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caves and dry soil round the Nile basin, even skin and bone and paintings would last for ages, and fictile vessels and sculpture would last for ever; while the blown sand and alluvial mud were always returning to bury up what accident left exposed on the surface.
So, round the Fenland we have a district occupied continuously from the earliest times. It was a district accessible from the sea, over which migration and invasion had from time immemorial been floated to our shores. Canoes or larger boats could land almost everywhere along the coast, could creep up the rivers, or shoot across the flooded fen. It was the region into which the races moving north from the Thames would find their way. Along the east and south borders of the fens a belt of dry chalk downs runs between the marsh on the one hand, and on the other, the high clay land covered with timber, which runs by Wood Ditton and Saffron Walden. With small exceptions, a similar country bounds the Fenland on the west. The woods on the one hand and the fens on the other were full of game, and primæval man found here a happy hunting-ground. The downs offered sweet pasture, and the borders of the fen abundance of good, if coarse, fodder; so the pastoral folk of later time found it a desirable residence. Moreover, the dwellers round the fens could conceal themselves in the dense forests of the uplands, or in the patches of reeds and alders that dotted the islands in the fens. History and names of places confirm this. On the woodland side we have Walden and Wood Ditton, or Ditch Town. On the other, Fen Ditton or Ditch Town.
Nor does the parallel end here, for the chances of being overwhelmed and buried in the treacherous morasses or the tidal waters of the great estuary which was being converted into fen, were as great as in the sandstorms or floods of the Nile valley. Moreover, the antiseptic properties of the peat preserves organic matter as surely as does the dry soil of Egypt. Thus archæologists turn with the same kind of interest to the fens and the things found there, as they do to Egypt and its buried treasures. Nor can we say with certainty which record carries us back the farthest.
The plants and animals found in the fens, whether recent or fossil, have been often enumerated and described; so also have the objects of archæological interest which have from time to time turned up in and around the fen land. The story of the reclamation of the fens and the legislation bearing upon it are accessible to all. But its geographical.history has not received the same attention. Yet it is to this history we must look for a check upon wild speculation, and suggestions as to the direction and possibilities of further research.
I propose, in the short communication which I have the honour of bringing before the Association this evening, to point out those changes which have brought about the successive geographical conditions of the district, and which must impose a limit upon all our calculations as to how long the fens have been what they are, and what they were like in earlier ages; in what respect they influenced settlements within or around their borders.
At the same time, I lay on the table and describe some objects illustrative of the questions I propose for your consideration, and a few of rare occurrence and special interest.
Time was when the chalk hills extended nearly across the Wash from Hunstanton to Skegness, except one gorge through which the waters of the Ouse and its tributaries found their way to the sea. Many of our rivers which have cut across the strike of the beds have run in approximately the same direction so long, that they have removed the softer strata over wide areas behind the principal barriers of hard rock, through which they have kept cutting a gorge deeper and deeper as required to form an outlet for the upland waters. The Thames has done this, leaving wide open plains on the great Jurassic and Cretaceous clays with narrow valleys through the harder rocks. If such a river valley were to be depressed, first the upland waters would be ponded back, and then the sea would run in through the gorge, and the great plain behind would become a lagoon or land-locked sea. The conflict of tidal and fresh water would soon silt it up, and through the alluvial plain thus formed the rivers would meander to their shifting mouths.
The Yorkshire Ouse is in an intermediate stage between what we see in the Thames and in the Fenland. The Ouse with its tributaries, especially the Don and Trent, have levelled a great space above Hull, but there the outlet is narrowed between hills of chalk. If this area were to be still more depressed, the sea would rush in between Hull and Barton, and would overrun all the country about Crowie and Thorne.
The Wash is an example of a later stage in this process. When the area was depressed to the requisite depth, the sea rushed in through the gorge which the upland waters had cut on their way to the sea across the chalk hills which once ran between Hunstanton and Skegness. The ebbing and flowing tide and wind-lashed waves battered down the rocks on either side, widening the estuary, and ponding back the rivers, till beaches were formed along the sea shore and mud banks in the rivers. Large spaces of water were cut off by these processes, forming meres and lakes which were eventually choked up with peat.
Although, therefore, the peat is of various dates, all those dates are restricted within somewhat narrow limits. When the area was subject to the incursion of tidal waters, there could be no formation of peat. It can only have commenced to grow when the area was so far silted up
that bodies of water were isolated ; and it is found in excavations to alternate with silt or river mud irregularly, according as there were incursions of the sea or of river floods over the area where the peat had begun to grow. But this was a process carried on through long ages of changing geographical conditions. In some places the peat is being formed now, and peat runs under the Wash where it cannot have been formed for many a long age ; so that we know that the peat is of very different different localities.
The sketch I have given above explains very briefly the relation of the geological features to the configuration of the district. It is, to use an American expression, the “ drowned ” end of a valley, but of a valley which expanded inland behind a barrier so as to form a wide alluvial plain. That valley has been gradually sinking,
with periods of rest or oscillations. But it was not until it had sunk down to sea level that the waters of the rivers were ponded back and the marshes formed. So that the peat was not always there, not even throughout the age of man. The peat is a very important part of our subject from many points of view, but the peat covers only a part of the fenland, and is comparatively a late formation there.
Peat is of two kinds : tarn peat and hill peat. The tarn peat is due to the decomposition of water plants, wood, and other vegetable matter which grew on the spot, or was drifted into a swamp or lake. Hill peat, on the other hand, is due to the decay of plants which grow, not under water but on land, though in most cases that land is boggy. It grows on the tops of mountains 2,000 ft. high, and hangs on their steep slopes.
When a lake or swamp has been partly filled by silt carried down by streams, and peat has grown from the margin over the shell marl, right across the whole area, we have a land surface instead of a lake. Now, a different growth of plants prevails over the boggy land. Mosses, such as sphagnum, and heather grow on the peat which was the product of water weeds and drift wood. We find in the peat itself evidence of the change from tarn peat to hill peat, which points not to movements of upheaval and depression, but only to the regular and gradual operations of silting up, till what was lake has become dry land.
It is probable that one of the necessary conditions for the formation of peat is the absence of earthworms, whose usual function is to carry down the vegetable matter, and .eject the mineral constituents of the soil in their castings at the surface. But earthworms cannot live under the water of a tarn, or in the wet boggy surface soil under the sphagnum on the hill-tops. Plants grow on the decayed remains of previous growths, and there is no agent to mix up the mineral and vegetable soil, and so a layer of pure vegetable matter is formed.
Now, it is a matter of great importance in archeological speculations to ascertain whether an object has been found in one or the other of these two kinds of peat. For example: an object found in that kind of peat to which we have given the name hill peat cannot have been dropped out of a canoe. Hill peat—that is, peat which grows in the air, not under water-creeps on over skeletons, trunks of trees, ancient huts, or anything that may have been left on its surface. On the other hand, neither man nor any land beast whose remains are buried in tarn peat, or that which is formed under water, can have lived on the spot where his remains are found.
Having, then, described how the Fenland has come to be what it is, we may now consider the history more in detail. From an archæological point of view, that history begins with the first appearance of man in the district.
We need not delay long over the possibility of there having been representatives of what has been called Eolithic or Palæotalithic man in this district. The flinty surface soil is full of specimens that would rejoice the heart of the believer in such evidence as has been offered for the existence of pre-Palæolithic man.
I have elsewhere discussed that question somewhat fully, and altogether reject the evidence.
Not that we should reject the possibility of there having been man earlier than Paläolithic times, or the probability of some day finding satisfactory evidence of his presence.
I urge only that the evidence upon which the existence of pre-Paläolithic man has so far been advocated is quite inconclusive ; and that the only flint objects referred to that age, respecting the mode of occurrence of which we have any accurate information, are accidental forms due to natural causes, which may be found scattered over any ground covered with surface flints.
Of Palaeolithic man we have abundant traces in the flint implements found round the margin of the fenland, and on the gravel terraces on the adjoining hills. A good specimen was once, but once only, procured from a labourer, who said he had dug it out of the Barnwell gravel. I have myself picked up a roughly-dressed implement on gravel, which I was informed had been carted from Barnwell. There is no doubt as to their occurrence at Brandon and Mildenhall. But I know of only one authenticated case of a Palæolithic implement