My volunteer experiences with ‘Reconstructing the Wildscape’ & Isle of Axholme & Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership

I’ll have a go at anything new. The opportunity to volunteer on coring sessions in Thorne Community Wood with the ‘Reconstructing the Wildscape’ and IoAHC team was certainly different and exciting! As a Classical Archaeology MA student, my only previous encounter with coring in any sense has been a very brief undergraduate study of how the ebb and flow of Roman smelting was reflected in Greenland ice core samples. But this wasn’t ice…and it was likely to be a bit muddy. So what would be so interesting about a community woodland on the outskirts of Doncaster?

Thorne Community Woodland
Thorne Community Woodland

Knowing little about the process, I turned up bright and early one morning in April 2018 – and so began what has become something of a fascination with coring…huffing and puffing to drive the equipment into the ground and pulling up all sorts of exciting things!

Kim, Nika and the team were warm, welcoming and encouraging from the outset. They shared information about the aim of the project (in this case, profiling the original path of the old River Don) as well as guiding the community volunteers through the coring process and explaining the samples. It was great fun and extremely informative….the satisfaction of managing to drive a core to a 5 metre depth and seeing the beautiful layers in the samples was pretty exciting! I had no idea I could be so thrilled about different soil colours and types, and seeing the preservation of organic material such as wood and leaves from that sort of depth was staggering. Utterly brilliant. I loved it.

Coring team
Coring team (I’m on the left!)

Since the first session in April, I’ve taken part in various other coring projects: profiling the old Thorne Mere and Messic Mere and looking for evidence of the deliberate warping of nearby watercourses. I’ve learned a huge amount about coring, sampling, and on-site recording; about assessing soil types and the different approaches to coring depending on the terrain (driving a core through sand is a lot harder and a great workout! Who needs a gym membership?!)

Putting the effort in!
Putting the effort in!

Also, the things I’ve discovered about the environmental history of my local area has been completely fascinating. It has been a great experience. Being a distance learner in both my undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses – volunteering on this project has provided me with valuable field experience and skills that I can take forward, as well as meeting some great people. I can’t thank the team enough for providing this opportunity.

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Trackways Through Time

Post by Ben Gearey and Henry Chapman

Around seven thousand years ago, Hatfield Moors was a very different, much drier place. Pine and birch woodland flourished on the thin sandy soils, a wooded heathland rather than the dense deciduous woodland that covered the Humberhead Levels and much of the rest of lowland England at this time. But at some point during the Mesolithic, the first processes of change that would eventually lead to the growth and spread of the great peatlands began. Water tables began to rise, shallow water pools started to spread, slowly but inexorably pushing the trees back onto the higher and drier parts of the landscape. The woodland was dying, drowning, deadfall choking the pools. The stumps of these pine trees still survive rooted firmly in the sands, and in places the slender trunks as well, preserved in the basal peats. The mechanism for this increased wetness was almost certainly related to rising sea levels; elsewhere across the Humber lowlands, the rivers were flowing increasingly sluggishly, the channels gradually infilling with sediment, overtopping their banks, fen vegetation flourishing on the floodplains: alder, willow, sedges, reeds, rushes. We can only guess how these changes were perceived by the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities who ranged across the Levels, hunting game, collecting plants, camping close to the rivers that snaked to meet an encroaching coastline. New vistas, new routes for animals and people, different possibilities and challenges.

Fig02-14 Thorne Trackway flooded
The area where the trackway was found, flooded in winter

The Mesolithic gave way to the Neolithic around six thousand years ago, the transition to farming and more settled communities, but the spread of wetland continued. By the later Neolithic, the pools had encroached onto the northern edge of Lindholme island. This probably wasn’t a very deep or continuous body of water, tens of centimetres at most, it could perhaps have been traversed by the cautious on foot. But around four and a half thousand years ago, a person or more probably a group of people, took a collective decision to build a rather unusual structure, at the very edge of what seems to have been one of the earliest pools to break surface on Hatfield Moors. Where were these people living? We don’t know, but like their Mesolithic forebears, they must have roamed across this landscape, still hunting and gathering. Pine logs were collected locally – perhaps the deadfall from the woodland, supplemented by trees felled by stone axe. There were quite a few required – perhaps as many as 450 pine trees in total. Pegs were prepared and bark was stripped from birch trees.

 

 

 

Construction begun – poles were cut to length and laid as rails and sleepers placed across them, a ‘corduroy’ trackway took shape. It was nearly 50m long, around 3m wide but narrowing to 1m wide at its northern end where it met a platform, built in a similar way to the trackway but perhaps 4.5m wide and 10 metres long. Strips of birch bark were lain between some of the sleepers: a rather strange feature, the whiteness of the bark must have been very visible against the murky waters of the pool, perhaps to guide passage?

Fig02-08b Birch bark detail
A close up of the unusual birch bark

The site doesn’t seem to have been intended to cross the pool: it apparently terminated at the platform. What was it for? How long did it take to build? We aren’t sure. The timbers sank into the pool muds and very shortly after the site was completed, raised bog began to grow and the archaeology was submerged in the dark heart of the bog, exposed four and half millennia later through drainage and peat extraction and excavated between 2004 and 2006 as part of archaeological investigations of the Moors.

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Excavation of the trackway on Hatfield Moors in 2004

Which brings us back to the present: a restored peatland, wetland communities once again expanding across the landscape, a new visitor centre taking shape. And what of the trackway? Re-buried and preserved as part of the peatland restoration. Can we ever answer some of the questions about this enigmatic site? Perhaps we can. We are hoping to ask the communities of the Levels to help re-build their own version of the Hatfield Neolithic Trackway. Maybe through this practical experiment of re-building the structure we can begin to understand what it really meant to create such a monument within a changing wetland landscape.

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More excavation in 2004

 

Historical accounts of Thorne & Hatfield Moors

Historical accounts provide fascinating insights into the appearance of the raised bogs (or mires) of Thorne and Hatfield and the wider landscape prior to large-scale drainage and peat extraction.

The earliest description of the Humberhead Levels is by John Leland (1538); as Howes (1997, 22) comments, Leland provides a “window onto what must have been a truly fabulous “everglades-like” landscape..”:

Below is an extract from Leland, as you might be able to tell, the language is a little different to today.

“The quaters about Heatfeld be forest groundand though wood be scars there yet there is great plentie of red deere, that haunt the fennes and the great mores thereabout as to Axholm warde and Thurne village……The ground al about Thurne is other playn, more or fenne.  From Thurne by water to the great lake caullid the Mere, almost a mile over, a mile or more.  This mere is fulle of good fisch and foule” (Leland, in Smith (ed.), 1964, 37).

In the 18th & 19th centuries, Thorne Moors’ mire surface was still actively growing. In the mid nineteenth century, Hatfield (1866) recounts that when William Harrison first went to live at Thorne, Crowle Church could be seen from his house. However, within a decade, there had been such a rapid rise of the surface of the mire that the church had become obscured from view. Woodruffe-Peacock (1920-21) commented that as late as 1874 Thorne Moors was “a shaking bog” which trembled in waves when jumped upon. Woodruffe-Peacock (1920-21) describes the dome of Thorne Moors as once rising 7.5-10.5 m above the surrounding plain, with a seasonal fluctuation, of about 2 m. This variation in the height of the domed peat surface between seasons and wet and dry years was destroyed with drainage.

 

St. Oswald's Church, Crowle
St Oswald’s Church, Crowle. © Copyright Trevor Littlewood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

During the early part of the 19th century, between Haxey (Isle of Axholme) and Bearswood-Green (near Hatfield), the landscape was akin to a continuous lake and transport was undertaken by boat (Tomlinson, 1882). Hatfield (1866, 134) noted that around Lindholme the vegetation on the Moor was too dense to allow the passage of boats but was too moist and deep to be safely crossed on foot or on horseback, except in times of frost or drought.

The six inch scale O.S. map for Thorne Moors published in the 1850s showed many scattered pools of more or less open water, known locally as wells (Limbert, 1987); cutting of deep drains eventually destroyed such bog features. Casson (1829), referred to pools on Thorne Moors, which were “..large ponds or pits of dark coloured water, perfectly free from weeds and aquatic plants, which are places of resort for the wild fowl that frequent the moor”. Hatfield (1866, 152) comments on these pits and noted how they “..were deemed by the superstitious to be bottomless..”. The pools were certainly dangerous, as moss encompassed the margins, obscuring the water, “..the floating mass of moss and other fibrous vegetation have accumulated to a considerable thickness, extending partly across the water and in several instances, entirely over it…” (Hatfield, 1866, 153). Similar pools would likely have been present on Hatfield Moors, although only one is evident on the six inch 1853 scale O.S. map (possibly artificial). Pool systems are characteristic of mires, remaining a feature of the bog landscape for a considerable time, possibly for many centuries.

Moor
Unknown, Property Plan of Inclesmoor (Yorkshire: Thorne Moor and Goole Moor), 1450, ink on parchment, National Archives, Kew

 

Today, the hydrology of the Moors is constantly modified due to peat cutting, which requires drainage of large areas through a network of shallow ditches. The effect of the drainage is to maintain a hydraulic gradient towards the edges of the Moors, lowering the watertable in the peat. Both sites suffer from lateral and vertical substrate seepage. Large numbers of fossil trees preserved in the base of the bogs also create a barrier and channels along which water can flow, seeping out of the bog.

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Ditch on Thorne Moors (Photo: Kim Davies)

Pumped land drainage systems in the surrounding areas also affect water levels, maintaining winter levels in the range of -0.2 to -0.5 m OD. As the thickness of the peat cover has diminished by peat cutting and drains deepened, the water holding capacity is reduced. During the last twenty years ground water levels have fallen significantly in the Doncaster area, and after three years of below average rainfall, the 0 m OD contour in the water table has shifted several kilometres to the east.

Post Author: Nicki Whitehouse

(Banner Image: Copyright Peter Roworth)

In Search of the ‘Wildscape’

The Humberhead Levels holds few parallels for its extent of ecological and archaeological work. Today, it largely appears as a flat agricultural land with long drainage ditches crisscrossing the landscape and its small villages.

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The view north-east across the Levels from Grinley on the Hill. Photo Credit: Kim Davies

Once this place looked truly wild, a marshland teeming with wildlife and plants, described by the local historian Colin Howes as akin to the Florida Everglades (see the comparison in the pictures below). Its former wetlands have since diminished greatly in size due to drainage activities to facilitate peat extraction and agricultural intensification.

 

 

Remnants of the area’s lost mosaic of raised mires, heathlands and wetlands can be seen on Thorne and Hatfield Moors. This area is now protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England and efforts for restoration are well underway. Surrounding the Moors are extensive areas of former floodplain wetlands and old river channels, many of which were diverted or canalized during drainage and reclamation works in the 17th century, although some may date as far back as the Roman period. While there is great evidence for human activity and passage through the former wetlands, the archaeology remains still curiously unclear regarding the extent and nature of human activity prior to the area’s drainage.

The “Reconstructing the ‘Wildscape’; Thorne and Hatfield Moors Hidden Landscapes Project” synthesises the existing environmental records with the known archaeological records to provide an important environmental context demonstrating the landscape’s evolution and development, allowing the archaeological datasets to be investigated at a regional scale over time. The project examines the relationships and influences between the humans and the environment in order to understand how the landscape came to be as it is today.

We are working closely with with the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation forum who have a long-standing history of highly beneficial work in this area.

FORLOG

The project is part of a wider partnership known as the Isle of Axholme & Hatfield Chase Partnership  which aims to make a difference to how people perceive, appreciate and care for the distinctive landscape in the Humberhead Levels.

Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership

 

 

CURRENT WORK

Over the last six months we have been examining aerial imagery, LiDAR based digital elevation models, and geology maps in order to trace the past courses of the rivers that flow through the Humberhead Levels. These maps have also been compared with archaeological finds across the region.

map
A historical map on top of the modern OS map of the region. This is a good starting point for finding the old river channels in the modern landscape.

After the initial historical and geospatial data research, we have targeted specific areas in need of review as activity in this area is not clear.  By testing these areas, we can compare trends of human activity against the larger study area. To clarify these trends found in the mapping data, the project will seek to ground-truth new and existing data through stratigraphic coring supported by pollen profiles and the examination of fossilized insect remains.

This project specifically focuses on the floodplains of the rivers Don, Idle, and Torne, the areas immediately surrounding the Isle of Axholme, and margins of Thorne and Hatfield Moors.