How you can help archaeologists bring an ancient woodland back to life


Archaeologists may be used to rooting around in the ground for clues to the past, but this time they’re planning to regrow a living, breathing piece of history. We spoke to archaeologist Xosé Gago to find out why they want to bring this ancient woodland back to life, and how you can help.

Picture lush, dense woodlands; woodlands that have been a rich source of a region’s culture, providing wood for the fireplace, food for eating, plants for healing and inspiration for myths, stories and folklore for thousands of years.

For the people of Costa dos Castros, the magical ancient forests of Galicia in northwast Spain have provided all of this in abundance… until they were virtually destroyed in the 1950s. But archaeologists working with the local community want you to donate a tree and help them bring the forests back to life.

The history of a forest

Like many forests, the woodlands of Costa dos Castros have been shaped by human history. People first settled in this landscape 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age, but when the Romans arrived 1,000 years later, they painted the Galician people as barbarians, mocking them for eating the ‘uncivilised’ butter, acorns and beer that their wooded landscape provided, instead of the ‘civilised’ olive oil, chestnut and wine that the Romans typically enjoyed. The Romans changed the Galician forest by introducing olive trees, vineyards and expanding the cultivation of chestnuts.

In the 15th century, the Catholic kings who unified the Spanish Castillian kingdom, decided to redistribute the territory. In doing so, they decided that olive trees should be grown in the south, and all the industries related to olive-growing were shifted south. However, recent research has found that some of Galicia’s native olive trees still survive, and are a separate species from those that grow today in the south.

Ancient woodland destroyed

Then came the 1940s. In the post-war era after Spanish Revolution, eucalyptus was planted to solve the lack of raw materials. But what was only supposed to be an emergency policy became one of General Franco’s key forestry strategies. Vast swathes of this ancient forest were replaced with eucalyptus, virtually wiping out the ancient woodland for the sake of a fast growing crop that could be pulped, turned into paper and make a quick buck.

In the decades that followed, one third of the tree surface in Galicia became eucalyptus. Chestnuts and native olive vanished, and along with it the sustainable ecosystems, meadows, cultivation and ways of life that had developed over the centuries. Even worse, eucalyptus is highly flammable, and prone to starting forest fires like the one this summer.

Woodland archaeology

Xosé’s team of archaeologists are currently investigating a series of Iron Age hillforts in the area now known as Costa dos Castros. The area is collectively managed by the local community through land co-operatives who are not only keen to investigate their woodland heritage, but also to bring some of it back to life.

As well as the hillforts, the archaeologists are also investigating the forest. Underneath the fifty year old eucalyptus layer, the team has found not just the essence of a lost woodland, but also mills, barns and washing places – the remains of traditional Galician life.

The question was, how could the damage of the last 50 years be undone? During excavations, the group hit upon a solution: replant the ancient woodland and create a new lease of life for the community, one that’s sustainable and takes into account the original species.

Donate a tree, bring a forest back to life

The co-operatives’ plans to restore the forest are two-fold: replant some of the ancient species to create a botanic path and arboretum connecting the ancient hillfort sites, and develop areas of new forest that can be used by the local community to generate an income.

“As we saw, humans have changed this landscape over 2,000 years. We want to try and mend the impact of the last 50 years, while creating a sustainable forest for the future” says Xosé Gago, the lead archaeologist on the project.

“For thousands of years, this landscape was wooded, providing people with wood, fruits and herbs. In a couple of decades, all that history was wiped out. By donating a tree, you can help us bring it back to life

“An inhabited forest is a healthy forest and we will create new, public woodland. We are planting this arboretum with our neighbours, and will be helped by local schools to develop planting activities”.

An inhabited forest is a healthy forest

The project aims to cut 30 hectares of eucalyptus, and will replant the area with olive trees, chestnuts and other controlled species that can be used in local production. Restoring the native tree species will also conserve water and decrease the risk of forest fires.

But it will do more than just bring back the native trees. “Having been here for thousands of years, these trees are adapted to this biozone. Each native tree has unique relationships with insects, mammals and fungi”

The project will start with just 30 hectares, but the effects will of course be much bigger; it will aid the recovery of native livestock species like the cachena cow and cabra galega, a species of goat native to the area and provide tangible economic benefits for the present-day community while connecting it to its ancient past.

“With your help we can bring this ancient woodland back to life and restore a living, breathing piece of history that will help our community grow and live from this woodland once again”

We love this idea of bringing the ancient forest back to life. If you do too, visit the project’s crowdfunding page to donate a tree. In return, you’ll get a photo of your tree being planted, its coordinates and a little piece of history brought back to life in your name.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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