Plymouth Archaeology Society

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Professor Bryony Coles

3rd December 2007

A strange title for an archaeological talk some may think! ‘When is a stake not a stake?’ Might well have been an alternative title. It is a cautionary tale; a warning to all archaeologists, however eminent, not to be so sure when diagnosing the efforts of our forebears.

PDAS were privileged to have such an eminent professor as Bryony Coles, an expert on wetlands archaeology, well known for her work with her husband John in the Somerset Levels, and in particular The Sweet Track.

A study of timber in the wetlands had revealed puzzling ‘tool markings’. During her extensive research in the wetlands Bryony had came across sharpened wooden stakes; the cut marks on some were easily diagnosed as the work of flint tools but with others she was unable to ascertain which type of tool could make a series of parallel, long and narrow, curved chisel-like cuts.

It was only a chance conversation between Bryony’s husband Prof. John Coles and a Russian archaeologist at a conference that confirmed his suspicions the strange ‘tool marks’ were the handiwork of beavers.

Had evidence of beavers been found elsewhere in Britain, had they been common place, and when?

Beaver bones had been found in the field but had not been thought about, or their implications. Her research revealed beavers had been present in Britain since the last ice-age while there was still a land bridge.

Bryony came to the decision that she would have to study beaver activity in great detail so that she and future wetland archaeologists would be able to distinguish between beaver and human activity and also understand where the two may overlap. This involved a great deal of research in the field, particularly in Keriou, Brittany mapping beaver territory in winter over five or six years to familiarise herself with the signs and see the impact of beavers on the landscape.

She was able to identify gnawing marks, and realised that beavers encouraged tree growth by their coppicing of trees which caused a bushy re-growth with long thin stems; creating ready-made wood resources for people and especially handy for arrow shafts, firewood etc. She noted that whole trees were felled and de-barked by beavers and recurring patterns such as a notched stem were useful, not unlike a ladder. She could recognise their feeding stations by a particular pattern of a strew of sticks. This is important because beavers will carry a twig to the water’s edge and peel it and this could be construed as whittling by human hands.

She moved her research back to Britain and found a variety of evidence for beavers in prehistory e.g. At Star Carr for instance there is a collapsed beaver lodge which people used for various activities. In a subsistence society it would make sense to use a ready made beaver platform or collapsed lodge, or even ready cut timber and their dams are ideal river fords; their activities would have created clearings, ponds, smooth rich soil for farming, medication (castoreum was used until the 19th century), coppiced wood, clothing, food and more. In conclusion, beavers and people lived in close proximity and this important research will help future students greatly in distinguishing between beaver and human activity.

Sue Denim

More information on beavers in Britain


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