Reconstructing the landscape of Brodgar’s prehistoric communities

The Loch of Stenness.  (📷 Sue Dyke)
The Loch of Stenness. (📷 Sue Dyke)

In February 2023, UHI Archaeology Institute Masters by Research (MRes) student Sue Dyke began a research project to reconstruct the landscape around the Ness of Brodgar using pollen samples taken from the Loch of Stenness by The Rising Tides project team in 2014 (Bates et al. 2012, 2016).

Entitled Brave New World: a palaeoecological investigation into Neolithic human-environment interactions on Ness of Brodgar Isthmus, Orkney, Sue’s project is supervised by Dr Scott Timpany (UHI Archaeology Institute), Dr Michelle Farrell (Coventry University) and Dr Jane Bunting (University of Hull).

Here Sue updates us on the progress so far.

Prehistoric communities around the Loch of Stenness

The area around the Ness of Brodgar.
The area around the Ness of Brodgar.

A main point of interest for this study is to investigate the landscape and human activity around the period that the Ness of Brodgar complex is known to have been in use (ca. 3500 to 2300 cal BC) and to give some environmental context to the awe-inspiring archaeology revealed there.

However, analysis will also provide valuable landscape data for other monuments within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, including Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness, Ring of Brodgar, the Barnhouse settlement and the Unstan chambered cairn.

There is also some evidence for Mesolithic activity around the Loch of Stenness. This comes from discoveries of lithic scatters (remains of stone tools), and even a 6,000-year-old oak timber found in intertidal peat at the Bay of Ireland, Stenness, in 2013 (Timpany et al. 2017).

Excavating the Bay of Ireland oak timber in 2015. (📷 John Barber)
Excavating the Bay of Ireland oak timber in 2015. (📷 John Barber)

The timber was felled c. 4410-4325 cal BC, making it the only wooden artefact of Mesolithic date found in Orkney to date. A study of pollen from the vicinity showed the timber had been deposited in a reed-swamp environment fringed by woodland of willow and birch (Timpany et al. 2017).

Sue is analysing three pollen cores from the Loch of Stenness (numbered 1, 6 and 8 in orange squares on the map below). This article reports on preliminary data from one of these, core 1, which is already showing some interesting results.

Mesolithic and Neolithic sites around the Loch of Stenness. Click for a larger version.
Mesolithic and Neolithic sites around the Loch of Stenness. Click for a larger version.

Mesolithic

The results indicate changes in woodland and herbaceous plants (e.g. grass, flowers) along with fluctuating microscopic charcoal levels during the Mesolithic period.

The data suggests that trees were present at the start of the Core 1 pollen sequence (i.e. the bottom of the core), which is as yet undated, but may be Early Mesolithic.

Trees were mostly hazel and birch, with lesser quantities of pine, alder, and oak, as well as low levels of elm later on.

Also present at lower levels are willow and heather, with ferns commonly occurring in the landscape.

Herbaceous pollen is mostly grass, sedges and reeds – with small amounts of meadowsweet, nettles, docks, and yellow flag – see photo (right) for some examples of pollen grains.

Elevated levels of microscopic charcoal observed in this core suggests the presence of people in this landscape with accompanying slight declines in trees such as pine, hazel and dwarf birch potentially signalling the creation or maintenance of small woodland openings.

Such activity is known to have been practiced by Mesolithic communities elsewhere (Innes, Blackford and Simmons 2010).

Neolithic

Research by Bates et al. (2022) established that a freshwater loch existed in Stenness after the last glacial period.

The loch was freshwater until sea-level rise connected the loch to the coast through the Brig O’Waithe around 3990-3600 cal BC, turning the water brackish. This date range coincides with the transition from the Mesolithic to Neolithic periods.

Pollen analysis diagram.

Initial analysis of the pollen in Core 1 is revealing evidence for early farming in Orkney at the start of the Neolithic (around 4000 cal BC) with through increased levels of grassland, and plants associated with grazing livestock, such as buttercup, daisy, and dock families – as well as a high prevalence of plantain, a trample resistant plant that thrives on disturbed ground.

Non-plant microfossils (NPPs) -see photo above for some examples – further evidence livestock rearing through increased levels of fungal spores associated with dung (HdV-55A/B, Sordaria sp. and HdV-113, Sporomiella sp.) and soil erosion (HdV-207, Glomus sp.).

Loch of Stenness spores, aquatics and NPP.

A stark decrease in water quality from the Neolithic onwards is signalled through greatly increased levels of algae (Botrycoccus sp. and Pediastrum sp.) and presence of cyanobacteria (HdV-146, Gleotrichia sp.), along with fungal spores (HdV-143, Diporotheca sp.) associated with extensive soil erosion and phosphate-eutrophication. These changes are likely an effect of farming activities.

Further impact on the surrounding landscape is demonstrated through significant increased and sustained levels of microscopic charcoal accompanying a drastic reduction in woodland. This woodland loss has been modelled for Orkney’s West Mainland by Bunting et al. (2022).

The results so far show cereal pollen is present in Core 1, and this ties in with PhD research being undertaken by Sarah-Jane Haston who has found charred cereal grains in samples analysed from Structure Eight.

The Loch of Stenness, looking towards Hoy.  (📷 Sue Dyke)
The Loch of Stenness, looking towards Hoy. (📷 Sue Dyke)

Conclusions

The preliminary results from Core 1 suggest that woodland was abundant, and diverse, around the Loch of Stenness during the Mesolithic and that the area was inhabited by communities who lightly impacted the landscape with their subsistence and activities.

The arrival of Neolithic communities appears to have exerted a much more transformative impact on this landscape, with a drastic reduction in woodland, followed by an increase in grassland/heathland, soil erosion and decreased water quality, likely resulting from woodland clearance and the introduction of livestock.

The project’s full results will be available by the end of summer 2024 and it will be interesting to see what more may be revealed about the prehistoric landscape around the Stenness loch and the people who lived there.

Icy conditions around the Stenness loch.  (📷 Sue Dyke)
Icy conditions around the Stenness loch. (📷 Sue Dyke)

References

  • Bates, R., Bates, M., Dawson, S., & Wickham-Jones, C. (2012). Geophysical Survey of the Loch of Stenness, Orkney. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University.
  • Bates, C. R., Bates, M. R., Dawson, S., Huws, D., Whittaker, J. E., & Wickham-Jones, C. R. (2016). The environmental context of the Neolithic monuments on the Brodgar Isthmus, Mainland, OrkneyJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports7, 394-407.
  • Bates, M. (2022) Rising Tides – Caroline Wickham-Jones Memorial Lecture, Orkney International Science Festival 2022. Accessed online [ https://archaeologyorkney.com/2017/07/04/turning-back-the-tides-investigating-orkneys-submerged-landscape/ ]  9th Jan 2024.
  • Bunting, M. J., Farrell, M., Dunbar, E., Reimer, P., Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., & Whittle, A. (2022). Landscapes for Neolithic People in Mainland, OrkneyJournal of World Prehistory35(1), 87-107.
  • Dawson, S. and Wickham-Jones, C.R. (2009) ‘The Rising Tide: Submerged Landscape of Orkney – Annual Interim Report March 2009’. Orkney: The Rising Tide Project.
  • Moore, P. D., Webb, J. A., & Collinson, M. E. (1991) Pollen analysis. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
  • Innes, J., Blackford, J., & Simmons, I. (2010). Woodland disturbance and possible land-use regimes during the Late Mesolithic in the English uplands: pollen, charcoal and non-pollen palynomorph evidence from Bluewath Beck, North York Moors, UK. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany19, 439-452.
  • Timpany, S., Crone, A., Hamilton, D., & Sharpe, M. (2017) Revealed by Waves: A Stratigraphic, Palaeoecological, and Dendrochronological Investigation of a Prehistoric Oak Timber and Intertidal Peats, Bay of Ireland, West Mainland, OrkneyThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology12(4), 515-539.
  • Wickham-Jones, C. (undated) The Rising Tide: Investigations into the Submerged Archaeology of Orkney https://www.abdn.ac.uk/geosciences/departments/archaeology/the-rising-tide-investigations-into-the-submerged-archaeology-of-orkney-261.php Accessed online [07/03/2023].

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