Archaeologists working on a peatland restoration project at Exmoor’s Holnicote Estate in Somerset have unearthed a prehistoric “time capsule” buried within the ancient peatlands.
The excavation, conducted over the course of a year, revealed a treasure trove of preserved woodland and insect remains dating back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Situated in an area known as Alderman’s Barrow Allotment, the discovery showcases the diverse array of plant and insect species that once thrived in the region’s wet woodland habitats.
Among the remarkable findings are fragments of trunks, branches, and twigs from a prehistoric woodland floor, offering evidence of tree species such as alder, willow, and birch that populated the area around 4,500 to 3,500 years ago. Remarkably well-preserved, these organic materials appear as if they were buried just yesterday, thanks to the unique preservation properties of peat, which contains very little oxygen, allowing organic matter to survive for millennia.
In addition to the plant remains, researchers unearthed over 100 fragments of Hydraena riparia beetles, along with prehistoric samples of dung beetles, rove beetles, moss mites, and water scavenger beetles. These insect species are indicative of a thriving wetland ecosystem.
Basil Stow, an area ranger at the National Trust, said: “It’s great to think that the discovery of the prehistoric insect and woodland remains provides an opportunity to understand the vegetation and the natural processes which helped establish this thriving wet, peaty, environment many thousands of years ago,” Stow remarked.
Dr. Ed Treasure, a Senior Environmental Archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, emphasized the importance of these discoveries in connecting with Exmoor’s history and elucidating the evolution of its landscapes. “These discoveries provide a unique and tangible way of connecting with Exmoor’s past, and they illustrate the changing nature of landscapes and reveal how this impressive landscape came to be,” Dr. Treasure noted.
The findings have broader implications for peatland restoration efforts, serving as a baseline for understanding the region’s ecological history. By reintroducing native tree species like willow, birch, and alder, conservationists aim to restore the area to its former glory, enhancing carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and resilience to climate change.
Supported by organizations such as the National Trust, Natural England, South West Water, and the Exmoor National Park Authority, the peatland restoration project seeks to transform degraded landscapes into vibrant, carbon-rich habitats.
As climate change threatens to disrupt delicate ecosystems, initiatives like the peatland restoration project offer hope for preserving the past while securing the future.