At the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, within a conservation setting, visitors can find an attempt to portray dimensions of the archaeology of the Severn Levels.

I’m referring to the ‘Back from the Brink’ lake. Framing access to this part of the natural reserve is an evocation of prehistory in the form of a roundhouse serving as a porch for the entrance gate. In this porch/roundhouse there are a pair of canvas displays. One is a timeline asking ‘When was the stone age? [sic]’, the other an invitation to travel back 7,000 years and explore a prehistoric camp, together with a depiction of a Mesolithic scene of the Severn floodplains showing fishing, cooking and leather working. I don’t think it is clear to visitors that the architecture is supposed to allude to a prehistoric dwelling and not specifically one from the Mesolithic.

Entering the enclsoure, there is a pontoon viewing platform also evoking the architecture of a prehistoric roundhouse and lake/lakeside dwelling. Here you can learn about beaver and crane conservation and look out at ducks, geese and cranes over a lake. There is a display board – ‘a muddy past’ – explaining traces of the Mesolithic footprints indicating the human presence in the Severn floodplains alongside cranes which are present in the enclosure. The context of discussing archaeology is therefore the reintroduction of species lost from Britain, including both beaver and crane.

I’d last visited Slimbridge as a child, so I was pleased and proud to be able to visit for the first time as an adult, having zoomed by it many times on the M5 and failing to find time to stop off. My son enjoyed it tremendously, including close-up encounters with salamanders, toads, otters and harvest mice, as well as flamingoes, ducks, geese and waders.

What I hadn’t anticipated was an archaeological dimension to the WWT visitor experience. This was one of several such dimensions and I shall return to others in future posts.

Nature conservation and archaeology have much in common, but they frequently ignore each other. In this environment, I’m not sure that visitors will ‘get’ the prehistoric allusions, and I didn’t notice any further indication of the camp from 7,000 years ago I was being invited to visit. Did I miss something? Was this a temporary display of Mesolithic implements and activities not present on the day I visited?

Looking to the bigger picture, I note that the WWT website produces no results to a search for ‘archaeology’. I guess some allusions to prehistory at Slimbridge shows how relevant archaeology can be outside of heritage sites and museums. However, it equally show how more work is required to build and sustain connections between the two for modern visitors to appreciate and understand. I’m not sure one can really learn about prehistoric wetland landscapes at Slimbridge from what I saw there.

On a more positive note, I think it also reveals how footprints – in this case showing the juxtaposition of cranes and people in the same landscape around 7,000 years ago – are one of the most powerful traces of the past. Using such traces, in this instance moulds of real ancient prints of birds and animals in close proximity, we can strike a direct and tangible link between past and present. This I feel is a useful and adaptible strategy of introducing themes connecting together archaeology and nature conservation, through which visitors can experience and understand past landscapes.

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