Earlier this summer, I visited the trails at Sapsucker Woods, a place of ponds filled with lilies and singing bull frogs, and boardwalks over fern-filled swamps where the mirror-smooth water resulted in a vision of a sepia-toned underworld just beneath your feet. The watery landscape was entrancing in a way that is very different from walking the hills or the lakeshore, and I found myself thinking about the singular ways that wetlands resonate in human consciousness. There is a special in-between quality to wetlands, a porous boundary with no clear shore that lingers in the imagination. Marshes and swamps and fens, like mountainsides and moors, are wildernesses that belong to monsters and outcasts, or to the dead. In Beowulf, Grendel and his mother haunt the “awful fenpaths, where the upland torrents plunge downward under the dark crags, the flood underground.” From Old English to a modern day example, there’s Tolkien, an eternal Beowulf fanboy, and his Dead Marshes with their drowned warriors.
Often these depictions are meant as a warning – to fear the creature in the black lagoon. Avoid the Great Grimpen Mire, and don’t follow the will-o’-the’whisp, the light that pixies and púcas use to lead travelers off the path to drown. Just from Saturday morning cartoons alone, we probably all thought quicksand was going to be a bigger deal in life than it ended up being. No matter what the setting, human beings tend to create stories about their physical landscapes. The special place of dread and possibility that wetlands hold in the imagination, though, doesn’t disappear with scrutiny. The archaeological stories held within wetlands are as intriguing as any myth. Maybe more so, because they are often sparse on all but the most gruesome of details.
Bogs, also referred to as peatlands, are wetlands whose soils are the partially decomposed remains of plants and which develop when there is a build-up of organic matter over time coupled with slow moving or stagnant water. As organic debris decomposes, the water becomes oxygen poor, which prevents further decomposition of organic material, which means that what goes into a bog can be preserved for centuries, even millennia. The world’s oldest wooden sculpture, the Shigir Idol, is a 5.3 m tall monument carved with faces and geometric patterns, pulled from a bog in Siberia in the 1890s – and it was recently re-dated, pushing its age from 9500 years to 11,000, older than Stonehenge and the pyramids. In Ireland, hundreds of casks of butter have been found, some as old as 3,000 years.
Peatlands in Europe are particularly renowned for less homely finds, however: the “bog bodies” which have been preserved within them. Stories of peat diggers stumbling upon bodies so well preserved that the police were called to investigate murder are renowned. Several thousand have been discovered in northern and western Europe, dating from the Iron Age up to modern day. Of the prehistoric remains, many show similar injuries of hanging, strangulation, or stabbing, followed by deliberate burial in the bog. The catch-all explanation of “ritual purposes” is often brought out to explain these as human sacrifices, though Roman accounts of people to the north suggest that punishments for criminal actions included strangling and drowning in bogs. Human interaction with wetlands and bogs may have been a fundamentally economical choice for early peoples, living on their borders to access abundant food sources like fish and waterfowl, but how people relate to these landscapes is also tied to the sacred and spiritual. From pre-history on, evidence dredged up from the mires shows people looking to wetlands for both resources and worship – and also as places of refuge.
The danger and difficulty of traversing swamps and fens has made them places of safety for those in desperate need, nowhere more so than the great swamps of the southern US like the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. Evidence of bolas and arrows show 5000 years of inhabitance by Native Americans, but when Europeans arrived, they saw the tangled million acre expanse as something to be tamed. They largely failed, though canals were established for harvesting and transporting timber. From the late 1600s through the Civil War, however, communities of “maroons” – Africans who had escaped from slavery – grew within the marsh. The history of these places is largely unknown, due to their secretive nature. Excavation of the refuges found on mesic islands – high ground within the swamp – only started around 2002, and the difficulty in reaching these sites makes progress hard. Work is ongoing to determine the number of people who lived in or passed through the maroon outposts and how independent or isolated the communities were: what their relationship to the logging camps on the edges of the swamp was, and how they resisted local militias who came with hounds to return refugees to slavery.
From a scientific viewpoint, wetlands serve as subterranean and subaerial libraries, archives of history, climate, botany and paleontology. In New York State, bogs and ponds have yielded not human remains but those of mastodons, relatives of the woolly mammoth that lived from the Miocene to the end of the Pleistocene. In 1999, a mastodon skeleton was found in a bog south of Watkins Glen when the landowners attempted to dig a pond. This skeleton, known as the Gilbert Mastodon, was excavated by Cornell University and is one of the most complete sets of fossil remains of mastodons to have been found in New York State. Beyond human and animal remains, the deposition record of soil, pollen, and plant matter in bogs provides information on the vegetation and climate of the area. Their importance is modern as well; wetlands are as important today as to our ancestors, and their ecological role continues to reflect their position as the borders between habitable country and the wild. They are vital protections for biodiversity and water quality, as they intercept runoff and filter contaminants and soil loads before they reach open water. As buffer zones, they add protections against shoreline erosion, storm damage, and from both flooding and drought by storing and releasing excess water.
In the past, wetlands have been seen as disease-ridden wastes, to be drained and put to more productive use, and the stories we told about them were filled with warnings and monsters. There may be dangers in these places, but the creatures lurking beneath the surface of the black lagoon are little more than bone and skin and stories. The greater danger now is that we’re losing them to development and agriculture; over half of the wetlands in the lower 48 have been destroyed. Between the weight of the history and myth tangled up in their waters and their significance ecologically, it’s no wonder they catch our imagination; hopefully the significance to our past can help fuel conservation for the future.