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Last Chance to See? Protecting the (surviving) Archaeology of European Peatlands

2 Jun 2023

Discussing peatland archaeology on World Peatlands Day


“Policies of proactive management of wetland resources, both archaeological and natural historical in the broadest sense, require formulation…the continued division between bodies concerned with the ‘environment’ and those dealing with so-called ‘heritage’ remains a serious problem…”

Paul Buckland (1993; 522)


 On World Peatlands Day - expect lots of tweets and blogs about biodiversity, carbon, ecology and hydrology. All critical ‘ecosystem services’ but don’t forget the archaeology: a Neolithic trackway (See figure 1), the wooden stems apparently as fresh as the day it was built 6000 years ago, or a slightly more recent (still 2000 years old) Iron Age example (See Figure 1), which looks like it could still bear the weight of a full grown adult (it couldn't…). For these and the other wonderful structures excavated at Edercloon, Co. Longford (for more information, listen to this!), it was the last chance to see, excavate, record and preserve by record before the construction of a road cutting through this area of drained peatland. 

The observations of Prof Paul Buckland (above) remain almost as true as they did nearly three decades ago: ‘Heritage’, more often  than not, is still separated into ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ - although essentially they are different sides of the same ecosystem services coin. Further complicating the clutter of terms and definitions; heritage is often divided into ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’. These days, we are more likely to use the ungainly expression ‘tangible cultural heritage’ to refer to physical archaeological remains, but until fairly recently, archaeology always seemed to be in a battle to sit anywhere at the ‘Conservation Table’ much less to jockey for a position amongst ‘ecosystem services’ (see here, for example). 

In the meantime, more sites have been lost to peat cutting. Others are threatened by drainage and climate change. It might be the last chance to see, to try to halt processes of degradation and destruction, and to preserve in situ many such deposits and sites. 

Some progress has been made and in certain ways, we seem to be heading in the right direction - the incorporation of the ‘historic environment’ into the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Peatlands Programmes marked a turning point. This has been followed by the launch in the UK of the Peat Action Plan, with its requirement for archaeological monitoring of peatland restoration groundworks and the publication of Historic England's guidance. Natural England have produced an excellent video detailing practical aspects of archaeological monitoring for peatland restoration. In Scotland, the Archaeological Association of Local Government Archaeologists has also produced a guidance note on the same. 

These are important resources and initiatives. But more needs to be done. Every European country has legal frameworks in place for the protection of heritage, many of which are underpinned by the Convention for the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage of Europe. How these are applied (or not) to programmes of peatland restoration/rehabilitation appears at present to be very uneven (if at all…). Any ground disturbance, whether this is to extract peat to burn, or to extract peat to reprofile a ditch for re-wetting,  can impact in situ deposits. Projects and personnel need to take into account the implications for the successful future survival of known (and unknown) archaeological remains. Peatlands present a particular set of challenges and problems, but the frameworks, the knowledge, and the organisations are available to support and assist. 

The introduction and implementation of appropriate measures should mean that for peatlands undergoing rehabilitation, it is our last chance to see, or to have to excavate any new sites. This is what archaeology is about: preservation in the ground for future generations. On World Peatlands Day: don’t forget the archaeology.











Figure 1: Iron age and Neolithic trackways at Edercloon (Cathy Moore, CRDS Ltd)





For more on this story contact:

Dr Ben Gearey, IPeAAT Principal Investigator 

Irish Peatland Archaeology Across Time (IPeAAT)