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Wetland archaeology

Scotland is rich in wetlands – bogs, peat moors, rivers and lochs. While better known for their natural heritage and landscape value, such damp places are hugely important for archaeology too.

Wetlands as a rich resource

Wetlands may now be regarded as marginal, but they were rich resources for early man, especially when at the hunter-gatherer stage, providing fish, wildfowl and transport. Even after farming developed, wetlands had their uses, with peat being cut for use as fuel, reeds for thatch and the continuation of hunting and fishing to supplement sometimes precarious farming economies. When defence became a consideration in the Iron Age, a whole new class of dwelling, the crannog, developed in Scotland and Ireland, combining access to wetland resources and transport routes with security.

Past human activity

Wetlands which have survived into modern times often conceal the remains of past human activities, sealed beneath peat, buried in river sediments or sunk beneath the waters of lochs. Because these burial environments are often waterlogged, they can preserve perishable organic materials which are normally lost on drier sites. Much, indeed most, of the tools and equipment of everyday life in ancient times was made of wood, fibre and bone, with other materials such as straw (used for ropes and baskets) also important. So wetland sites can give an unusually complete picture of past human life, and are valued accordingly, especially where the whole landscape, linking wetlands to drylands, can be accessed and interpreted.

Historic Scotland's role

In Scotland, agricultural changes over the centuries, combined with forestry in more recent times and climate change in both the longer and shorter term, have all conspired to reduce the wetland resource. Historic Scotland is working with several partners to identify and protect key sites, to investigate those which cannot be saved, and to raise the profile of wetland archaeology generally – it as an aspect of Scotland’s heritage which is truly world-class, and yet which is surprisingly little-known inside or outside our borders.

Further information

For more information about crannogs and the potential of Scotland’s lochs, the independent Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay is recommended.

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