‘Rewilding’ later prehistory: Archaeological wildlife and its role in contemporary nature recovery

Joint annual lecture with Cambridge Antiquarian Society (in person event)
Dr Anwen Cooper (Oxford Archaeology)
A laid hedge, and core samples


Climate change, biodiversity loss and the Anthropocene more broadly are of burgeoning interest to researchers across the social sciences, including in archaeology. David Attenborough’s recent ‘Wild Isles’ series both awakened us to the magical wildlife of the British Isles and warned us of its extreme fragility. Alarming statistics about climate change and diminishing species – from honeybees, to capercaillie, to elm trees – abound in wider media coverage, alongside more hopeful stories of human efforts to address these pressing global concerns. In this context, archaeologists are rightly revisiting their working relationships with ecologists and climate scientists in seeking to understand archaeology’s contemporary relevance.

This talk will present initial findings from the UKRI-funded ‘Rewilding’ later prehistory project  a collaboration between Oxford Archaeology, the Universities of Oxford, Exeter and York, Centre for Ancient Genomics, Toulouse, Historic England and Knepp Castle Estate. Through an holistic study of human-landscape relationships during the Bronze and Iron Ages in Britain that puts wildlife centre-stage, we hope to foreground the ‘wonder and enchantment’ (Monbiot 2013) of past wildlife and to create pathways for reconnecting with contemporary nature recovery practices. Together with its pragmatic role in supporting, nuancing, and contesting environmental claims and practices – for instance in verifying historical authenticity of taxa reintroduced into ‘rewilded’ landscapes – I will suggest that archaeology’s fundamental interest in time and ‘the past’, and in human relationships with landscape, offers us an opportunity to reflect on wider, equally important, philosophical concerns – how we define and measure ‘wildlife’, how ‘the past’ is wielded in restoration, recovery and conservation practices, and how stories of long term landscape change and of past human-wildlife entanglements can inspire current attempts to reconnect people with nature.