Modern wind turbines provoke strong opinions, whether offshore or upon land. Lagging behind some countries, but way ahead of others, in 2016 around 11.5% of the UK’s energy needs are served by them: this is now more than coal-fired power stations contribute.
Wind turbines affect sensitive heritage assets both on land and at sea, from historic wrecks to Bronze Age burial mounds. Hence, archaeologists today find themselves involved in wind power projects in a variety of ways (and I’m not just talking about the hot air spouted in academic conferences!). Commercial archaeologists frequently operate in relation to wind turbines within the planning process; advising and investigating sites and landscapes regarding the impact of proposed and planned wind farms. This relates not only the sites of the turbines but also the access roads to them. They might also operate as consultants to those opposing wind farms.
Depending on their perspective and experience, we all respond to them differently. Likewise archaeologists have expressed to me contrasting professional and personal views about the modern use of wind turbines on land and sea. Some see them as threats to heritage assets and eyesores – they affect very small areas of land in terms of their footprint, but they have expansive visual envelopes dominating large swathes of upland landscape and those lowlands they overlook. Those at sea likewise affect coastal and maritime vistas. From this view, wind turbine farms are impeding and destroying the natural and historic features as well as landscape and seascape vistas with their presence.
Others regard them as necessary evils, damaging the historic environment as part of our aspirations to move towards renewable resources and a sustainable future involving restriction our reliance on fossil fuel in the face of climate change. In other words, their damage is justified in many regards.
Further perspectives see them as important developments facilitating understanding of our upland prehistoric and historical landscapes by the opportunities they create for archaeological investigation and conservation. They also bring new uses and livelihoods to upland areas.
I want to add to these discussions by pointing out the ways in which wind power in the past is highlighted and informed by the locations and character of modern wind farms, and how wind turbines in the present, and those planned for the future, need to be contextualised in relation to longer trajectories of harnessing the power of the air. Examples where windmills and prehistoric monuments have long co-existing bring the links between past societies and the present to the fore.
Windmill Heritage Past
Present-day wind turbines are part of long traditions of utilising wind power since prehistory. Most clearly appreciated through surviving traces of windmills of the late medieval and modern eras. Over the last decade, I’ve occasionally passed by historic windmills, with or without their sails intact, some adapted as private houses, others preserved as heritage features. They are a key part of our historic landscape deserving of investigation in their own right, and in relation to contemporary strategies to harness wind power.
Indeed, I recall being inspired by a childhood visit to the National Trust-managed Bembridge Windmill on the Isle of Wight, built around 1700 and used into the early 20th century.
Just before Christmas, I briefly stopped at Buttrum’s Mill, Woodbridge while en route back from visiting Sutton Hoo. This is the tallest preserved windmill in Suffolk. It dates back to 1836. In its present form, it was restored by Suffolk County Council in the 1950s and early 1980s, and within it retains the machinery incorporating 4 pairs of millstones.
I recently was on holiday in Anglesey where I drove past the (closed) Melin Llynnon, near Llangdeusant. Built in 1775, it is the last working mill in North Wales and a rare survival of the importance of wind power for the economy and society of Wales. I wish to go back to this example, since as a heritage site, it conflates reconstructed Iron Age roundhouses and the windmill; contrasting periods of Anglesey’s past.
Wind mills also constitute key dimensions of archaeological thinking, in terms of not only past landscape utilisation and organisation, but also perception and inhabitation. Every time I discuss Bruegel’s The Harvesters in discussions of the temporality of landscape, inspired by Tim Ingold’s famous paper, I talk about wind and water mills, as well as the role of churches and trees, as ‘timemarks’ in historic landscapes (although no water mill is apparent in the picture, it is important to think about wind power as part of a nexus of social and power relations in past societies, as well as key dimensions of past landscapes).
I usually get around to discussing The Cheese and the Worms as well, Carlo Ginzburg’s book about the 16th-century miller Menocchio, using this to discuss how seasonal and economic cycles inspire the creation and practical workings of cosmology in rural communities. Mills were important elements of agricultural routines and practices, and millers and their buildings had a distinctive place in agrarian communities.
Heritage Present and Future
Wind power is therefore part of our heritage past, yet it needs to be more carefully considered as part of our present and future heritage. In this sense, I mean we need to consider windfarms as elements of how landscapes and seascapes are appreciated and managed today and in the future.
This applies both to instances where wind farms intervene on pre-existing archaeological sites and landscapes, and those where they have no perceived ‘impact’ and yet their construction reveals ancient sites. It also relates to our understanding of the tempos and monumentality in upland landscapes and seascapes present and future, even when no ancient archaeological traces are known or found.
I’ve been thinking about the archaeological dimensions of present-day wind turbines quite a lot recently because, a few weeks back, I spent a week in their close proximity on central Angelsey, where I got to see some of the largest inland wind farms in Wales very close up. Moreover, I got to see them in Storm Doris, how they stopped that morning and restarted as the winds subsided.
I also got to see my kids’ intrigued by them. As well as striking landmarks, that I watched with interest, I also used them to navigate down unfamiliar country lanes whilst walking and driving. Also, wind turbines brought to the fore the varied weather-related tempos affecting the landscape: monumental weather vanes. They also bring animation to an otherwise ‘still’ topography; revealing the wind and its affect on people, animals, plants and place. Those at sea reveal sandbanks and remind us of the larger areas of shallows that ships must navigate, otherwise invisible from land.
Wind turbines can also be considered parts of emotive and imaginative landscapes. I recognise that many detest their appearance and presence. Still, I noticed how they fascinated my kids, and some were afforded personalities. One individual wind turbine was dubbed the ‘lonely windmill’ by my kids, who were concerned as to whether it had friends, being sorry that it was so isolated from the others. They also implied things about their movement. Those that stopped while others were still going in a wind farm prompted speculation and some consternation; were they ill? I assured them they were simply having a breather… One of my kids speculated as to how they travel to get there: imagining the windmills marching over the Menai Strait to get to their current location…
Okay, I’m not saying my crazy kids are the best test of how wind turbines are perceived. However, I was taken by how these industrial installations held an affinity to them unlike any other feature in the landscape other than big chimnies (Ellesmere Port and Chirk are popular). I cannot imagine nuclear power stations or modern industrial estates holding a similar appeal.
Hence, my attitudes to modern wind turbines are informed by historical perspective regarding the key importance of wind to Britain’s rural and industrial heritage. I’m also aware of both the threats and opportunities to heritage that their construction brings. Equally though, my attitude is to regard them as enhancing and augmenting the historical and natural landscape rather than despoiling it, bringing to the fore the long-term and ongoing interactions of people and place. Moreover, modern wind farms animate and add striking landscapes to upland landscapes and seascapes.
Ultimately, while I appreciate my view is overtly sentimental and romantic, I tend to see wind turbines as simultaneously part of a modern industry, part as fascinating animated landmarks and monuments, and partly as elements of a noble endeavour (not matter how partial and futile in the long run) to rid us of reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable, dangerous energy sources. Environmental issues aside, to me, nuclear and coal-fired power stations are far greater blots on the landscape and have been for far longer. Considered aesthetically, environmentally, and through the latent destructive potential of nuclear power in particular, wind power offers an unquestionably preferable option.
Whatever your own views on wind turbines might be, I think as a profession, archaeologists need to better appreciate and contribute to debates regarding windpower as key elements of our heritage past, but also our heritage present and into the future. We can harness wind power, as well as wind, to foster public imaginations and engagement with landscapes past, present and future.