Karst Landforms: What Is A Scowle?

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Part of Puzzlewood, near Coleford, showing scowles overgrown by trees and moss.

What Is A Scowle?

A common part of the landscape of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, England scowles are amorphous shallow pits to uneven labyrinthine hollows measuring a few meters deep. Initially, scowles were thought to be the remains of open cast iron ore extraction which took place during the prehistoric and early historic eras. However, research by geologists indicates that scowles have a mainly natural origin exploited over time by human activities.

Etymology And Location

The name scowles have been suggested to originate from Brythonic term crowll a word which translates to a hollow or a cave. The word may have also originated from a Welsh word “ysgil” meaning a recess. The name was first recorded in 1287 to refer to a village called Scwelle. In modern geology, the term is used to refer to the landscapes in the Forest of Dean recognized traditionally as the remains of medieval iron ore extraction. The landforms only occur in specific outcrops (sandstone, limestone, and dolomite) in the Forest of Dean. The scowles are distributed according to how they were formed.

Formation Of A Scowle

The formation of scowles takes place over millions of years. The landform develops on specific outcrops of sandstone and carboniferous limestone located in a broken ring around the central region of the Forest of Dean. Originally, the area was home to ancient cave systems which were deposited with iron ore by the iron-rich water coming from the central Forest’s coal measures. Over time, the caves were uplifted, and after weathering processes, they were exposed as rocks and deep hollows. The deposited iron ore in the hollows of the rock surface became useful in the Iron Age and the Roman Period. Once the surface iron ore became depleted ancient man followed iron ore underground. After smelting using charcoal, the ore was used as a trade item or to make objects.

Features Of A Scowle

Scowles are classified in various types ranging from amorphous shallow hollows to linear, deep, and quarry-like. Amorphous hollows can be caused by collapsed underground mining zones, natural swallow holes, as well as partly backfilled surface areas. Some scowles contain small pits filled with mounds of spoil while others do not. The irregular quarry-like scowles have been exposed to human intervention, and combined with natural processes have assumed their current appearance.

Significance Of A Scowle

Scowles are valuable archaeological features as they supported the mining of iron ore. The landforms attest to the pursuit of iron ore as miners followed the deposits underground in the cave systems. The features are unique since they present a mineralised kind of limestone landscape. The landforms have been at the center of archaeological research regarding the Iron Age. Scowles have ecological value as well as providing habitats for ferns, invertebrates, lower plants, and bats. Scowles characterize, in part, the Forest of Dean and are a tourist attraction in the region. Pathways have been developed in the area which enables tourists to access the features in a safe and sustainable way. The most accessible place to the scowles is at Puzzlewood close to Coleford, which is open as a tourist point.

Threats To Scowles

Environmentalists have raised concerns over some human activities deemed negative for scowles. Although most of these landforms are in good condition, some are threatened by dumping of rubbish and active backfilling.

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