A wetland area in Białowieża forest from a trip in 2019.

The Lost Soundscape of Iron-Age Somerset

Journey back 2,200 years. You are standing on a timber promontory extending out of an Iron Age lake village, deep in the Somerset Levels. Spring has re-enlivened this vast unbroken wetland; a mosaic of reed beds, wet woodland, open water and sedge fen. Each habitat emanates a distinct natural soundtrack, unified to form a complex symphony. A blanket of warbler song rises up from the reed bed expanse, the sharp, staccato chatters are sonic depictions of the pointed rushes that rustle back and forth. The clamorous ambience is punctuated by the deep bass of bitterns booming and the bugles of cranes that resound across the wetlands like Celtic war trumpets. Ahead lies a thatched islet swaddled by nesting pelicans’, they bicker with guttural exchanges, only to be silenced by the shadow of a solitary sea eagle perusing the landscape.  

I realise I’m not alone in cogitating about our lost ecosystems, it has been the subject of many discussions with friends…“what did the fens sound like before they were drained?”, Imagine awakening to the dawn chorus in the Mesolithic forest” or “I wonder what this car park looked and sounded like 2,000, 200, even twenty years ago!”  After a while, I grew restless of imagination, I wanted to hear these acoustic environments for real. There is evidence to work with, and exceptional modern sound recordings available, so why not channel the hours of pondering into something tangible, into a format that could be experienced by others? 

I combined some self-taught techniques in music production with my ornithological expertise, in an attempt to construct past natural soundscapes that were immersive and believable. I hoped they may help re-calibrate an ever-shifting baseline in the lived memory of our ecological past. 

In 2019, with the conservation spotlight on the decline of farmland birds, I and Jack Baddams; the co-founder of our YouTube channel Bird Kind, agreed that recreating a meadow chorus set in the early 1900s would be a worthwhile creative venture, and may even help to emphasise the dramatic loss in density and diversity of farmland birds that has occurred over the last century. Historic accounts of the birds of Britain served as a guide for selecting the audio recordings, which I assembled into a audiosphere, narrated by Jack. The listeners’ response was profound; it seemed to move people in a way that words alone could not. The positive feedback fuelled the drive to create a second instalment; a re-imagining of our lost wild wetlands.

Joseph at work

I started by investigating the faunal assemblage of the Somerset Levels during the late Iron Age, focussing on two key sites: Glastonbury and Meare lake villages. Amongst the human artefacts lay animal bones; the vestiges of prehistoric suppers that have endured two millennia submerged in the peat. Drawing from these records allowed me to compose a soundscape partially based on real evidence.

Although remains of numerous medium-to-large sized animals were unearthed in the excavations, a convincing natural soundscape requires all layers of the biological orchestra; from herons to hirundines. Songbirds were largely absent from the sites; their skeletons are fine and fragile and seldom last long in the peat. Fortunately for us, the bones of their archetypal predators: Marsh harrier, Montagu’s harrier and sparrowhawk were discovered, thus eluding to the occurrence of small passerines; a melodious and substantial component to the environment. I represented these anonymous songsters with those that frequent modern-day wetlands, foremost in Britain, but also in mainland Europe, being careful not to include our most recent arrivals, such as the cetti’s warbler; as their range expansion is driven, in part, by climate change. 

The final production comprised 44 species spread over 73 recordings – blended into a 6-minute audio track. Roughly two-thirds were species validated by Iron Age remains, including several iconic birds: dalmatian pelican, common crane, western osprey and white-tailed eagle. It was thrilling to interlace these four evocative creatures into one acoustic domain, each call a unique depiction of wilderness.

The former breadth of the Levels constituted an interlinked medley of habitats, which likely supported a greater diversity of species in far larger numbers. I considered it equally important to emphasise this in the audio. Inspired by my own experience of the multifarious sounds of Indonesia rainforests, and the primeval woodlands of Poland, I carefully and repeatedly layered multiple recordings, at different volumes and positions, until I judged that a sense of the density and complexity of life was suitably conveyed.

Somerset floods. Credit: Getty

Credit: Getty

South West Heritage Trust kindly granted me permission to use their digital model of Glastonbury Lake village as a backdrop. In addition to providing a visual accompaniment to the soundtrack, it allowed me to synchronise the audio tracks to a moving template. The inclusion of settlements in the CGI recreation provided an opportunity to subtlety weave human sounds into the background ambience; denoting their presence in the wetlands, whilst implying minimal dominion over it. It was my acoustic representation of man’s influence over the land.  

Other mammals were also living on the Somerset Levels 2,200 years ago. The remains of otter, red deer, wild boar and beaver have all been recorded. In my mind, each dwelled somewhere in the reconstruction, but only the beaver was revealed to the listener – with a momentary tail slapping the water’s surface. Although subtle, I felt duty bound to feature beavers in the production, they were fundamental in shaping the wetlands of the past; restoring one habitat by bursting the banks of another. Moreover, they have an important future ahead; entrusted to rejuvenate our modern waterways and restore some wilderness to Britain once again. 

Joshua Harris

I regard the re-wilding movement as a partial antidote to our environmental despair, and where wetland ecosystems are concerned, it is the beaver that can build back better! Not only efficient architects of riverine ecosystems; they are inadvertent architects of sound. With every flooded field, coppiced wood and reed bed that owes to the work of a beaver’s tooth, there is a synonymous chorus, heralding to us through bountiful noise that diversity is restored.*

Listen to Joseph’s incredible Iron-Age Somerset Soundscape here. 

Contact us for support at info@beavertrust.org and visit www.beavertrust.org for more information and to arrange a trip to the Cornwall Beaver Project.

(*This blog is written by an independent writer. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)

Joseph Monkhouse Beaver Believer

Joseph Monkhouse is a freelance ecologist with a passion for bird song. He spent his early 20s researching in the rainforests of Sulawesi, which lead to an MSc in Bird Conservation. Joe also operates the YouTube channel, Bird Kind; showcasing the wonders of bird song and recreating natural soundscapes of the past.

#beavers #beaverbelievers #beavolution

© Joseph Monkhouse 2020.