Using legacy data to reconstruct the past? Rescue, rigour and reuse in peatland geochronology

Cindy Quik*, Ype van der Velde, Tom Harkema, Hans van der Plicht, Jim Quik, Roy van Beek, Jakob Wallinga

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


There is a growing interest in the rescue and reuse of data from past studies (so-called legacy data). Data loss is alarming, especially where natural archives are under threat, such as peat deposits. Here we develop a workflow for reuse of legacy radiocarbon dates in peatland studies, including a rigorous quality assessment that can be tailored to specific research questions and study regions. A penalty is assigned to each date based on criteria that consider taphonomic quality (i.e., sample provenance) and dating quality (i.e., sample material and method used). The weights of quality criteria may be adjusted based on the research focus, and resulting confidence levels may be used in further analyses to ensure robustness of conclusions. We apply the proposed approach to a case study of a (former) peat landscape in the Netherlands, aiming to reconstruct the timing of peat initiation spatially. Our search yielded 313 radiocarbon dates from the 1950s to 2019. Based on the quality assessment, the dates—of highly diverse quality—were assigned to four confidence levels. Results indicate that peat initiation for the study area first peaked in the Late Glacial (~14,000 cal years BP), dropped during the Boreal (~9,500 cal years BP) and showed a second peak in the Subboreal (~4,500 cal years BP). We tentatively conclude that the earliest peak was mostly driven by climate (Bølling–Allerød interstadial), whereas the second was probably the result of Holocene sea level rise and related groundwater level rise in combination with climatic conditions (hypsithermal). Our study highlights the potential of legacy data for palaeogeographic reconstructions, as it is cost-efficient and provides access to information no longer available in the field. However, data retrieval may be challenging, and reuse of data requires that basic information on location, elevation, stratigraphy, sample and laboratory analysis are documented irrespective of the original research aims.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2607-2631
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number13
Early online date7 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Data rescue
  • legacy data
  • meta-analysis
  • peatlands
  • quality assessment
  • radiocarbon dating


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