This page covers the discovery, recording, threats and key issues for wetland and waterlogged archaeology. These vulnerable sites provide important windows into the past because of the well-preserved remains found within them.
What is wetland heritage?
Wetland heritage comprises the many kinds of evidence that provide information about past human activity, settlement and environments.
Some types of site, such as trackways, fish ponds, log boats or salterns, are only found in wetlands. Others, such as settlements, are widespread but are better preserved because of the burial conditions provided by wetlands.
Where is it found?
Wetlands are found across England in uplands, lowlands and on the coast. They include a wide range of places such as rivers and peatlands as well as artificial features such as lakes in designed landscapes and moats.
Traces of ancient wetlands can also be buried in urban and agricultural landscapes or found as inter-tidal and submerged peat. These deposits allow us to understand how landscapes and coastlines change through time.
Why does it matter?
Wetlands have immense value as they preserve archaeological, environmental and landscape evidence of the past. Wetland archaeology gives us a more rounded picture of people’s technology, life-styles and the places they lived because the waterlogged conditions allow organic material - wood, leather, textile and plant parts - to be preserved.
Wetlands also allow us to research long-term environmental and climate change as well as to examine how people responded or adapted to these changes.
Is it under threat?
Wetlands are fragile and vulnerable to subtle changes in burial conditions, in addition to the usual threats from development and changes in land-use. The impact of climate change on wetland heritage is currently poorly understood.
Measures introduced to protect and enhance natural environmental qualities – water quality or biodiversity - may also inadvertently threaten wetland heritage if not handled sensitively.
How should we manage it?
Knowing where sites are, and promoting their heritage value, are essential steps to improve their protection. We are developing tools to help understand the location and significance of different types of wetland heritage to better inform planning and environmental management decisions. Recent research includes an overview of England's small wetlands, an important but sometimes underappreciated palaeoenvironmental and archaeological resource.
This builds on work begun between 2011 and 2015 under the National Heritage Protection Plan about waterlogged heritage, which is now incorporated into our Research Reports database
We also need to improve understanding of the sites within their hydrological context which can require investment in collecting baseline evidence, monitoring conditions over years and modelling likely outcomes.
Only when this level of detail is understood can we make decisions regarding when preservation in situ is appropriate and likley to succeed. Research will have impact if it expands our understanding of the nature, extent, significance and character of our heritage associated with water, wetlands and waterlogged sites, and contributes significantly to its sensitive management and appreciation by owners.
Research questions and impact
Research will have impact if it expands our understanding of the nature, extent, significance and character of our heritage associated with water, wetlands and waterlogged sites, and contributes significantly to its sensitive management and appreciation by owners.
Research questions that will help our mission include:
How can we fill the gaps in our understanding of the distribution, character and value of wetland and waterlogged archaeology?
How can we improve prospection techniques for, and gauge the urgency of recording, wetland and waterlogged archaeology?
What aspects of water management heritage are most at risk of loss and least understood?
How can we improve our understanding of the value and significance of individual sites or integrated landscapes associated with the exploitation of water?