Delving down into the deep – blog post by Professor Rhys Jones, Aberystwyth University as part of our #LoveMaps Campaign
Geological maps have always fascinated me. There is something intriguing about the ability of geologists to construct the nature of rock formations under the earth – synclines, anticlines, faults and the like – on the basis of what they know about the geology of the surface of the earth and a little bit of logic. This early map of the geology of the South Wales coalfield is a classic example of the geologist’s art. It shows the location of those different rock formations that were crucial to the development of industry in South Wales; the places where one would find the iron ore and the coal seams that sustained much of the economy and society of South Wales for nearly two hundred years.
Three interesting themes, in my mind, arise in the context of this map. First of all, it serves to remind us of the significant connection that has existed between the discipline of Geology and Wales as a country. The development of the discipline has been intimately connected with Wales, as can be seen by the use of terms such the ‘Cambrian’ and the ‘Silurian’ to name geological time periods. The fact that the Cambrian period was so named by an English geologist called Adam Sedgwick and the Silurian period was named by a Scottish aristocrat called Sir Roderick Murchison should not detract from the fact that names possessing strong connections with Wales are now used as ways of describing periods of geological time throughout the world. Wales, in this sense, has had a global presence from the very beginnings of Geology as a discipline.
Second, the map is particularly interesting for me for personal reasons. Born in Carmarthen and raised in Llanelli, I am someone who has been familiar from an early age – perhaps unwittingly admittedly – of the impact of geology on the nature of the economy, society and culture of a place or area. Carmarthenshire, in this respect, is a county that has been clearly shaped by its geology, with those communities in the east of the county being totally different from those in the west and north. The Gwendraeth Valley is particularly interesting, in this regard, since it is here that we witness the coexistence of an industrial society and culture – linked to the seams of anthracite to be found there – and a more agricultural society and culture. It has become unfashionable to describe oneself as an environmental determinist – or, in other words, someone who believes that different aspects of the environment conditions what it is possible for humans to do and achieve – but the obvious link between the geology of the South Wales coal field and the changing character of society and culture in places like Carmarthenshire does give one some pause for thought in this respect.
Third, and finally, the map acts as somewhat of a symbol of the large-scale destruction of the environment that was caused by the industrial revolution in places such as South Wales. We are all too familiar with the impact of heavy industry on different aspects of nature in the region; be it the rivers, lakes and soils that were polluted or the lungs of the colliers that were ruined. It gives us hope, in this respect, when one hears of rivers in South Wales that have been re-populated with salmon and trout. More broadly, I wonder whether this negative experience of industrialisation has also acted as something of a spur – even at a subliminal level – for politicians and policy-makers to try to position Wales as a world-leader in relation to sustainable development and the protection of the environment more broadly. Developments such as the creation of the single environmental body of Natural Resources Wales signals an attempt on the part of Wales to protect the environment in a more holistic way than exists in most other countries. In addition, the recent passing of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, whose aim is to place sustainable development at the heart of everything that public bodies do in Wales, is also testament to Wales’ overall commitment to mainstreaming sustainable development and wellbeing as key principles of how we should be governed. If that is the case, then the environmental costs associated with industrialisation – those represented in some ways by this map of the South Wales coalfield – could well have laid the foundation for a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable future for Wales as a country.
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This post is also available in: Welsh