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York archaeologist publishes new paper

Posted on 22 February 2017

Suzi Richer reflects on palaeoecological approaches to understanding past woodland environments

Scientists at the University of York and University College Cork have looked at how cultural records dating back 300 years could help improve understanding of the ways in which science interprets the many uses of woodland areas. 

The researchers hope that the work will give a cultural narrative to environmental data collected over time, but also give new insight into the ways in which woodland management systems can be adapted to increase a sense of ownership amongst communities that live near woodland areas.

Suzi Richer, a post-doctoral researcher, suggests that palaeoecology is potentially well situated to engage with other audiences and disciplines, and can inform wider debates. Using insights from Oliver Rackham’s influential woodland studies as focal points, selected aspects of method and theory in palaeoecology were examined and an approach to developing a praxis of woodland palaeoecology was suggested.

Oliver Rackham was the first to explore woods from a variety of different perspectives—ecology, archaeology, timbers, place-names, manuscript records—in order to recreate a wood’s history. It was proposed that to move towards this interdisciplinary perspective, thinking in terms of theory as well as method and practice in palaeoecology was required.

A short case study from Shrawley Woods, Worcestershire, UK, illustrates the approach and includes the first example of historical documents and oral history accounts being used in the construction of a pollen diagram. From researching pollen grains preserved in a waterlogged area of Shrawley Woods, the researchers were able to provide environmental data dating back to the 11th century. This was then compared with oral history records from the 18th century, which revealed the differences that occur in how the same type of tree is referenced between environmental and cultural records over time.

Researchers showed that the name of the tree related more closely to how it was used by woodland dwellers and not by its species name, a feature that becomes more common from the industrial revolution onwards.

Dr Suzi Richer, from the University of York’s Archaeology and Environment Departments, said: “We find that many books, television programmes, films, and art work, position woodlands as ‘dangerous’ or ‘alien’ places, where cultural norms can be broken, but archaeological and historical evidence shows that these were often working and living spaces with evidence of charcoal burning, brick kilns, and water-powered mills, which bring people and wooded areas much closer together in a working, living harmony.

“Scientific data by itself, particularly if it spans over many years, can miss out the cultural and social context of the period it represents and therefore the relationship between the environment and the people who lived there in the past.  This can be crucial to help us interpret environmental records more fully.”

Read the full paper in The Journal of Human Palaeoecology here: