Fieldtrips aren’t always just about fieldwork- sometimes how you get by during an extended trip is just as important as the fieldwork itself. This was particularly true of a two-week PhD trip that myself, Christine Bunting and Phil Stastney embarked on to Annaghbeg Bog, formerly ear-marked for commercial peat production but now a designated Natural Heritage Area. We had been granted permission to collect cores and surface samples for analysis (Phil and Dan) and carry out a GPR survey (Christine)- a rare opportunity to study what is now a dwindling supply of intact raised peatlands.
After a twelve hour drive, across England, Wales and Ireland (and a ferry trip across the Irish Sea), we found ourselves in the heart of Ireland: the Co. Galway town of Athlone. Not far from the bog, it was an ideal location for our two-week stay: located on either side of the River Shannon, complete with a Medieval castle, pubs and a modest supply of restaurants. We had booked (on the recommendation of some local archaeologists) a couple of rooms at a pub in the centre of town: cheap and cheerful, and with a plentiful supply of evening refreshments- what more could we need?
What better way to summarise the trip than from the perspective of three enthusiastic PhD researchers?
I have never experienced rain like that in Ireland- when it really comes down, everyone driving along the M4 simply pulls over until it passes by, but when sat on the middle of a bog there is no escape. Weather proofs are essential, and even the best don’t always cover it. However, there are perks to being stuck on a bog in the rain. For one it is a good excuse to down tools and take a well-earned break- but the real highlight is the colour. The relatively dull grey brown Annaghbeg Bog suddenly began to glow with pinks and purples from the Calluna vulgaris and Ericaceae. I am, of course, talking about an unmilled bog – in contrast, the milled ones remain brown. There is also more wildlife on a raised bog than I had anticipated; the group of hare stalking me as I collected samples seemed genuinely intrigued by what I was doing.
There are challenges to all fieldwork, but particularly in such a wet environment such as the length of time it takes to walk from one sampling point to another. When carrying heavy equipment I was very conscious that the 7m or so of sediment below me was over 90% water- especially when I came across a swallow hole with running water at the base. For the first part of the fieldwork I was often alone on one part of the bog collecting water samples, later in the week Phil helped me collect GPR data while Dan collected samples. The work was hard going most of the time but working as a team we collected some useful sets of data (survey, GPR, geochemistry, water table, and core samples) which allowed us a much greater understanding of the bog.
Striding forth into the wild for science! You can sense the great depths of time under foot. This is what fieldwork is all about. You can learn about yourself too. On fieldwork you can find yourself.
I have found myself! I am waist deep in freezing bog water. I was probably thinking deeply about my research when I strode forth onto a floating mat of moss (Sphagnum sp.). The first leg sank straight down to my knee. I shifted my weight onto the other leg, which made it worse. One hand is now grasping at some heather to steady myself. In my other hand is a bread knife which I really don’t want to lose. A right pickle.
I’ve never been light on my feet, and I’ve never been more aware of it than now. No one saw my mishap except a skinny Irish hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) that zooms across the bog. Soon I’ll go back to check in with Christine and Dan and they’ll laugh – it’s happened to us all. We’ve all suffered “inundations” (when you get water in your wellies), but it’s OK – we have plenty of socks.
I think about losing a few pounds as I squirm belly-first out of the hollow. I just love chips, cheese, beer, and Club Orange (Ireland’s answer to Fanta) too much. And thank goodness there are plenty of all these good things in rural Ireland.
Our big two week fieldtrip to Ireland was hard work but rewarding, often peaceful but sometimes lonely. I couldn’t have put up with it without those packed lunches sat on a hummock with Christine and Dan, or those evenings in the empty pubs drying our socks by the fire, worrying about losing wellies in the bog and joking about our theses (and vice versa).
I can laugh about it all now. The breadknife which I didn’t want to lose in the bog pool was used to cut small samples of surface moss. Back in Reading I analysed the testate amoebae in those samples to create a transfer function to reconstruct past changes in bog surface wetness over the last 5,000 years or so. All’s well that ends well. I’ve finished my thesis, and now I look back fondly on those little moments of crisis out on the bog.
It is with surprising fondness that I look back on my week in Galway (unfortunately, other commitments meant that I had to leave Phil and Christine to it in the second week). I think they have probably deliberately failed to mention this, but with all good fieldtrips comes a good team name- in our case, Team Ireland.
And so it was that Team Ireland strode out across Annaghbeg Bog, full of expectation and excitement with what we would all achieve from the fieldwork ahead- a new, intact peatland just waiting to be cored, mapped and analysed. And so it was that three seconds later someone’s wellies were filled by the first of many “inundations”. Walking on a peat bog is no easy task, for two reasons: 1) orientation- thanks to the domed shape of the bog, it is incredibly hard to get a fixed point on the horizon- pacing out a grid of samples for Christine became quite comical (sorry about that Christine!), 2) distances seem to be multiplied by a factor of ten, thanks to the fact that the walking is up and down through wet pools and over shrubby hummocks, always mindful that inevitably, one of you will be up to your hips in water any minute now. For this reason, my main piece of advice to any working on a raised bog is: wear your waterproof trousers on the outside of your wellies, not inside- try it, it keeps your feet (relatively) dry!
But it’s all worth it- the closer you look at a raised bog, the more beautiful it becomes- as Christine said, the colours of the array of mosses, sedges and shrubs seem to spring to life right before your eyes . And now that the samples are back in the laboratory, analysed and radiocarbon dated, a few damp days on a bog are a small price to pay.
About today’s bloggers ….
Dan Young; part-time PhD student and Quest Projects Manager
Dan is five years in to a part-time PhD examining the relationships between climate change, peatland hydrology and past societies in Ireland. By analysis of plant macrofossils preserved within peatland sequences, he has developed radiocarbon dated hydrological records for the past ca. 5000 years which can be examined in the context of the Irish archaeological record, and the forcing factors behind climate change.
Christine Bunting; PhD student
Christine’s research focuses on the prospection for archaeological structures and palaeolandscapes in the wetlands of North West Europe using geophysical and geochemical techniques. By combining these techniques with geoarchaeological analysis of the sediment retrieved from boreholes, better management of this resource can be achieved.
Phil Stastney; former PhD student
Phil has just completed his PhD. His research focused on examining relationships between past environmental change and human activity in Irish wetlands by comparing testate amoebae-derived palaeoenvironmental records with 14C and dendro-dated archaeology.