Recording the damage to waterside trees by modern-day beavers as a comparison to archaeological examples
The beaver in Britain's past
Professor Bryony Coles
Professor Coles's research on the archaeology of the European Beaver (Castor fiber) was prompted by the discovery of wood, preserved in the waterlogged peats of the Somerset Levels and bearing distinctive sets of facets on the ends. When these facets were identified as beaver gnaw-marks rather than the marks left by stone or metal blades, we began to investigate the effects which beaver have on the landscape and on trees, in order to incorporate them into our models of the prehistoric Somerset Levels. With beaver extinct in Britain, the research was based on studies of beaver in the wild in Northern Europe and in North America.
There are now two inter-related beaver research projects. The first, "Beaver Works", is investigating present-day beaver territories in Brittany and the Drome region of France. In each territory, structures and features built or excavated by the beaver are being recorded, to assist in recognising similar evidence in the archaeological record. The main structures are dams and lodges built of wood, mud, stones and soft vegetation and the main excavated features are the burrows leading from lodge or dam to an underwater exit and canals leading from stream or river-edge towards feeding areas. Beaver impact on the local vegetation is also recorded, noting the species and size of tree, shrub and plant used for food and for building.
The second project, Beaver in Britain's Past, is concerned with the evidence for beaver from the late Palaeolithic onwards, from Scotland, Wales and England. Material, mostly bone but occasionally gnawed wood, has come from both natural and cultural contexts and for later periods there is a smattering of documentary evidence, place names and pictures and carvings. The main aim of this research is to explore the changing interactions between beaver and humans, including the effects of beaver on landscape and vegetation, and the varied ways in which humans incorporated beaver into their cultural repertoire.