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Who killed Britain's Bronze Age Forests?
September 25, 2012 2:33 PM   Subscribe


 
We already have a word for what this article describes, and it isn't "suburban".
posted by Space Coyote at 2:43 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


We already have a word for what this article describes, and it isn't "suburban".
posted by Space Coyote at 5:43 PM on September 25 [+] [!]


Agrarian? Settled? It's a misuse of "suburban" yes, but the point he wanted to make is that it was a settled, agrarian landscape in which much of the original forest cover had been removed to make way for arable and pastoral farming.

But then, there are no natural landscapes anywhere in the world. If people were there, the landscape was shaped by them.
posted by jb at 2:50 PM on September 25, 2012


If people were there, the landscape was shaped by them.

Step back and look around, you realize landscape has been shaped by all forms of life from the very beginning.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:07 PM on September 25, 2012


First, stop saying "England" when you mean "Britain". England is a country that didn't exist in any way shape or form before 450, and not properly til the 800s. Britain is the island on which the country sits, with others, and has long been here. To say that, "England was largely wooded until the arrival of the Romans" is silly.

Next, the amount of woodland in Britain has gone up and down over the years. Maybe the Romans did come into a landscape that was heavily felled, but it doesn't mean that it's been that way since. After-Roman growback must have been fairly substantial in some areas, if only for the reason that there are many placenames attesting to that. The Wealds, the Wolds, and Wychwood all attest to woodlands now gone, but must have still been there after 450 to get their names.
posted by Jehan at 3:16 PM on September 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


Landscape itself is a human construct according to some scholars. Can't wait to read the article - my class is studying the concept of geography, space and place.
posted by Calzephyr at 3:16 PM on September 25, 2012


Cool article. Scotland in the 18th century is a model - settled, but not well connected by decent roads. To travel meant going overland through fields and forests following livestock paths. When everyone is limited to about 20-40 miles a day it creates zones. Castles, towns, etc. spaced about a day apart. We've lost that perspective with the car but still visible on maps. Modernity compressed space and time and history. The poem ZONE by Guillaume Apollinaire I think speaks to it.
posted by stbalbach at 3:51 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


First, stop saying "England" when you mean "Britain". England is a country that didn't exist in any way shape or form before 450, and not properly til the 800s. Britain is the island on which the country sits, with others, and has long been here. To say that, "England was largely wooded until the arrival of the Romans" is silly.

Surely this depends on which bit of the island one is talking about. If one is genuinely talking about what is now England (which is conceivable, I think--do we know that much about the early history of now-Scotland, for instance?), calling it 'England' is certainly not absurd.
posted by hoyland at 3:56 PM on September 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


A lot of this pre-Roman deforestation would have happened during the ascendance of the House of Baratheon, whose wealth was derived in large part from the trade of barley, millet and other grains with the rest of the realm and the barrens beyond. The construction of the Wall, several centuries earlier, would also have required a vast amount of timber for formwork and bracing.
posted by Flashman at 4:21 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


After-Roman growback must have been fairly substantial in some areas, if only for the reason that there are many placenames attesting to that. The Wealds, the Wolds, and Wychwood all attest to woodlands now gone, but must have still been there after 450 to get their names.

Place names are a very bad guide to what a place used to be like. Many American suburbs are named for the forests or rivers that aren't actually there.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:52 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


One of the things that surprised me the most when studying agricultural changes in Roman Britain was not only the spread of foodstuffs and habits around the Empire but also the distinct agricultural patterns already in place. If you are interested, there are a number of really cool* pollen studies and other ways of delving into more of the science behind understanding landscape changes in Britain (and other times/areas!) The Romans were just especially not good at leaving places cleaner than they found them. (The amount of trees required for the production of copper was and is staggering.)


*okay, I am totally lying about this. Whoo palynological studies whoo....
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:20 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


ThatFuzzyBastard: Margaret Gelling would have begged to differ about how toponymical place names are.

And Jehan, I guess it's safe to assume that the England they mean here is what I learned in school geography as lowland Britain, south east of a line between the Severn and Humber estuaries, and in this case excluding The Fens for obvious reasons. That's certainly where all the places mentioned fit in
posted by ambrosen at 5:35 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Come on jetlagaddict, palynological studies are nothing to sneeze at.
posted by Flashman at 5:59 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


No wonder that once the English founded New England in the early 1600s, they immediately set out to clearcut the new dominion in its entirety. By the 1840s, as many early photographs attest, there was scarcely a tree left. At that point, everyone Went West (Young Man), because there were railroads, no rocks to blunt your plow, and gold. Virtually all of New England's fairly ubiquitous tree cover is regrowth since that time.
posted by beagle at 6:09 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why excluding the Fens? They were their own thing, but still pretty settled in the Bronze Age - we even have an extant causeway.
posted by jb at 6:49 PM on September 25, 2012


At that point, everyone Went West (Young Man), because there were railroads, no rocks to blunt your plow, and gold

And trees.

But speaking of human constructed landscapes, the european settlers constantly moved into areas that had been shaped by human use for thousands of years, not the virgin wilderness they described it as.
posted by Forktine at 7:52 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Suddenly I stop
But I know it's too late
I'm lost in a forest
All alone

The girl was never there
It's always the same
I'm running towards nothing
Again and again and again and again
posted by destrius at 8:03 PM on September 25, 2012


But then, there are no natural landscapes anywhere in the world. If people were there, the landscape was shaped by them.

It's a bit dense and more art criticism than history, but I highly recommend Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory to anyone who is interested by this FPP and the study it links to. There's a huge section on the myth of the British Forest, and the above quote from jb is basically a summary of the book's thesis statement.
posted by Sara C. at 8:06 PM on September 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's a bit dense and more art criticism than history, but I highly recommend Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory to anyone who is interested by this FPP and the study it links to. There's a huge section on the myth of the British Forest, and the above quote from jb is basically a summary of the book's thesis statement.

And if Schama floats your boat, you'll probably like Scott's Seeing Like a State and Mann's 1491.
posted by Forktine at 8:19 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


1491 is a lot more readable and actually history-related than Landscape And Memory, which is from Schama's pre-TV legit academic period.

Is it 1491 or The Lost City of Z that has the author go with scholars of the Amazon and actually find physical evidence that there were once population centers in the jungle?
posted by Sara C. at 8:27 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The poem ZONE by Guillaume Apollinaire I think speaks to it.

Text and translation
posted by junco at 8:43 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


The way I learned it, Britain recently cleared most forests in order to produce salt, by boiling brine from salty springs in large pans. Salt was needed to preserve food, at least 50 lbs. per person, per year on average. The amount of fuel needed would have been a major component.
posted by Brian B. at 9:09 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]




A lot of this pre-Roman deforestation would have happened during the ascendance of the House of Baratheon

I thought the deforestation began during the brief ascendance of Saruman of Isengard. I confess to being a bit hazy on the timeline, though.
posted by homunculus at 10:27 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


ThatFuzzyBastard: "Many American suburbs are named for the forests or rivers that aren't actually there."

I think that's a fairly recent trend, though.
posted by Bugbread at 11:32 PM on September 25, 2012


It goes back at least as far as the mid-19th century. For Britain, we don't have strong provenance for place names aside from their etymology. And a lot of the time, the etymology isn't straightforward. That's before you get to when a place was named and why it was named that way.

For example, it would be easy enough to say that Britain is full of woodsy place names because woods were rare rather than plentiful. Why call your village "settlement at the scrubby edge of the wood" if every village is at the scrubby edge of the wood?

Not to mention, of course, that a place name like Weald says nothing about the timber content of that patch of land before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain. The ancient Celts didn't use that term.
posted by Sara C. at 12:01 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


As I understand current thinking, the land of the Fens was first created in the Bronze Age when deforestation in the central eastern part of England (or. if you prefer, that part of the island of Great Britain currently known as England) causing massive soil erosion into the rivers, which silted up their deltas where they ran off into the (then fairly new) North Sea. The Fens were then populated with considerable seasonal migration outwith permanent settlements on higher ground, but subsequent rises in sea levels flooding them until they were drained in late medieval and early modern times. Currently, modern farming practices are causing the land level of the Fens to fall dramatically, and it's quite possible that large areas will be abandoned to the sea again in a few decades' time.

All very dynamic and anthropogenic.
posted by Devonian at 12:04 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


See also this excellent article on "peak wood": northern Africa used to be forested before the Romans denuded it for fuel. In the 17th century, the British ran out of trees tall and straight enough for their warships' masts, and sent expedition to the Baltics looking specifically for mast-trees.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:55 AM on September 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


This man has clearly never been to Basildon.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:22 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zarkonnen, that's a fascinating read, thank you.
posted by phl at 3:49 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Devonian - there may have some excess silt, but the fens were created by marine incursions largely due to sea level changes in the North Sea before the Bronze Age (more like neolithic), which deposited the silt of the silt fens and blocked the rivers which created the freshwater peat fens behind them. Things did flood more later, but that was post-Bronze Age; peat developed to cover Bronze Age barrows that are now being exposed due to the plowing and erosion.

Also, the early modern drainage wasn't so successful - lots of land was privatized, but kept reflooding (so didn't switch to arable). The last 400 years has been a story of drain, flood, drain, flood, with the most recent drain period beginning in about 1940 (due to war demands).
posted by jb at 9:27 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a bit dense and more art criticism than history, but I highly recommend Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory to anyone who is interested by this FPP and the study it links to. There's a huge section on the myth of the British Forest, and the above quote from jb is basically a summary of the book's thesis statement.

I probably should read Schama, but what inspired my point is especially Cronon's Changes in the Land (about Native and English land use in New England), and similar works on environmental history (including reading about medieval and pre-medieval use of the English fens).
posted by jb at 9:29 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


As for the woodyness of Britain, it also depends on what you mean by "wooded". Northern France appears much less wooded than southern Britain, not because southern Britain has so many more forests, but because it has so many hedges. Hedges are made of trees and bushes, and were a really important source of wood (and berries, fruit, etc). In the History of the Countryside, Rackham distinguishes between "ancient" (small, square fields often divided by hedges) and the much more open "planned" countryside (where there was more open-field arable in the medieval period - huge fields by European standards, thus many fewer trees).

I actually found the Fens to be surprisingly "wooded", but that's because I'm Canadian and when people said "open, huge skies" I pictured Saskatchewan. There is no where in the English fens where you can't see some trees (a woodlot, or hedges, or trees lining a canal). But compared to somewhere like the Chilterns or even the rural bits of Sussex, it's not very wooded.
posted by jb at 9:49 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


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