a space for inner and outer landscapes to evolve

Marks and Traces was an online workshop exploring archaeology through poetry and illustration, led by two archaeologists whose creative work takes the form of poetry and illustration.

“Led by Mel Giles and Rose Ferraby, you will explore how to get under the surface of landscape; how we might extend our imaginations into the unseen. Moving between words and images, the workshop is about experimenting with creative form as a process of connecting with the past and thinking through archaeological material.” Extract from Worskhop description.

I was drawn to the workshop theme through a shared preoccupation with representing soil, geology, and archaeology under our feet. How can we imagine these things, without digging it up? Kate Flood and colleagues invite us to think about a process of Remembering, Reimagining, and Restoring.

With this workshop, we conceputalised “fragments and layers through which we can imagine past lives, and weave new stories. I was happy to go through the exercises with the insights and readings offered by Rose and Mel, working first in text and then collage. This post shows two of my responses, connecting these to a process of re-imagining set out in the RE-PEAT manifesto.

In this exciting session, we were asked for story of place and people that came to mind. Last winter, friends encouraged me to look carefully at how a particular Bog Body’s hair had been coiled.

Taking a moment on an isolated lockdown day to pick up on a Whatsapp thread. I have unruly long thick straight hair, and this invited a playful friend to invite a Swabian Knot experiment. “Here’s how” she said “just follow this link”. Some minutes later, I had a pile of irritated hairs tilting my head to one side (so as to not let it flop). This, I think, was not Osterby Man’s look. But anyway, I decided, fresh-washed hair was not ideal. Best if it was well-oiled. I wondered who taught him to knot his hair thus? How much easier it would be to have someone show me the pattern for real, not just a youtube video. Here, was his hair, still – and mine, still alive, flopping. Brown, grey, and not dyed orange by the bog. But maybe, when I finally get my post-lockdown haircut, maybe then I throw my plait into a bog.

Reading this, my husband became sure that the coil had been a love knot, tied by someone dear to the warrior.

As a second quick exercise, we were asked to reflect on what things do we find important to put with people who have died? Imagine a funerary urn, or think of a landscape from memory, and what we keep in our pockets.

This image arose from pockets of my mind, and a heap of printed paper saved for collage. The brown base is a made in Southern Scotland, when I was reflecting on the degraded blanket peatbogs that sadly are still a typical landscape. Revisiting this image made me yearn to walk over summer moorland, with fleeting glimpses of dragonflies. So then a sail appeared above the horizon, the iron-oxide brown traditional pattern of fishing boats in Essex where I lived as a child. The drift of sails above the horizon was a movement I had learned to look for as I walked in a landscape bounded by sea walls. A sea wall, or dike, appeared on the bottom right of my image. And for the bottom left, I tore out an urn-shape from a map of how a climate-wise Netherlands might look in 2120, envisaged by Wageningen University scientists. I am staying in this country now, and learning how it was washed over by shifting glacial sediments and then shaped as a cultural landscape over millennia by human labour. With this thought, images of turfstekers (peat-digging tools) appeared as a decoration on the rim of the urn.

As the workshop progresssed, drawing, writing and archaeology came together in many different ways – and a reference to architecture also.

I had got to a point of remembering, within a process of imagining past lives. Here is a place for new landscapes to evolve, with the inspiration of the youth-led peatland advocacy collective, Re-Peat:

“We believe in a process of re-imagining, /  Concocting a new peatland paradigm / Where both the inner and outer landscapes can evolve. / In the moment of suspending belief, In believing. / In the possibility of power melting underfoot.” Extract from RE-PEAT manifesto

Dear Agricultural Policy Maker

Peatlands matter to people in so many different ways. RE-PEAT’s Global Peat Fest last May showed this really clearly.

Since peatlands are very much in the news just now, I can imagine you have lots of technical reports to read. So here are some images to help keep peatlands in mind.

Please put peatlands in the picture!

This picture is of Silver Flowe in Galloway. It is one the best preserved peatbogs in South West Scotland. Like all healthy ‘squelchy’ wet peatlands, you can feel it move when you jump. I hope people in the future get to sense what it is like to walk on 95% water.

But you’ll know that most peat bogs in the UK don’t look healthy. It’s really urgent that they are restored and protected.

‘Something as small as a wish can take root and breathe the peatbog alive’ (Jos Smith).

This was my banner for a peatbog workshop when families joined in with peatland restoration. The event was the first ever Sphagnum Splat; we helped bog moss grow again in areas of bare peat. This raised bog is near Silver Flowe and it has recently been re-wetted. Conifers that had been wrongly planted on peat soils had to be felled. Peatland restoration is part of a nature-based solution. And it is creating jobs.

Bog mosses absorb rainwater and create peat over millennia.

Here’s an impression of different Bog Mosses under a microscope. These Sphagnum species absorb rain and can be more than 90% water.

I feel lucky to come from the UK which still has beautiful moorlands. In other countries, like the Netherlands, peat bogs have almost completely disappeared. All told, an unimaginable amount of peat has disappeared into the atmosphere and water-ways over the centuries. When peatlands are demolished, histories and sustainable futures disappear. So I really want you to protect those that remain.

Almost all brands of compost contain peat. It’s shameful that peatlands in UK and elsewhere are still being dug up and used in compost for gardens and horticulture. Surely gardeners would be upset if they knew about the damage this causes!

Peat in garden compost causes damage to wetlands.

It’s ironic that sometimes peat compost is even used for plants that like arid conditions. Like a Cactus that I looked after in my old office.

An image of a cactus in a jar with some earth, maybe peat, and gravel.
A Cactus trying to grow on peat moss.

Sadly, it didn’t really thrive. It would be better off in a desert – not on a wetland soil! So I made this image to help remember about not growing the wrong plants on peat.

Reminder, things like a Cactus really shouldn’t be grown in peat.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Cacti – but they don’t need peatbogs.

My next drawing is a Water Table. The legs are different lengths because people don’t agree about the ideal height. Wetland species are finding it hard to hang on.

A Water Table. We need to level up.

Right now, things seem to keep slipping off the Water Table.

But it’s urgent, for the climate and other reasons, to stop peatlands drying out.

Please get round the table and work out a new agricultural policy!

Please stop wetland drainage altogether.

Please support new methods of nurturing peatlands.

Thank you.


As artists we  were proud to present together at Peat Fest. This was an informative, energetic, and diverse 24-hour global online event organised by RE-PEATKate Foster and Pantea Shabahang.

RE-ENCOUNTERING: the presentation as a video


The discussion revolved around how connections to peatlands can be social and cultural, as well as scientific.

• One talking point was a peat core that had been extracted at a workshop in Kirkconnell Flow in SW Scotland (2016). During the workshop, people experienced the softness of a peatbog.  Direct experience and sensing the landscape in different ways can develop emotional connections, and allow different kinds of learning and imagination.

• Exhibiting the peat core elsewhere gave people the sense that the compressed time of a peatbog became tangible, as texture and depth.

• The experience of going to a peatbog can include discomfort, and possibly apprehension, as well as excitement. Close acquaintance of peatlands can make them move between being mysterious and mundane, otherworldly and ordinary. But close-looking, perhaps finding small hidden plants, suggests intriguing ways to relate to peatland lives.

• Archaeological and historical study of how people interact with peatlands indicates connections were both ritual and functional; they did not necessarily play a negative role in people’s imagination – although this is how they have often latterly been perceived.

• We cannot leave our 21st century preconceptions behind, but archaeoloigcal reconstruction is also a way to imagine things differently.

• How might current human impacts be read in the peat, in thousands of years? This is the heart of our concerns.

In these thick peat deposits, paleoecologists can read the history of the land. They slide a long shining cylinder into the bog, cutting through layers of undecomposed plants, and extract a core of peat. By the plants that are present, the pollen grains trapped there, and the chemistry of the organic matter they can discern the changes in the lands. Changes in vegetation, changes in the climate, stretching thousands of years before , are all recorded there. What will they read in the layer that represents our time, our evanescent moment at the surface? We are responsible for that.

Quote: Robin Wall Kimmerer (2003:118) Gathering Moss: a natural and cultural history of mosses. Oregon State Univerity Press: Corvallis

• How does individual and socially engaged practice combine, say in the Peat Cultures project? It is Work + NetWork! Kate commented that the personal artwork she makes feeds into developing social practice, and vice versa since people’s responses feed into her individual work.

The scope of the Ramsar Culture Network:

The Ramsar Convention in 1971 was forward looking because the brief included cultural aspects of ecosystem management. Tradtional and indigenous mangement offer models of sustainabilty. The Ramsar cultural specialist sub-group includes an arts thematic group, in recognition that artists can expand the repetoire of ways that wetlands function in landscape and human society.

Link here for  www.ramsar.org  and here for Ramsar Culture Network


RE_ENCOUNTERING with discussion can be seen in full here.

If you can, take time to visit the RE-PEAT festival sessions.


Notes about the artists

Pantea Shabahang is an Iranian artist working with experimental documentary, analogue photography and field recording to explore new ways of telling stories. She studies themes of the environment, immigration and wetlands. Pantea’s work on Sundew has been recently published as creative nonfiction in Plumwood magazine. Her recent release everydaymeal is available in different formats.

Twitter @pantearm
Instagram @aetnapantea

Additional links:

• Sound walk at Red Moss of Balerno, Edinburgh

• Excerpt of Wetland Sketches installation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_wTFHAWb7A&t=4s

• The photo of Siberian crane is taken by Javad Khaleghzadeh, check out his photos of northern wetlands of Iran: https://www.instagram.com/iliteacher/

Kate Foster is an environmental artist who initiated a project, Peat Cultures, to support peatland restoration in Southern Scotland. She is now learning about Dutch wetland cultures as artist in residence to the Home Turf Project in Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Further information here.