As part of the reading course I’ve set myself on Bronze Age sacrificial finds, wetland archaeology and landscape studies, I’m reading a new book whose title translates as “Swedish bog cultivation. Agriculture, peat use and landscape change from 1750 to 2000”. It’s about various ways that Swedes have tried to make use of wetland in the past centuries. The sites I’m studying are mostly in wetlands, and mostly they have been identified when finds have surfaced during the kind of projects the book covers. Its main focus is on the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, that operated from 1886 to 1939.
It’s tragicomical reading, really. Because regardless of whether people were trying to drain and cultivate bogs, or if they were digging for peat and trying to process and sell it, there was a major disconnect between their high hopes and the actual outcome. Generally, these huge projects were undertaken, making huge dents into the ecology, for no long-term practical gain. And it took ages for them to realise their collective mistake.
The peat fuel couldn’t compete financially with imported coal. The reclaimed lands proved unproductive. The drained areas wouldn’t stay drained, because as the peat oxidised and compacted, the land would sink back down into the lowered water table. For 200 years there was just this enormous unfounded optimism about bogs on the part of big landowners. They had a completely erroneous vision and the capital to realise it. Middle- and small-size farmers generally opposed the projects because they didn’t have any extra capital and stood to lose a lot of wetland pasture to the drainage efforts. But really poor tenant farmers also did a lot of small-scale land reclamation: not because they had any grand vision but because they had more labour than land.
So much toil. So much destruction of the environment and the archaeological record. And all pretty much for nothing.
Svensk Mosskultur. Odling, torvanvÃ¤ndning och landskapets fÃ¶rÃ¤ndring 1750-2000. Ed. Leif Runefelt. Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. Stockholm 2008.