People of the Wetlands tells the story from the discovery of the first bog bodies and lake-dwellings more than a century ago to today’s scientific excavations, chiefly in Europe and North America, but increasingly all round the world. The mystery of the bog bodies is fully explored: some individuals met an accidental death, but how many – like Lindow Man, recently unearthed in England – were murdered or sacrificed? Fully discussed too are the revolutionary results of the new tree-ring chronology, which allows prehistoric wetland villages to be dated with a precision once reserved for ancient Egypt or Rome. But wetland archaeology excels above all in revealing details about ancient life: how early farmers wore straw sandals and enjoyed birch-bark chewing gum, how they adorned their houses with patterned textiles, and how they erected wooden god-dollies beside their roadways to ward off evil spirits.
The first chapters introduce the beaver and its habitats in western Europe, where it is now flourishing. Beavers arc a keystone ecological species, modifying their waterside surroundings to the incidental benefit of many other species, both plant and animal, including humans. Based on original field survey carried out in Brittany and southeastern France by Coles and a team from the University of Exeter, the characteristic structures and features of three contrasting beaver territories are documented and analysed, with a view to identifying beaver activity in the archaeological record.
The book then focuses on the archaeological and historical record, from the return of beavers after the severe cold of the last glaciation through 13000 years of living alongside humans, to their disappearance from the record. Using the field survey results, Coles identifies beaver influence at a number of well-known wetland sites of prehistoric date, and explores the evidence for human exploitation of beavers, which becomes increasingly diverse through time. In the post-Roman period the range of beaver-related material expands to include place-names, carvings and illuminated manuscripts, written records and oral traditions. Analysing the late evidence in the light of the field survey data and increasing knowledge of the behaviour of European beavers, Coles argues that in Britain beavers vanished from human perception but did not become extinct until the later second millennium AD.
Beavers in Britain’s Past provides a new perspective on the archaeology and history of Britain and demonstrates the significance of beavers to the environment of Britain.