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From the trowel’s edge…

CA’s Contributing Editor delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

Christopher Catling

Christopher Catling Contributing Editor

Flood archaeology

It is devoutly to be hoped that the floods that have made life so miserable for so many people in the south-west of England will have receded by the time you read this. But while our sympathies must be first and foremost with all of those affected by the floods, it has to be admitted that some archaeologists have been very busy taking advantage of an unusual opportunity to understand the landscape better.

Aerial photographers have been out in force because flooding reveals the historic landscape in ways that contours on maps never can: ancient causeways and raised tracks stand out very clearly, as do islands amid the floodplain, and the slightest changes in levels that make the difference between a dry home in winter and a wet one, subtle alterations in contour and drainage that our Medieval predecessors seemed to know so well.

Living mid stream

At a much earlier period in time, humans seem to have deliberately chosen to reside in watery areas. Laura Basell, of Queen’s University, Belfast, and Tony Brown, of the University of Southampton, have looked at the distribution and location of Palaeolithic bone and flint assemblages and have concluded that our ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, sought out islands in the flood plains of major rivers and avoided estuaries and the upper and middle reaches of rivers, as well as forests and hills. The reason is not hard to find: flood plains produce rich grazing that attracts herbivores. There is a plentiful supply, too, of wild birds and their eggs, of fish, and of the roots and leaves of edible water plants. The same resources attracted human predators, including lions, but their reluctance to swim made islands the perfect retreat.

Bring back the beaver

The same research also shows a strong association between human habitations at this period and beaver dams. It is likely that beaver pelts were used for clothing, while the fatty meat would have been a good winter-time treat with added analgesic benefits, deriving from the beaver’s favourite diet of willow, which is high in salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.

Proponents of SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) as a way of minimising flood risks have long argued that beavers are a good thing because their lodges help to slow and spread the flow of water. The very first article that Sherds wrote for this magazine (CA 210, in October 2007) was concerned with Bryony Coles’ research into the archaeology of beavers, and the pros and cons of returning beavers to the wild (something that anglers tend to resist, accusing beavers of eating fish, though they are, in fact, wholly vegetarian).

As it turns out, beavers have taken matters into their own hands: at least two groups of runaway beavers are now thriving in the wild: one in the Cotswolds Water Park, and the other on the River Otter in Devon. Beavers are also back in Belgium and Germany. In Northumberland, the Environment Agency builds artificial ‘beaver dams’ as part of flood-defence schemes – why not, one wonders, save an awful lot of money by bringing natural flood-engineers back to our rivers?

All washed up

With perfect timing, given the weather this winter, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) has received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for their CITiZAN (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) project, which aims to create a national network of volunteers to record the archaeology that is being revealed by coastal erosion. The project will build on the award-winning Thames Discovery Programme, which has featured frequently in the pages of this magazine. The Thames Discovery Programme trains volunteers to monitor the sites

Programme iscovery

: Thames D


LEFT The Thames Discovery Programme in action.


current archaeology |

April 2014 |