Benbecula’s submerged forest

This week’s archaeology session was the last on the course, so this will be (one of) the last posts on this topic. Apart from the (optional) assignment – at 1,500 words (max), this is little more than a blog post these days (and sometimes even less than that), so I will be viewing it as compulsory – to be submitted in the course of the next two weeks, the formal sessions are now finished. The assessment provides the opportunity to demonstrate our learning on the course themes of coastal erosion and how to shape our futures by learning from the past (hence, of course, the shameless but symbolic plundering of #FridaysForThePast); and I will be posting that here, too.

Friday afternoon saw an online (Webex) session with Kevin Murphy, county archaeologist for the Western Isles archaeology service and a committee member of the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers. The local authority-based archaeology service was set up across the UK in the 1970s to help overcome the disasters (here: for archaeology) of 1960s planning decisions and that remit, to ensure that the needs of archaeology has an input into the planning and development process, remains the mainstay of the service.

Scarce resources is an abiding issue – Kevin not only leads the team on the Western Isles but indeed is also it – and he is one of a rare breed, there being only a handful of archaeologists in Scotland more than there are local authorities (the numbers being, IIRC, 36 and 32 respectively). Across the Western Isles there are around 13,500 sites of interest; and the perennial problem, as far as I can see, is not only one of the scale of the task – monitoring development projects to ensure that they do not threaten sites of interest, amongst other roles – but also of the distances associated with the patch: unless travelling by plane – and there are evident problems with that in an environmental context – a road trip from Stornoway to Uist and Benbecula (and there are no other options…) is a day’s travel. And, for points even in South Uist but certainly Barra, that’s a day’s travel in each direction.

Managing all those requirements means working very closely with a range of agencies and stakeholders, and, indeed, dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. Kevin is evidently hard-pressed and we were grateful both for his time and for his insights into his role and to the art of the possible. There is enough resilience to ensure that one big storm doesn’t blow it all away but the inescapable impression is one of an important local service being held together by bits of string and a blob or two of glue; and with fingers that are firmly crossed.

As if to highlight that lesson, the following day’s field trip was to the submerged forest – remains of trees now surrounded by sand and washed by the tide – near Lionacleit, on Benbecula. This was discovered by Ann Monk, a local resident, as recently as 2014; and it was a privilege to have Ann on this trip, as well as the expert and detailed insights provided by Simon Davies. There are submerged forests elsewhere in Europe (including quite famously at Borth, in Cardigan Bay), but this is one of the biggest and best preserved: when surveyed in 2018, teams investigated two 30m x 30m squares and found, in just one, 380 samples of tree remnants including birch, willow and Scots pine set into peat. Storms and the shifting sands that result both from wind and wave action mean that some of these remnants are no longer visible – but, at the same time, that others have also been uncovered.

The day was one of those where you needed to have the right clothes (and not to be a wearer of spectacles) but we visited all the major areas of the site including peat deposits, tree remnants, the butchery site, possible walls and dwellings, and the quern stone (actually both, although one appears to have been moved and replaced recently). It is somewhat humbling both to know that the surface that you’re standing on was a terrain familiar to Neolithic humans – living some 7,000 years ago (even if they might not exactly recognise the surroundings of the place today) – as well as that, crucially, peat doesn’t form in salt water: and that, therefore, what is now a tidal bay was once a freshwater loch, with the Atlantic being perhaps 5km further out to the west and the loch itself stretching south to the modern shore at Balgarva, on South Uist (where there are also tree remnants).

Tree remnants, with archaeology flagpole
With added humans, for scale
The in situ quern stone, used to grind wheat to make flour (though a time consuming business probably taking about 6-8 hours to grind enough to make bread for a single family)

A site that is now entirely tidal and thus flooded twice per day – but which was once secure (and dry) enough for a small community to locate their lives here and call it home.

The point is of course that the submerged forest and the other elements of the site – this ‘incredibly rare’ finding – was found, not by chance (it was the result of informed assessment of the possibilities and of determined exploration with that in view), but by an individual person outside the framework of a planned archaeological survey. In a different sort of society, one less guided by scarce resources, it wouldn’t be necessary for individuals to have to act in this way since we’d know what was (likely to be) there – but, given the constraints provided by our own, it is vital that they do. Lionacleit is a fabulous, historical place and it is completely astonishing that such important remains could have been discovered by an individual; and so recently. And, of course, the question remains of just how much else there is – if not quite beneath our feet – just a little further away. If it is true that we’re never more than 164′ away from a rat, is the same also true of archaeological remains?

This has been a really interesting course and series of lectures and site visits; and, indeed, I’ll not quite be sure what else to do with my Friday afternoons. Thanks to our enthusiastic and motivated lecturers, Dr. Emily Gal and Dr. Rebecca Rennell, and to other course participants, for some enlivening discussions and for information that has been, by turns, mind-blowing and life-affirming. There may well be another local studies course to engage with but, in the meantime, and when the weather improves a little from its damp and blustery self, there’s always some fieldwork to engage with for that assignment. Together with the knowledge that something might well be there which it is now up to me to report on. Humbling, indeed.

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