Monday, 13 May 2013

Mesolithic meanderings

This weekend was wildlife explorers weekend. The group was a little smaller than usual, but lack of numbers was compensated for by the increased enthusiasm a new site and a new local expert generated. We spent a morning in the company of Tim Burkinshaw (@carrswetland), the wetlands officer responsible for Cayton Carrs. The Carrs is a low lying agricultural landscape to the south of Scarborough- quite flat and I have to say based upon first impressions perhaps not the most exciting of places to visit, sandwiched as it is between the North Yorks Moors, The Yorkshire Wolds and the coast. But first impresses are wrong.

As we meandered across the landscape (noting Buzzards and Grey Partridge and stopping to discuss the arrival of spring migrants - Swift, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler) Tim provided a wealth of information to bring the site to life. Tim is a natural outdoor educator - he didn't stand and lecture to the kids - he used the outdoors and their natural curiosity to engage them (and we accompanying adults) in an exploration of the site at a whole range of levels. 

So we started by talking about the networks of ditches that drain the landscape. We heard about peat deposits shrinking through drying and about the problems that causes for road buliders and for wildlife. Then we heard about the wetland project and how it was managing drainage and encouraging farmers to shift their agriculture (from arable to pasture) and how that linked to conservation because wet fields provided wintering habitat for waterfowl and waders, and breeding habitat for a whole range of farmland birds, while the ditches themselves harboured populations of otters and water voles.

Thinking more about the ditches Tim explained that the dead straight 9 mile course of the river Hertford had once meandered for 13 miles across the landscape - but had been straightened in the early 1800s by POWs from the Napoleonic wars. So now we were thinking about the past not the present - providing the kids with a sense of the changing nature of landscape. With that in mind Tim paused close to some mounds of earth - the site of an archaeological dig. Here the remains of the oldest know house in Europe have been found. This was used to raise several new issues, firstly current drying of the peat threatens the preservation of the site - so we are linked in a real way to our past. Second the soil we stood on was no longer peaty - it was grey, almost white, and powdery - sediments laid down in a Mesolithic lake. So this house was on the shores of a lake! After some impromptu face painting using a pigment made by mixing the clay with water Tim showed the kids some pictures of artefacts from the site - harpoons and a ceremonial headdress with Red Deer Antlers and we talked about how our stone age ancestors might have lived. This discussion was great. The children brought together their prior knowledge, the information that they had gained with Tim, and their imaginative inferences and together we "created" a new landscape around ourselves, we imagined a Mesolithic wetland and speculated that through sympathetic management a new rich wetland shared by people and wildlife a new wetland was an exciting possibility.

Here are a few pictures of the day:

Here Tim is helping us to identify stones in glacial till. We're thinking about the fact that the gabro we've found may well have been brought here from Northern Scotland by the ice sheet.

Visualising the extent of the lake with the dig behind Tim.

Face paints made from ancient lake mud!

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