Visiting A Mesolithic Forest

The beach at Redcar with its exposed Mesolithic woodland for all to view.

When we speak of ‘Ancient Woodland‘ today, we are referring to woodlands with a rich biodiversity, and as we have seen with the archaeological surveys undertaken as part of this project a rich history dating from prehistoric times through to the modern era.

In truth however, these areas of ‘Ancient Woodland’ (of which an area of some 24km² is noted across the South Pennines) are regarded as any woodland that has been continuously wooded since at least 1600AD and includes:

ancient semi-natural woodland mainly made up of trees and shrubs native to the site, usually arising from natural regeneration

plantations on ancient woodland sites – replanted with conifer and broad leaved trees that retain ancient woodland features, such as undisturbed soil, ground flora and fungi‘ – Natural England, 2018

Woodlands have been intensively managed since the the arrival of people in Britain following the last Ice Age and this intensity has only increased as the population has grown and technology has altered. The ancient woodland or untouched ‘wild wood’ which developed following the retreat of the Ice Sheets some 12,000 years ago are no longer present.

Map detailing the extent of Doggerland following the withdrawal of the Ice Sheets.
That is until the arrival of The Beast Form The East in March. On the beach at Redcar, North Yorkshire the storm served to strip away the sand, exposing the otherwise submerged remains of a forest some 7,000 years old representing a time when the island of Britain was connected to mainland Europe. This land-bridge, known as Doggerland served to aid the spread of woodland into Britain which included first Birch (a coloniser species) and then Oak, Hazel, Beech and Ash to name but a few. It also served to allow the passage of animals such as elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and aurochs; which in-turn attracted Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities. Between 6,500BC and 5,400BC rising sea levels led to the submerging of Doggerland and with that the forest preserved on Redcar Beach.

A lone tree stump with its preserved root network exposed on the beach of Redcar.

The storm left exposed a thick layer of peat which in-turn lay over a number of clay deposits. Embedded and preserved within the peat are the tree stumps, root networks, branches, twigs and collapsed trunks of a forest which once spread north to Hartlepool Bay and east into what is now the North Sea. Archaeological investigations and chance finds of this woodland has noted a mixed deciduous woodland of hazel, oak, birch and beech; antler and a mammoth tusk have also been uncovered from the peat deposit. Evidence of human activity has also been noted in the form of Mesolithic flint tools (Including a the remains of a Red Deer with a wooden point among its ribs – R. Daniels, 2000) as well as evidence for woodcraft such as a wattle screen/panel excavated at Seaton Carew (possibly remains of a fish trap or weir – J. Buglass, 1994).

A cross-section of the exposed peat and clay horizons on Redcar Beach.
One of the many tree stumps exposed on the beach. Scale is 30cm

One of the earliest mentions of the preserved forest dates to 1871 when a correspondent of Redcar and Saltburn News noted ‘a submerged forest a little east of Redcar, then laid bare by the tide; the patches described being about three foot square, there were also hazel nuts, pieces of wood, bone …‘. However, the 1873 article concerning the exposed forest goes on to mention an all too human economical threat to the site. ‘During the present high prices of coals any other kind of fuel, whether peat bog, or sea coal is a great boon, and should the peat bog continue bare much longer, the greater portion of it will be utilised‘ – Redcar and Saltburn News 21/02/1873.

Whilst walking the beach with my family we counted at least 24 easily identifiable tree stumps of varying sizes. It was a truly emotive experience to think that we were walking amongst the trees that once served as the feeding ground for elk and aurochs (the latter extinct and the former now absent from Britain), whilst acting as the hunting grounds for our Mesolithic ancestors.

A lone tree stump and the encroaching North Sea ready to submerge the forest once more.

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