Agro-industrial alluvium in the Swale catchment, northern England, as an event marker for the Anthropocene

S. A. Foulds, M. G. Macklin, P. A. Brewer

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27 Citations (Scopus)


Physically and chemically distinctive late-Prehistoric and historical age alluvial deposits are characteristic of many upland and lowland river systems in the UK. Despite their widespread distribution, there have been few attempts to construct robust chronologies or to identify environmental factors that governed their formation. The Swale catchment in northern England is typical in this respect, with large areas of its valley floor covered by sedimentologically distinctive laminated sands and silts, enriched in organic material and Pb, and underlain by uncontaminated and structureless silts. Using 14C dating, chemostratigraphy, lichenometry and historical maps, a catchment-wide change in sedimentation style has been dated to between the mid 18th and early 19th centuries ad. Several causative factors were responsible for this change in sedimentation style and include the initiation of large-scale, intensive lead mining from the latter half of the 18th century onwards, embankment construction in the lowlands and historical peat erosion in the uplands. Transformation of the Swale floodplain also reflects longer-term land-use and climate change. In particular, deforestation of headwater tributaries by monastic grazing practices in the High Middle Ages (ad 1000–1300) led to a period of fine-grained sedimentation in upland catchments, as well as priming hillslopes for erosion and widespread channel network incision and increased fine sediment flux during the climatic downturn of the ‘Little Ice Age’. Sediment facies of a similar nature have been widely recorded in other northern English river catchments and represent a regional land use–climate signal characteristic of the Anthropocene. We introduce the term ‘agro-industrial alluvium’ to describe these types of deposit. They have similarities to post-settlement alluvium in North America and Australia, where historical land-use change had a similar impact on valley floor sedimentology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)587-602
Number of pages16
Issue number4
Early online date08 Jan 2013
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2013


  • 'Little Ice Age'
  • Anthropocene
  • agro-industrial alluvium
  • chemostratigraphy
  • flooding
  • land-use and climate change


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