Archaeology as Soft Power

Matt Ritchie, Forestry and Land Scotland Archaeologist, reports on sharing and shaping ethos and values using natural and cultural heritage.

Image © FLS by Alex Leonard 2019.

Into the Wildwoods and The First Foresters (Forestry and Land Scotland 2020 and 2019) combine an inspirational blend of archaeological discussion, creative indoor activities and practical outdoor learning. The beautifully illustrated booklets link today’s native woodlands, the ancient wildwood of the past and the lives of the Mesolithic wild harvesters and the Neolithic pioneers who followed.

Both booklets are the result of many different contributions and collaborations from a range of professions, including ecologists, archaeologists, educators, artists and photographers, working together to present a fresh take on the interpretation of our ancient past. The booklets are aimed at teachers, youth group leaders, archaeological educators and anyone interested in our native woodlands.

By adopting and adapting a purposeful approach – as reference material and learning resource – the booklets are more than just promotional or presentational material. They blend the social value and purpose of the former with the communication style and design ethos of the latter.

They align and celebrate an unabashed archaeological and ecological ethos alongside a more subtle organisational message of stewardship and responsibility. They demonstrate the potential of cultural and natural heritage as soft power – shaping the values of others through appeal and attraction.

Imagine the world of the wild harvesters, living within the wildwoods of Scotland over six thousand years ago.”

Into the Wildwoods explores the idea of deep time within our native woodlands, and blends an archaeological and ecological ethos with collaborative classroom and outdoor learning. Using habitat networks, natural resources and seasonal change, life in the Mesolithic is described as part of Learning for Sustainability.

Thinking about how our Mesolithic ancestors understood the complex habitats and ecosystems within which they hunted and gathered – adapting to and sustaining life within very human habitats – can help us understand our own place within the natural world.

The booklet is rooted in our land management planning process and celebrates the various professions that contributed. Quotes and short features have been spread throughout the text from archaeologists, landscape architects, foresters and ecologists, to help make some of the key ideas more accessible, and to link to the various careers represented, recognising the aims of the Developing the Young Workforce initiative.

Imagine the world of the Neolithic pioneers, living and working within Scotland’s ancient wildwood

Image © FLS by Alan Braby 2018.

The First Foresters steps beyond the familiar stone circles of Scotland’s prehistory to explore the archaeology of our lost timber halls and timber circles. Using quotes spread throughout the text – different voices to emphasise key ideas – we draw on the work of leading archaeologists to describe a very different Neolithic – one not of stone but of wood.

The booklet uses the most iconic piece of Neolithic equipment – the polished stone axe – to explore timber and tree mensuration techniques and ascribe a forestry ethos to the Neolithic first farmers. The ancient woodland environment is described as a wildwood (to be tamed or feared), a timber resource (to be used or controlled), a place of ancient mystery (to be worshipped and respected) and a familiar natural world (in which to live, hunt and gather).

The First Foresters provides the background information – and a cast of cool characters – to help explore our Neolithic past, and to ask today’s children how they see their own forests and woods? Perhaps a little bit of everything?

“This joined-up thinking can help explain complex ideas, promote our shared ethos, deliver our wider message of stewardship and shape the opinions of others.”

The historic environment is usually concerned with place: recording, protecting, conserving, restoring and interpreting archaeological sites, built heritage and historic buildings. Our presentational tools then usually focus on the place or the project, explaining the significance or describing the process from the context of the present.

Image © FLS by Alex Leonard.

But what if the place is no longer there? The deep time aspects of both the Mesolithic and Neolithic in Scotland invite a more imaginative ecological or environmental approach. This joined-up thinking can help explain complex ideas, promote our shared ethos, deliver our wider message of stewardship and shape the opinions of others.

Into the Wildwoods and The First Foresters celebrate the importance of outdoor and archaeological learning, and reward interested practitioners with accessible background information, unconventional ideas and exceptional artwork and design.

But the booklets have a more subtle purpose. They confirm and propagate Forestry and Land Scotland’s ethos as stewards of our national forests and land, encourage pride in the organisation from our own staff, and hopefully act to impress our stakeholders. By including other members of staff in production – contributing ideas, text, illustrations and photography – ownership is shared and passed on.

This old oak is just the sort of tree that our Neolithic ancestors would have made very interesting use of when they entered the wildwood covering Britain over 6000 years ago. We know that these first foresters made cleanings in the wood for fields and pasture – and that they used the timber to erect huge timber circles, enclosures and avenues of timber posts. But these wooden monuments have all long since rotted away. So how can we imagine life in the Neolithic today?

When you visit your local woods, think about how it feels to walk amongst the trees, looking up into the canopy and out into the wood itself. Look for trees that you could fell, if only you had a good polished stone axe. How many would you need to make a timber circle? What would it feel like to cut down a mighty oak?