaeology

Philip Beale left his job for an archaeological experiment

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

science

under the weather

Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, ponders climate change and preservation of archaeological remains

Climate change is in the news. The past ten years have been warmer than any other decade since records began (some 300 years ago) as climate modellers predicted. This is a high-priority issue for the government (though our commitment to cut carbon emissions and fossil fuel use sits oddly with recent pleas for OPEC to increase oil production). However, plans to drill a deep ocean core on the Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic1 to look in greater detail at climate change over the past 50 million years, remind us that the subject is still poorly understood. One of the purposes of the Lomonosov project is to gather more evidence about predictions that another Ice Age is due fairly soon (in geological terms!): it can get colder as well as warmer.

Climate change comes as no surprise to prehistorians. They are very aware of preserved glacial valleys and moraines from past Ice Ages, and of the bones of animals like hippopotamus and elephant from intervening warm periods – hippo bones were found in interglacial deposits below Trafalgar Square.

Over the past few thousand years climate has been fairly stable, but we see changes reflected in the record of settlements in marginal areas. The Little Ice Age, with a cold peak from the 16th to the 19th century with ox-roasts on the frozen Thames, caused the abandonment of Scandinavian settlements in Greenland and frequent famine in marginal areas in northern Europe.2 Documentary evidence (Domesday Book lists 46 vineyards in southern England) and insect remains from English sites suggest warmer conditions at some times in the Roman period and again in Medieval times. Bronze Age settlements, farms and fields in upland Britain, now often covered by bog, were abandoned because of cooler wetter conditions at the end of the Bronze Age.

Research on past climates and environments also gives us a longer perspective on present world climate. Knowing the earth’s climate has varied widely and changed rapidly in the past, helps us understand that climate change is normal; archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence for past conditions gives us a longer record against which to assess climate change predictions.

Environmental and climate changes also have obvious impacts on the preservation of archaeological sites. Drainage and water abstraction already damage wetlands – peat deposits with all that they can tell us about past environments. Our sinking coast in the south-east is eroding: in Essex Neolithic sites such as the Stumble, with well-preserved cereal remains, are now in the intertidal zone. These have been a high priority for investigation for some time. Coastal realignment and managed retreat are adding to what needs to be done.

Current predictions for the UK include temperature increases of 2-5°C by the 2080s, sea-level rise of up to 80 cm, slightly wetter winters and drier summers and, with lower confidence, increased storms. While there is some inevitable uncertainty, predicted changes add to the urgency of work on waterlogged and coastal archaeology, as set out in a pilot study undertaken for English Heritage by May Cassar at University College London.3

There are important implications also for the policy of archaeological preservation in situ (as was considered but rejected, for example, for Seahenge). We know surprisingly little about the effects of environmental change on buried, especially waterlogged archaeology. Climate change impacts make it all the more important to find out more about where preservation in place is likely to work and where it may not.4

More science

1 Times June 4, Arctic trip may predict ice age
2 www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/lia/ little_ice_age.html
3 Cassar, M et al forthcoming. Climate Change & the Historic Environment
4 Bowsher, D (ed) 2004. Preserving Archaeological Remains In Situ? Proceedings of the 2nd Conference (Museum of London Archaeology Service Publications, isbn 1901992365). The next PARIS conference will be in Amsterdam in 2005

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