Short days, clear skies, and the sun low on the horizon are an opportunity to picture landscapes and sites in a new way, refreshing ones’ view point and attachment with the well known. Thus, a ramble around Lindow Common and its Black Lake between Christmas and New Year was both a reminder of a well known childhood mindscape and a hidden archaeological landscape.
As a child the Common was a place for family picnics during the summer holidays – reached by bus – and always seemed to be sunny, with flies and butterflies in abundance, though a lack of birds. On reflection that may have been because the lake was reduced by the 1970s to a shallow, reed-covered, puddle. When my own children were young it was a brief car trip during the spring or autumn for a short brisk walk (by the parents) or run (by the children) around the lake in a vain attempt to tire them out. It was a quicker alternative to the longer ramble over the nearby Alderley Edge, visible on the horizon during the winter or spring as we drove to the Common from the west. It was and is also evocative of the writings of Alan Garner, the Black Lake, or Llyn Ddu, featuring prominently in both the Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the Moon of Gomrath, favourite books of mine since childhood (the final book in the trilogy was not published until 2012).
Lindow (it rhymes with ‘window’, please) Common lies on the north-eastern edge of Lindow Moss, an area best known for the three bog bodies discovered in the 1980s. Peat digging (which continues into the early 21st century) across the moss was first attested in 1421. It was through delving for peat that the bog bodies were discovered in 1983, 1984, 1987, and 1988 (see the excellent 2009 introduction, Lindow Man, by Jody Joy for an overview of the discovery and context of the Lindow bodies). The smaller area of the Common was used from the late medieval period onwards by local villagers to graze their livestock. There was even a racecourse around the heath, remembered in today’s landscape by the name and line of Racecourse Road. By the 20th century both traditions had ended and the common had become choked with scrub and birch trees.
The survival of Lindow Common as a rare lowland wet heath raises an issue recently touched upon at the 2018 Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference – the hidden human landscapes we assume are, or are persuaded to see as, natural or wild. Despite appearances the Common is an anthropogenic landscape, managed by humans for thousands of years for peat, wood, and rough grazing, and more recently as a nature reserve. In the 1980s the base of the lake was cleared of reeds and mud and re-lined so that it is now fed just by rainwater. Across the common is evidence for sustained management in the form of piles of cut timber and coppiced shrubs and bushes. This probably explains why the landscape appears more open and less wild than I remember as a child. It is also a reminder that archaeological landscapes are not confined to constructs of earth, stone, or brick.
Lindow is just as much a managed landscape as the farmland to the south and west, and the gardens of the suburban housing to the north and east. Yet our desire for the natural privileges the story of the wild nature of the common over its long history of human engagement. This might explain why it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but not a protected archaeological landscape. There’s a lesson there for archaeologists in how to promote the special importance of such anthropogenic landscapes to the wider public.