Palaeopeat

Tim Holt-Wilson

I picked up a speed-camera ticket on my way to Hatfield Moors – though I didn’t find that out until I got home. The place of my downfall was a dreary hamlet called Sandtoft in the levels of North Lincolnshire, and the road there was as long, straight and humpy as any I’m familiar with in the East Anglian Fenland. It crossed a flat, monotonous landscape which was once the bed of proglacial Lake Humber, about 15,000 years ago. In later millennia it became a wetland area soused by the River Don. As with the Fens, this watery situation persisted until the 17th century when drainage work began to reclaim most of the land for farming. Some primal wilderness did survive into the 20th century on the Hatfield and Thorne Moors, which included areas of raised bog.

600 THW_0010 adj.jpg Hatfield Moors – a landscape recovering from industrial peat extraction.

Sphag bog

Raised…

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Pollen and the Plants of the Past: PalaeoFest 2019

By Sophie McDonald

At the beginning of July, I was asked if I’d like to attend the PalaeoFest pollen workshop, part of a four day festival of palaeoenvironmental analysis, taking place at Hatfield Moors, near Doncaster. If you keep an eye on the Bayes and Bones blog, you may have read my recent post, talking about taking peat cores as part of my PhD at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. PalaeoFest sounded like an excellent opportunity to get a head start on pollen analysis before heading over to University College Cork to work on palaeoenvironmental samples from a Bronze Age settlement site near Lairg, Sutherland, later this summer.

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The Landscape of Hatfield Moors

I left Glasgow at 4:30am on Monday, made my way through pouring rain down the M74, and pulled up at Natural England’s new Hatfield Moors Education Centre just in time for start of the morning session. I ventured inside, where I was greeted by the sounds of a kettle boiling and staff, students and volunteers catching up with each other, setting up for the day ahead. I’d arrived a day late, but there were other new starts too. Together, we were given an outline of the area’s history and the context of current research into the past environment of the Humberhead Levels.

Today, the Humberhead Levels look like flat farmland, primarily due to 17th century drainage, but in the past they supported a diverse ecosystem which may have looked very similar to places like Florida’s Everglades. The area has been home to humans for millennia, and we were shown a stone tool dating from the Mesolithic period, found at the bottom of the core we were going to be studying.

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A type-slide of cross-leaved heath pollen (not a plant we encountered while counting pollen from the real core).

With a new understanding of the landscape around us, we eased into an afternoon of pollen analysis. The group had varying levels of experience – I was definitely put to shame by the undergraduate students attending the workshop! The room fell quiet as we peered down microscopes at pollen grains, at first familiarising ourselves with the different shapes shown on type-slides, and then moving on to counting pollen in samples from a recent core taken in the area (you can find out more about this in Dr Jane Bunting’s PalaeoFest blog).

The next couple of days continued in this fashion, with Project Wildscape team members being ushered over at intervals to help identify grains that weren’t the ubiquitous alder. Lime (Tilia), pine trees (Pinus sylvestris), grasses (Poacae) and sedges (Cyperacae, grass- or rush-like plants often found in wetland environments) all made an appearance in the slides, providing a glimpse of the landscapes that once existed on the Humberhead Levels. The weather was beautiful throughout our time at the workshop, and the more adventurous among us headed out to experience taking peat cores from the surrounding moors.

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A group out coring on the Moors (photo by Nicki Whitehouse)

Finally, it was time to piece together the results of the pollen counting. Working through the slides, workshop participants had kept count of the number of grains of each type of pollen they’d come across. Individual count figures were combined, and the percentages of different species at different depths within the core were calculated. We could now begin to put together diagrams showing the changing vegetation of the area through time. With the help of Dr Bunting, we tracked fluctuations in tree cover, grasses and sedges to begin to interpret the causes behind these changes. In the core’s oldest deposits, sedges dominated and relatively little evidence for woodlands was detected, indicating a wet landscape, which then dried out (perhaps due to a changing climate).

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A first attempt at a pollen diagram.

On Wednesday afternoon, the workshop drew to a close, and I headed back up the road, travelling through the North of England in blazing sunshine. PalaeoFest gave me a whistle-stop tour of pollen analysis and provided us students and volunteers with a chance to work with real samples, answering real research questions. Ultimately, it’s left me far better prepared to tackle the palaeoenvironmental data in my own PhD project!

Sophie is a PhD researcher at SUERC (University of Glasgow), working on producing new, precise chronologies for Bronze Age upland settlement in Scotland.

PalaeoFest – citizen science with microscopes

M. Jane Bunting, University of Hull @DrMJBunting

Using a group of citizen scientists to collect data from sediment cores is not exactly a commonplace thing, but Wildscapes did just that between 30thJune and 3rdof July.  Volunteers have been helping with the coring programme to collect evidence of previous landscapes across the region – some have even blogged about it here – and we’ve had enthusiastic attendance at workshops which showed people what we did once we found signs of sediment bodies from past meres or floodplain woodlands, so this was a logical next step.  It was also quite a daunting one!  Would people actually be interested in sitting indoors on a nice summer’s day looking at very tiny objects and trying to work out what they were?  Would we be able to get enough microscopes (and even more important, extension cables) to the Hatfield Visitors Centre?  Would we manage to give the same introductory talks about how to describe pollen grains three days running without sounding bored or talking so fast no-one could keep up?

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3-D printed models of pollen grains – very helpful for beginners, and fun to play with 

Nika and colleagues had collected a core from a mere in the Humberhead Levels last Autumn, but Nika did not have time to analyse it as part of her PhD, but we still wanted to know more about the environment, especially about what happened at the very start of the Mere – we knew that the area had been dry land during the early Holocene, after the glacial lake drained, and that sometime in the mid-Holocene as sea-levels rose so wetlands colonised the floodplains of the rivers, then spread into the wider landscape. Historical descriptions of the meres describe diverse and productive wetlands, but when and how did they first form?

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Looking for the Mere sediments in July 2018

In May we made a plan, took subsamples from the core and passed them over to one of our technical experts who would get them ready for looking at under the microscope, and sent off a sample for radiocarbon dating – it was exciting to get an email from Nicki telling me that a possible Mesolithic piece of flint had been found in the very bottom of the core, confirming not just dry land in the early Holocene, but also the presence of people in the area!  We planned for three days of pollen counting and one day of working together to interpret what we had found, and I was given a very important responsibility for the first day – bringing the biscuits and the milk for the tea.  Which biscuits to open next and whether we had enough milk were a very important recurring theme, and only once did I have to hop in the car mid-morning to go on a milk run for our tea and coffee-fuelled crew.

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Some of the volunteers working hard to identify pollen

An excellent group of enthusiastic people came together, with some staying all four days, others managing just one or two, but together we successfully made a short pollen diagram of the basal part of the record from Messic Mere.  It showed that the first sediments were lain down in a marshy fen, which was quite quickly colonised by alder trees to create a carr wetland, whilst the wider landscape was wooded with pine, oak and other deciduous trees – quite a contrast with the farmed fields there now (what was it – wheat or sweetcorn?).  Despite the not very comfortable chairs and the lure of beautiful summer weather outside, most attendees said they’d like to come again if we did something similar next year; it’s always fun when other people catch on to how innately fascinating palaeoecology can be, and want to take more trips in the “muddy time machine”.

outside July 19 Hatfield
The weather outside was lovely… 
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Making a pollen diagram – the first step to interpreting the data we collected 

The Haxey Hood: Of brawling villages, tradition, and of course, the local pubs.

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One of my favourite things about living in the ‘Old World’ is the prevalence of long held community festivals and traditions with ancient local origins. You just do not get these in America where I grew up, although some traditions have been brought over as families immigrated to various parts of the country. These unique events and the rituals around them are a narrative of a distinctive group of people and a place. They establish a sense of community and continuity with the past and are a way for the locale to reconnect with those within the community and the land itself (Parratt, 2000).

“Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man nok ‘im doon, but doant ‘ot ‘im” (Traditional Haxey Hood chant in North Lincolnshire local dialect, translated:  ‘House against House, Town against Town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him’.) (clip by Britclip)

In the parish of Haxey, North Linconshire, on the Isle of Axholme, the annual ‘Haxey Hood’ game takes place. The game is a large rugby-esq scrum (known as the “sway”) where a leather tube (the ‘hood’) is pushed to one of four pubs where it is then held until the following year’s game. The Hood is held every year on the 12th Day of Christmas, typically falling on January 6th. The game has been held since time in memoriam, and is regarded as a “more important event than our modern Christmas” (Rudkin, 2012, p. 294).

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The Fool and Boggins at one of the various song (and drinking!) locations.

According to legend, in the 14th century, Lady de Mowbray, wife of a local wealthy landowner, was riding towards Westwoodside on the hill that separates it from the adjacent town of Haxey when a wind tore her silk riding hood from her head. Thirteen farm hands bore witness and rushed to chase the hood all over the field and return it to the Lady. One worker caught the hood, but was too shy to hand it back to the woman, and so handed it to one of his mates to give it to her. The Lady thanked the worker who brought the hood and claimed that he acted as a Lord, and the worker who caught it a Fool. So amused by the events, she donated 13 acres of land on the condition that this event would be re-enacted every year.

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The Fool

While the story may seem dubious, the nobles in this story did exist. Records show that a deed granting land to commoners was enacted by Baron John de Mowbray, husband to the Lady in 1359. Some have suggested other origins, such as similarities with hoods from bog burials (Turner & Scaife, 1995), fertility rituals, and other similarities with other village sports.

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Team Wildscape in the centre of the crowd!

The Wildscape Team took part in this year’s (2019) celebrations. Dr. Kim Davies, Prof Henry Chapman, Dr. Ben Gearey, Dr Michelle Farrell and I set out in the early afternoon for the festivities. The start of the Hood was not hard to find as local townsfolk had already begun celebrating well before our arrival. The Fool and his fellow ‘Boggins’ arrived shortly afterwards and began their procession of traditional folk songs and excessive port consumption throughout the town of Haxey. The atmosphere was light and merry, and it seemed like everyone knew each other.

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The ‘”Smoking of the Fool”

Eventually we proceeded to the main church in the village where the Fool was “smoked” or burnt at the stake in a mock sacrifice before the scrum began.  In past Hoods, the Fool was apparently dangled over a live fire (which can be seen on old YouTube clips!), but the event was no less of a spectacle.

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Boggin with Hoods during the Children’s Game

The scrum was a wild affair. It began with the children’s event, where a smaller version of the scrum took place. Children who managed to capture the 12 hoods that were tossed earned the traditional 2 pound reward.

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Panorama of the Sway

The main event, the Sway, proceeded once the children had had their fun. The Sway hood is thrown into the air then pushed to traditionally one of four pubs in Haxey and Westwoodside. Unfortunately, only two of the pubs remain open, one in Haxey and one in Westwoodside. The hood cannot be thrown or run with and although people are trying to push the hood in particular directions, there are no real teams. It is a slow process and took nearly three hours for the nearly 200 participants to push the Hood to the winning pub this year, the Carpenters Arms in Westwoodside. The Boggins continued drinking and singing well into the night, assuredly well past the time we had left.

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Final song in the victorious Carpenters Arms

The Haxey Hood is a great example of the long, colourful history of the Isle of Axholme, an area that doesn’t always get a lot of attention from the rest of the world. Although its origins are a curiosity, I think what is has become is more significant. In the middle of winter, this celebration of life reminds everyone of who they are and where they come from and who they hold dear.

For more information about the Haxey Hood, you can visit their website.

References:

Rudkin, E.H., 1932. An Account of the Haxey Hood Game. Folklore 43, 294–301. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.1932.9718450

Turner, R.C., Scaife, R.G. (Eds.), 1995. Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives. British Museum Press, London.

Wheewall, A., 2018. Haxey Hood: 700 Years of Tradition [WWW Document]. URL https://www.wheewall.com/hood/

 

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Notes on working with a flint axe for the first time

Suzi Richer, Richer Environmental

Picking it up for the first time felt awkward, but a lot of things feel awkward the first time. I think it was partly because my body had already been trained to use metal tools. Surely it would be the same? Well, as Mark had already told us, no, it’s totally different. But having said that, using knowledge from my everyday experiences and of how my body works best, combined with experimenting and observing others led to what I felt was a good technique. Others might disagree…

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One of the flint axes 

The first weekend we went out to start collecting trees for reconstructing the 4500 year old Hatfield Trackway saw a bunch of about a dozen people – children and adults – walking out onto the moors with a wheelbarrow full of flint axes and an aura of excitement around them.

In some ways the experience probably hadn’t changed too much from when the first lot of trees would have been gathered (were the trees already fallen or had they been cut down?), in that there are still elements of the environment that would have been familiar to people even 4500 years ago. Pine trees and heather still grow on the sandy, dry, high patches that protrude above the bog. They will be more exposed now because of the historic drainage and peat-cutting, but this landscape of wet and dry land and the associated vegetation stretches back to the time when the original trackway was built. But today, with a wheelbarrow to manoeuvre we are not complaining that the sandy paths are perhaps a little higher and much more defined into straight lines.

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Brian and Mark moving a chopped pine tree. Note the heather in the foreground and water in the background

But what was different? Us. For most of us we were using a flint axe for first time. We are not used to living and working in this landscape, or if we are, we have done so with metal or power tools. As I’m fumbling trying to make the axe hit the same spot on the trunk, the thought that pops into my head is about time. Now, everything is dictated by time. The time it takes to fell a tree, when we stop for a cup of tea, when we stop for the day, how many days we have before nesting season to collect all of the timbers needed, when can I pass the axe to next person because my muscles really are not used to this. How did time, or I should say the pressure of time, effect the working practice of the original builders? Some things will still be roughly the same, like the timing of sap rising and birds nesting, but what pressures were on them, and is ‘pressures’ even the right word? I suspect not.

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Mark on a lunch break 

What I am sure will be same is that they would have brought their experiences to the task in hand, in much the same was we have done. I’m working in a team of four, alongside Marysia, Margaret and Brian. On one of the last trees of the day Marysia mentions that it seems to be easier to use the axe if you turn from the waist. As soon as she said this, something clicks with me and when I try it the power and accuracy I deliver shifts up a few gears. This is where my everyday experience kicks in as its along the same lines as what I had been taught in tai-chi classes and what I used to do in golf years ago – use the power in your hips and core. Whilst this may sound obvious, it takes some time to get used to just holding the axe, feeling how it cuts, getting angles right, etc, let alone refining the technique. Ultimately the axe is an extension of our body, but it takes use and familiarity for a new tool to become that extension.

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Margaret axing

By the end of that first weekend, with ‘waist axing’ becoming a thing (a term coined by Mark) I think we were all starting to feel more connected to the tools. Whilst we will never know the skills, practices and thoughts of the original builders of the trackway, gaining that extra degree of familiarity with the tools in the same environment certainly made me feel closer to the people who made the trackway originally and what might have been involved with the building of it. What I hadn’t expected was that it also increased my understanding of how my body works and my knowledge of the current environment – and importantly the connection between the two, with flint axe being between (and part of) both.

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A cut Tree

 

 

My experiences as a student with the ‘Wildscapes’ project

My involvement with the project started when I emailed Dr Bunting asking if she was accepting students for an internship. I was studying for a masters degree in Environmental Biology at Utrecht in the Netherlands and needed to find an interesting short term project as part of the degree. I was familiar with the pollen modelling work of Dr Bunting and was interested in learning her approach. I wrote Dr Bunting in March of 2018 to see if she was interested in supervising me for a short project in which I would learn the intricate details of the pollen modelling software. In all honesty, I expected that there would be no projects to work on, but to my surprise there were several. I chose to get involved with the ‘Wildscapes’ project because it seemed the most interesting and there was a lot of room for me to follow my own research interests within this project. I have definitely not regretted it one bit!

I had never been further north than London before (shame on me). I came to Hull in May of 2018 and it took me a while to adapt to the UK lifestyle, and academic environment (being from the Netherlands). Having had no previous experience in programming, the first few weeks proved the be rather challenging, but I kept telling myself that I would be able to understand the material one day. After a few weeks I finally knew what I was doing (sort of), and I began to enjoy my work tremendously. My task was to set up some initial reconstructions of the Humberhead Levels for the late Mesolithic (7000-4000 BCE) and the Anglo-Saxon period (410-1066 CE). In short, I had to make an assessment of all the previous pollen work that was done in the area and digitise the pollen diagrams from these publications. These pollen results would be used as targets in the reconstruction. Then I would produce simulated landscapes using the modelling software and compare the pollen records that these simulated landscapes produced to the targets. In doing so, I would be able to find some of the most likely vegetation reconstructions for the Humberhead Levels.

 

Besides my work on the reconstructions, I also had the opportunity to do fieldwork with Nika and Kim in the Thorne area. A team of volunteers from the area were also present, some of whom have also written blog posts about their experiences. I also joined the team for their first public outreach event in Barton upon Humber. This was a very interesting experience for me, trying to explain our work to non-experts. When I was talking to people, the first thing they would almost always ask me was: “where are you from?” I was under the impression that I managed to suppress my Dutch accent quite well, but apparently not.

Before I knew it, it was October already, and I was supposed to go home. I was able to stretch my stay until the middle of November, luckily, which tells something about how much I enjoyed my stay in Hull and my involvement with the project. I learned a lot during the months of my stay, and I hope I will be able to put my newly gained knowledge to work in the future. I have just been accepted onto a PhD programme at the University of St Andrews and i’m quite sure my involved in the Wildscapes project helped my case. 

As I am writing this, I am already looking forward to going back to Hull in the future and staying involved with Wildscapes project, be it remotely and in between all the new work I will be doing! 

 Wilmer Koster

 

From Retting Pits to Flaxen Locks

By Angus Townley
Regional History 

The Growing and processing of flax and hemp in the Isle of Axholme has been an important industry for a long time. In her paper ‘The Isle of Axholme before  Vermuyden’ , Joan Thirsk describes how the importance of the industry was underlined by local probate inventories. Flax and hemp laid the foundations for a comparatively large scale domestic industry of spinning and weaving. The probate inventories show that the flourishing sack and canvas making industry of Axholme in the nineteenth century had a long history behind it. To the average peasant family of the sixteenth century it was profitable by-employment whereas to the poor it was one of the principal ways of earning a living.

 

One of the victories won by the inhabitants of Axholme in their prolonged legal battle with  Vermuyden was an award in 1636 of £400 for a stock to employ the poor in the making of sackcloth to compensate them for the loss of fishing and fowling rights. In the mid-nineteenth century, the domestic industry gave way to steam flax mills, though this was relatively short-lived as by 1900 the industry had died out, only to have a partial revival during World War I.

In 1744 there was a dreadful fire in Haxey that burnt down 62 houses. The fire commenced in a flax manufactory near the Church and is supposed to have been the act of arson.  A few days before the master of the manufactory discharged one of his men for misconduct who let fall some vindictive expressions He was committed to Lincoln Castle on suspicion but as no further evidence could be brought against him he was of course acquitted at the next Assizes.

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Newspaper extract
The processing of flax had a number of stages;
After harvesting the flax crop underwent a process known as retting. The flax was laid in ponds or streams so that the flax fibres can be separated from the woody stem of the plant. The process would last up to several weeks an was extremely smelly – which is why retting pits were usually located at some distance from houses.

The retted plants were then laid out in a field to dry so that they could then be further processed through the following steps;

Breaking and Scutching – the stems of the flax plant were then broken so that the woody inner core can be separated from the fibres o the outside of the stem. Scutching was the initial process of combing out the woody inner core from the flax.
Heckling  – This was a process similar to carding wool in which the flax fibre is passed through finer and finer combs until the skeins of fax resembled flaxen locks of hair.
The flax could then be used for weaving into sackcloth or for making ropes on a rope walk.
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The steam flax mill in Crowle – built in the mid-1800s.

 

The ‘Retting Pits’ Project is part of the Heritage Lottery Funded IOAHC partnership and has a number of objectives.

These are;
To identify and record features associated with the flax industry including:
  • Retting Pits
  • Warehouses
  • Mills and processing facilities
  • Rope walks etc.
Archaeological study of retting pits
  • Core samples for pollen analysis
  • Excavation of retting pit
Experimental archaeology  project:
  • Grow flax and hemp
  • Process flax and hemp
  • Spin and weave flax & hemp into sackcloth and linen

 

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An external rope walk similar to Shiilitos n Crowle.
Being part of the partnerships has some great benefits. Last year Project Wildscape ran a pollen identification workshop which I attended and learnt how to identify pollen. They will be running further workshops to help build a team of citizen scientists who can help with lots of different projects across the partnership.

Team Wildscape might also be helping out with the coring of retting pits so watch this space for more details!