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OU on the BBC: Landscape Mysteries - Welcome From Aubrey

Updated Monday, 1st August 2005

Why is the landscape of the British Isles so fascinating? Read Aubrey Manning's introduction to his quest to understand the landscapes we live in.

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Aubrey Manning

“The landscape around us is part of our life; it affects so much that we do and feel. Amazing forces have acted to shape our landscapes; they began millions of years back and continue to this day. Join me in a search for clues which reveal their influences on our past, present and future."

These eight programmes will take us round the British Isles in a fascinating quest for understanding the landscapes we live in. Landscape needn't just "be there", the place we live or visit simply taken for granted. Look carefully, ask around, "get your eye in" and it begins to yield up clues to its long history.

This history starts with the rocks because their nature affects the shape of the land and how we humans have had to deal with it. At the peak of the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, Scotland was under a kilometre of ice and the ice sheet almost reached the Bristol Channel. We shall explore what Britain looked like before the ice when our earliest ancestors shared the landscape with mammoths and hyenas and how Britain was tilted under the weight of ice. Now as it recovers, the Solent sinks back while Scotland rises.

We shall discover how the Bronze Age people in Ireland found gold in their rocks and how the 17th Century people in Yorkshire found alum in theirs and founded Britain's first great chemical industry, changing the landscape as they did so. In the south of England, the chalk downs yielded flint - the key raw material for Stone Age technology - and were exploited for many thousands of years. Those same downs provided a canvas for people to carve enigmatic figures - white horses and priapic giants. When were they made and what did they signify?

These are a few of the stories I'll be exploring. Our detective work involves lots of archaeology, and what I find so fascinating is that modern archaeologists use a great variety of different sciences: geology, geophysics, chemistry and biology. They add this cutting edge stuff to the old skills of meticulous excavation and clever deduction to get a picture of when and how people lived, how they interacted with the landscape and came to change it. Making these programmes has taught me a huge amount. I will never look at a landscape in the same way again and I hope you'll find the same.

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Golden riches from Bronze Age Ireland, strange terraces on the steep sides of Glastonbury Tor, drowned oak forests below the sea in the Solent, ancient towers in Shetland built using techniques found in Egyptian pyramids, a priapic giant carved on a chalk hillside in Dorset, strange tracks carved on a Yorkshire seashore, mammoth skulls in a South Wales cave and tales of drowned sea ports in Kent - these are some of the mysteries I'll be following with you over the next few weeks.

Once you get your eye in, then every landscape need no longer be taken simply for granted. They all have a history which can be pieced together from a diverse range of clues. Geology is often the starting point because the rocks affect the way we humans live in a landscape and change it. Where did rarities like gold come from? Where did the staggering abundance of chalk come from and with it the flints which were the key raw material for our ancestors for thousands of years.

The plants and animals with which we shared the landscapes also tell their story: salt marshes fringing the sea and the dangers of flooding, rich woodland or dry pasture. Grasslands where there is now sea and their bones in caves show that our early ancestors lived with woolly rhinoceros and hyenas. Farmland where there was once sea and whale bones to prove it. Modern archaeology uses the techniques of diverse modern science combined with the old skills of meticulous excavation, restoration and deduction to piece together the way people lived in their landscapes. It also overlaps with history because old records tell us how marshes were drained and land cultivated, how monasteries, towns and industries flourished or decayed.

The clues to all these long stories are all around us. I have had the good luck in these programmes to meet up with experts who have shown them to me. But it's easy enough for anyone to begin as a landscape detective. Local enthusiasts are always there and a trip to the library will start you off on the origin of that disused quarry or the parallel ridges in those fields. One of the most engaging things for me as a biologist beginning to learn about landscapes, is that the boundaries between the professionals and the amateurs are very blurred. It's clear that information, encouragement and enthusiasm flows in both directions - you too can contribute!

Landscape Mysteries in more depth:





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