After the Moorland Fires: Archaeology Potential and Peril in the Pennines

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Smoke from the moorland fires on Swineshaw Moor, above Stalybridge, drifting westwards towards Manchester in July 2018.

There’s a lot of talk in the media as August comes to a close about the impact of the summer moorland fires around and above Manchester. Understandably, this is focused on the impact upon the local farming community, particularly the sheep farmers above Stalybridge, the managed grouse shooting landscapes, and the damage to wildlife, especially the heather moorland. With over a dozen square kilometres affected in two areas (Swineshaw Moor above Stalybridge and Rivington Moor above Bolton) there’s talk of the landscape needing 20 years to recover and active management to restore what’s left of this highly unusual landscape. Whilst the fires on Swineshaw Moor are out, those on Rivington Moor are in places still smouldering.

In all of this, an archaeology discussion has been largely absent. Not because there hasn’t been any effort by Historic England and the local archaeology services (what’s left of them) to cope with the immediate crisis, but because, I suspect, that its not obvious what the perils and potentials are of these fires.

The background to the archaeological importance of this upland landscape is that these peat moorlands in the Pennines blanket the largest collection of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer camp sites in the UK (dating from 6,000 to 10,000 years ago). These occur as concentrations of dozens, to hundreds or thousands of stone (flint) tools and the debris from making them, often around one of more hearths and pits. The volume and quality of this evidence is of international importance. The threats to this material raise three issues.

Firstly, the digging of firebreaks through these areas, especially on Rivington Moor, may well have disturbed unrecorded archaeology from this period.

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Excavations by the Tameside Archaeology Society on a Mesolithic site at Irontongue Hil on Swineshaw Moor in the 2000s

Secondly, where the peat fire has burnt down to the subsoil then that will have damaged the Mesolithic sites through burning and cracking of the flint tools. It will also, potentially, have contaminated organic deposits in pits and hearths making interpretation and dating harder.

Thirdly, burnt peat is more likely to erode, especially on slopes, uncovering more of these sites which will be lost through rain and wind erosion and through unrecorded collection. Two Mesolithic sites on the moors above Stalybridge were excavated in the 2000s as a result of being uncovered through a previous fire – Slatepit Moor and Irontongue Hill. These sites lie within the area affected by the ‘Saddleworth Moor’ fires and as yet we don’t know what damage the 2018 fires have done.

The peril is that this archaeology will erode over the next few years due to wind and rain without any systematic recording. Within a few years this erosion and the effects of artefact hunters will have removed most of the evidence uncovered by fire and the erosion.

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The black on the horizon is the fire-damaged peat at Rivington Moor, August 2018

The potential is that we can revolutionise our understanding of the Mesolithic, and possibly the Neolithic, of the south-western Pennines in the same way that the fires at Fylingdale did in 2010. However, the damaged landscape is so huge, and the potential discoveries so large, that in a time of limited resources a short- and long-term survey programmes will need to encompass the voluntary, professional, and academic sectors. That might be the hardest part of this archaeological potential to realise.

 

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