The submerged forest at Borth, Wales, is one of those rare geological features that allows us to connect with the geological past because of its spectacular nature and immediacy. My own interest in the forest dates back to the 1960s when the remains of an auroch (an extinct bovine) were found there. The discovery — by the local butcher of all people — resulted in a number of members of the university congregating on the beach to recover the skeleton from the foreshore. Since then periodic visits to view the 4500-year-old preserved forest have resulted in a series of observations made over the years.
The forest itself has been known since the early 20th century (and probably before; Ashton 1920) and among the earliest workers at the site was Harry Godwin from Cambridge who produced the first pollen diagram from samples taken through the peats (Godwin & Newton 1938). Since then researchers have examined the forest applying dendrochronology to the trees (Heyworth 1985), while others have examined foraminifera and ostracods (Adams & Haynes 1965, Haynes et al. 1977), and the sediments themselves (Shi & Lamb 1991). The most recent research has been undertaken by archaeologists from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David who began work in 2011.
The construction of a new coastal defence system accidentally resulted in the stripping of sand covering the peat close to the cliffs at the south end of the beach. I was on one of my periodic visits to the forest and noticed oddly shaped fragments of beach pebbles in the peat. A phone call to my son (a geoarchaeologist) in Lampeter resulted in the discovery that these stones were, in fact, remnants of burnt beach pebbles discarded in the forest after some unknown use. Following a visit by the Lampeter team, further discoveries included preserved animal and human footprints in the proximity of the site. Since then, the storms of early 2014 enabled large transects of the forest to be examined and records made of the features preserved beneath the beach. Consequently, we now realize that, rather than a continuous expanse of forest, the environment at the time was one of wet woodlands dissected by a major channel filled with very different sediments to those traditionally associated with the forest. This channel now appears to be the probable source of the auroch remains and may well have been a focus of human activity within the landscape.
We anticipate more discoveries. At the time of writing, further investigations are on-going, in association with additional sea-defence works. However, the work at the site is not just about scientific discovery. It’s also about the human dimension of the forest and what it means in terms of climate change and the area around Borth, both in the past and today. The construction of the new coastal defences is a present-day response to exactly the same pressures felt by past populations when the forest was being inundated by marine waters perhaps 4500 years ago. Borth has been here before.
The loss of the forest also has a resonance with the local legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the lost kingdom of Cardigan Bay. Here, as in so many of our coastal landscapes, stories abound of lost kingdoms beneath the sea so it seems fitting to leave Borth with the lines of the poem Clychau Cantre'r Gwaelod by J J Williams (1869–1954), translated by Dyfed Lloyd Evans:
Beneath the wave-swept ocean / Are many pretty towns
That hearkened to the bell-rings / Set pealing through the night
Through negligent abandon / By a watcher on the wall
The bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod / Submerged beneath the wave
Adams, T D and J Haynes (1965). Foraminifera in Holocene marsh cycles at Borth (Wales). Palaeontology 8, 27-38.
Ashton, W (1920). The evolution of a coast-line. Edward Stanford Ltd, London.
Godwin, H and L Newton (1938). The submerged forest at Borth and Ynyslas, Cardiganshire. New Phytologist 37, 333-344, DOI 10.1111/j.1469-8137.1938.tb06946.x.
Haynes, J R, R Kiteley, R Whatley, and P Wilks (1977). Microfaunas, microfloras and the environmental stratigraphy of the Late Glacial and Holocene in Cardigan Bay. Geological Journal 12, 129-159, DOI 10.1002/gj.3350120203.
Heyworth, A (1985). Submerged forests: a dendrochronological and palynological investigation. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wales.
Shi, Z and H Lamb (1991). Post-glacial sedimentary evolution of a microtidal estuary, Dyfi Estuary, west Wales, UK. Sedimentary Geology 73, 227-246, DOI 10.1016/0037-0738(91)90086-S.