Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Responding to Modern Flooding: Old English Place-Names as a Repository of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Responding to Modern Flooding: Old English Place-Names as a Repository of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Article excerpt


Place-names are essential communicative tools for all indigenous, aboriginal, and First Nations peoples. For these communities the names given to features in the landscape help them to share Traditional Ecological Knowledge (Berkes 1999). This function elevates indigenous place-names from being simply passive markers of space to being active makers of place. To fulfil this purpose, indigenous names explicitly seek to convey a wide range of information, variously and often simultaneously, providing meaningful descriptions of both the physical realities of particular locations and signalling the social, economic, cultural, symbolic, and ideological values attached to them (Fair 1997: 478).

The traditional ecological knowledge embedded in place-names is examined here in a hitherto overlooked context: England. Put centre stage are the names of places coined by speakers of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, which were planted on the English landscape between ca. 550 and ca. 1100 A.D. Thousands of these names survive, albeit often in changed forms. They account for the majority of town, village, and hamlet names still in use today, as well as other many landscape feature names (Watts 2004). In this paper, the traditional ecological knowledge credentials of these Old English place-names are established for the first time and partially codified.

In other parts of the world, it is now commonplace for the traditional ecological wisdom found in indigenous place-names to be drawn upon in contemporary efforts to build sustainable and resilient communities. This has been particularly effective where communities and their landscapes have been threatened by environmental change (e.g., Inglis 1993; Lefale 2010; Riedlinger and Berkes 2001). This has not been true in the West, where the environmental threat is no less serious, but where traditional ecological knowledge has been seen (if it has been seen at all) as a poor relation to modern scientific data. Increasingly, however, it is being recognized that science, technology, and engineering may not hold all the answers to tackling the biggest environmental challenges of the age.

This is certainly true for flooding, the most significant natural threat now facing Western Europe and one predicted to worsen in the next few decades (Committee on Climate Change 2016, chapter 3). Since the turn of the millennium, extensive and destructive winter flooding has become an almost annual experience across the United Kingdom-and spring, summer, and autumn flooding has become more commonplace. The heavily populated English river catchments of the rivers Severn, Thames, and Trent have been particularly severely affected (Marsh and Hannaford 2007). Low-lying wetlands such as the Somerset Levels have also proven to be particularly vulnerable. Problems caused by riverine flooding have been exacerbated by periodic marine transgressions especially along the North Sea coast and, as result of rising global temperatures and climatic instability leading to extreme weather events-in particular heavy precipitation-few areas are now safe from surface run-offflooding (Thorne 2014).

In recent years, there has been a shiftaway from near total reliance on hard engineering and technological responses to flooding toward approaches that work more closely with nature. It is argued here that once Old English place-names are seen as a repository for traditional ecological knowledge, they become a useful resource via which to think, particularly when trying to find the natural and anthropogenic causes of, and solutions to, flooding. Furthermore, the potential value of these names is suggested here to be further enhanced because of the climatic and meteorological correspondences that emerge between the period during which theses names were first coined and those of the present day.


The Old English place-name stock runs into many thousands. …

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