Inaugural Research Lecture Climatic and Environmental Change on Dartmoor: Lessons from Archaeology and Palaeoecology’. Dr Ralph Fyfe
From Newsletter 31: November 2007
Around 90 people attended our inaugural Research Lecture on Th November
2007 at the University of Plymouth. Dr Ralph Fyfe, Senior Lecturer of the
University’s Department of Geography, gave an excellent presentation of his
paper ‘Climatic and Environmental Change on Dartmoor: Lessons from
Archaeology and Palaeoecology’. The Lecture was used to promote the
Society’s Research Fund and we are very grateful to the Dartmoor National
Park Authority for contributing £1 50 towards the cost of this event.
Dr Fyfe began by summarising the role of the environmental archaeologist,
which is  the analysis of environmental samples in association with cultural
landscapes or archaeological sites; and 121 the reconstruction of past
environmental conditions, landscapes, subsistence strategies and so on.
Unlike ‘mainstream’ archaeology, the work of the environmental archaeologist
involves very 4ittle excavation.
Ralph explained that his primary research interests are in the dynamic and
changing relationship between society and environment, in particular in prehistory,
and in particular, the balance between human impact on the environment, and the
impact of the environment on humans. H e has been carrying out research on
Dartmoor [Shovel Down Project, Cut Hill and Whitehorse Hill project, upland
peatland survey work] since 2003 and on other uplands [e.g. Exmoor, Preseli
Hills, Snowdonia’ since 1997.
Why study uplands [and Dartmoor in particular]?
Ralph said that there are three primary attractions for environmental
archaeologists in studying uplands. Today we consider these to be marginal
environments; they might therefore be more sensitive indicators of the
dynamic between nature and society. The archaeological landscapes of
uplands may typically be preserved better than in corresponding lowland
areas, and they are more likely to include, and preserve, high
potential environmental sequences in juxtaposition with archaeological sites
Of the uplands in the UK, Dartmoor offers a range of exciting opportunities.
The degree of preservation and visibility of the archaeology makes Dartmoor
one of the flagship prehistoric archaeological landscapes in the UK.
Dartmoor has a strong legacy of archaeological research ‘at least in some
periods and excavation which provides baseline archaeological models.
There is an abundance of potential palaeoecological and environmental
resources across the upland. It is a landscape which is perceived through
modern eyes as very marginal for agrarian activities. Dartmoor has a very
supportive National Park Authority!
However, there are pitfalls to working in upland areas• they may not be
“typical” places in prehistory…the main focus of activities may have been
elsewhere which may result in a biased or poor understanding of relationships
in the past if we only rely on these areas. The environmental sequences [i.e.
physical characteristics of the past environment that can be inferred from the
underlying soils] may be abundant, but their upland location may not make
them sensitive to subtle societal changes and re-organisation. Finally, they
are palimpsest landscapes [i.e. those on which the traces of earlier activity
have been destroyed by later activity]; this may be a curse as well as a
blessing. Ralph said that a prime example was the impact of what he called
the tiresome medieval tinners!
Ralph’s talk focused on four key themes:
[ I ] The notion of Dartmoor as marginal in the past;
121 The changing environment in prehistory;
131 The key periods of archaeological and landscape change between the
Mesolithic and the late Bronze Age; and
141 A discussion of nature/society balances through time.
Dartmoor and the “margin”
Modern margins are based on economic concerns [inputs vs. outputs in an
agrarian system] within a productionist system, but how much relevance does
this have to prehistory? The traditional archaeological view of upland
marginality is based on the population resource model. Uplands are physically
marginal for agriculture li.e• poor soils, unsuitable climatic conditions’ with
the ‘margins’ only exploited during population expansion ‘crises’. Dartmoor
is at the physical margins, having high average rainfall of between 1381 —
2584mm per year, only 1348 — 1500 hours of sunshine per year and between
97 and 114 days of ground frost per year INB all figures based on 30 year
averages, 1971 — 2000].
Marginality as a concept is not, however, limited to the environment, and
other factors can cause marginality, or make an area more attractive. These
include the non-agrarian resource in the uplands; the dynamic nature of the
physical environment; cultural controls on margins [the locations of zones of
production and consumption]; the prevailing political and social constraints
on access to space; and variations in the importance of all of the above
Certain palaeoecological techniques can be applied to reconstruct
landscape and climatic change, and four main types have been applied on
Dartmoor: pollen analysis, proxy climate reconstruction (from testate
amoebae], charcoal analysis and fungal spore analysis. Pollen analysis is the
inspection, identification and counting of the pollen from different plant
species present in an environmental sample. Climate reconstruction is
usually undertaken from peatland systems using proxies of water table height
[e.g. zonation of microorganisms such as testate amoebae]. Each species has
a distinct ecological niche on bogs relating to water table height, which
reflects prevailing [summer] climatic conditions. If a reconstructed water
table is high, this indicates a cooler and wet [summer] climate. Conversely, a
low water table indicates a drier and warm [summer] climate. Charcoal
analysis is a proxy for environmental manipulation and land management
practices using fire. Fungal analysis is a novel technique in which analysis of
the presence of certain types of fungal spore can be used to indicate specific
land management -practices [e.g. finding Sporomiella in samples indicates
Archaeological methods are used to reconstruct intensity of land use, and
evidence of occupation marking variations in the ‘high tide’ of settlement on
the upland. Typical methods include excavation [this is fairly limited on
Dartmoor with the clearest focus on the Bronze Age], surface survey
!opportunities for field walking tend to be limited owing to limited ploughing],
extrapolation from other uplands and lowland areas Ito date monument
types; this may not necessarily be representative] and landscape change
through on-site palaeoenvironmental analysis.
First monumental use of uplands
Excavation and recent reinterpretation of chronologies by archaeologists at
Cardiff University has shown that upland enclosure [and settlement?] in the
south west first took place at Heiman Tor [near Bodminl around 3845-3650
cal BC and at Cam Brea [near Redruthl at 3885-3505 cal BC. ‘Cal BC’ refers to
the fact that the radiocarbon dating has been calibrated according to the
variation of carbon 14 in the atmosphere at various times in the past.
Lowland enclosures occurred possibly a little later: Hembury [East Devon) at
3715-3575 cal BC and Raddon [Crediton] at 3670-3535 cal BC.
Monument construction also gives an indication of the use of uplands in
prehistory [although monuments only began to be built in North West Europe
in the Neolithic period]. The Cut Hill stone- row [Dartmoor) is one of the
earliest, with provisional dates of construction around 3700-3540 cal BC.
More broadly a recent review of the archaeology of the Neolithic in the
Southwest as a whole [by Josh Pollard, Bristol Universityl has suggested two
main phases of monument construction in the Southwest: 3650-3400 cal BC
and 2600-2200 cal BC.
On Dartmoor over 5,000 buildings have been recognised which broadly date
to later prehistory; some of these lie up to 550 metres above sea level. In the
same period, there was widespread establishment of field systems on the
upland. Andrew Fleming undertook extensive. survey of these Dartmoor field
systems in the 1970s and 1980s and developed a broad model for their use.
He suggests they were laid out between 1700 cal BC and lasted for around
300-400 years, with a subsequent abandonment of the upland until the mid-
late Iron Age.
Did the environment shape society?
Proxy climate work on Dartmoor is still limited, although recent work from Tor
Royal has developed a better understanding of the past climate. We can look
further to comparable work in upland Britain, which suggests that Neolithic
climates were varied, although evidence is still sparse for this period. The
Bronze Age climate is better understood: it is marked by various fluctuations:
drier summers were dominant around 1700 cal BC, 1200 cal BC and 900 cal
BC, with intervening periods wetter. When considering how this climatic
chronology fits with the archaeology, we do come up against problems,
mostly over how well we believe or understand the chronology of the
Analysis of environmental conditions at monuments and landscapes in the
Neolithic period at the Cut Hill Stone Row [above 600 metres above sea level]
on northern Dartmoor has shown the following:-
The graphs below show the percentages of five vegetation types found in the
peat at various depths land hence periods in the past] at Cut Hill. The vertical
[left hand] axis represents the depth of the peat (range 0 to 190cml, which is
a proxy for time period, as the peat has been gradually laid down over past
millennia. The horizontal !top’ axis represents the amount of species pollen
as a percentage of the whole sample. (Editor’s note: as the horizontal scales
are rather hard to read, the scale range is stated below each vegetation type].
In the period from which the peat under one stone of the row has been
dated, the results have been fine-tuned. The estimated date of peat under the
sampled stone of the row is between 3700 and 3540 cal BC, represented by
the heavy horizontal line.
Did society shape the environment?
A range of sites and studies have demonstrated the ability of people to
modify their environment. There is clear evidence from the later Mesolithic
period of the use of fire on the high uplands (around Black Ridge, northern
Dartmoor! between 5700 and 4300 cal BC. Other uplands in the region also
demonstrate the use of fire in the later Mesolithic (Bodmin Moor] and the
early to middle Neolithic [Exmoor and Dartmoor around 3600 cal BCI.
Management of upland areas would have been carried out for specific
purposes and exemplifies the domestication of nature for gain.
Neolithic monuments demonstrate the ability and motivation of the
population to exploit all parts of their environment, and the range of these
monuments was not constrained by environmental conditions. The Neolithic
groups would also have ‘inherited’ landscapes which had already been
controlled and managed by Mesolithic populations. They were not moving
into ‘wildwood’ contexts, although woodland did of course persist in places.
It is not possible to differentiate seasonal from permanent occupation, but a
total lack of regeneration of higher vegetation or scrub indicated persistent
use of places and spaces through the period.
It is generally accepted that Bronze Age field systems were occupied in
periods of favourable climatic conditions and abandoned during poorer
conditions. However, we are increasingly realising that the climate during the
Bronze Age was complex, and not as simple as it has previously been
thought, with more than one ‘favourable’ climatic period, and more than one
‘decline’ in the climate. If we accept the limited chronology for the
archaeology, then the period of abandonment does coincide with a climatic
deterioration; however, why didn’t earlier periods of climatic downturn
similarly impact on society, and why didn’t other more favourable periods
result in recolonisation? Clearly blaming climate is too simple a model!
The balance of society/environment through prehistory
The relationship between society and environment is dynamic both in space
and time. In the Mesolithic and Neolithic land into the early Bronze Age]
communities were probably buffered from environmental changes through a
number of adaptive strategies. They could time their movements around the
landscape to the seasons…a shorter summer may not even have been
noticed by groups. These groups were more than capable of controlling and
manipulating their local environments, and exploited the full range of the
landscape. It is debatable whether they even recognised a difference between
uplands and lowlands.
More specialised economies in later prehistory, and the investment in sub-
division of the landscape may have made society more sensitive to
environmental changes, but wider social, political and economic events may
have been as important, or more important, than climatic changes in
exploitation and use of Dartmoor in prehistory. A key lesson to learn from
the past is that uplands [especially, but not uniquely, Dartmoor] played a key
role in society throughout prehistory. They continue to do so!
Acknowledgements and collaborators
Ralph would like to acknowledge a range of sponsors for his work, including
the British Academy, Dartmoor National Park Authority, English Heritage,
Exmoor National Park Authority and the Leverhulme Trust. A range of co-
workers and collaborators have contributed to the academic and practical
At the end of Ralph’s lecture he was warmly thanked by Dr Tom Greeves for a
fine presentation, and this was enthusiastically endorsed by the audience.
The Research Lecture raised £294.52 for the Society’s Research Fund.