In an unexpected turn, the effects of climate change on the coast of Great Britain are revealing insights into how earlier communities coped with the effects of climate change at the end of the last Ice Age. Since last winter’s brutal storms uncovered more of the submerged forest of Borth on the Welsh coast, archaeologists have been working frantically to record and preserve details of early human activity before the sea swallows it up again.
For centuries, after very rough weather, the stumps of a petrified forest have occasionally been revealed on a beach at Borth in mid-Wales. It’s believed the ancient forest stretches some 20 miles westward off the coast. But with last winter being the wettest on record, more details have emerged from the silt and sand than ever before. According to local legend surrounding Cantre’r Gwaelod, a wooded kingdom off the Welsh coast was consumed by the sea in ancient times. It’s a deluge legend that is mirrored the world over, Atlantis included.
The forest was flooded by rising sea levels around 5,000 years ago, and the trees died off between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago. Estimates put the sea-level rise at around 130 feet (39.6 meters). But for the event to have been so traumatic it became a legend, the change must have been fast enough for the community to have felt its effects even within their then-shorter lifespans. This year, archaeologists have discovered a timber walkway, built between 3,100 and 4,000 years ago: evidence of attempts to cope with the changed landscape induced by climate change. The walkway was built of coppiced timber, secured by posts. More post holes were discovered after severe storms in 2012, along with animal and human footprints in the petrified peat and the remains of stone hearths. This year an ancient saltwater channel was also discovered snaking through the former forest, and it’s expected to reveal insights into human activity in the rich inter-tidal zone.
The ancient forest has been exceptionally well preserved due to its protective layer of peat. Other coastal archaeological sites have not been so lucky. In May, 2013, erosion of cliff faces in Norfolk revealed the oldest known human footprints to be discovered outside of Africa. Within a month the sea had eroded the laminated silt beds that held them and all that remained were hastily gathered images and a partially eroded section of silt the team managed to cut out and preserve. So much archaeologically significant material is turning up on eroding British beaches that the CITiZAN project has been set up to encourage locals to watch out for and record material as it is revealed. For now, the team at the Borth site must work quickly before the sand and silt cover up this year’s revelations. However, if the increasingly erratic weather continues, we may soon know much more about how our predecessors dealt with becoming displaced by climate change as we struggle with it ourselves.