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Opening the woods: towards a quantification of Neolithic clearance around the Somerset Levels and Moors

Farrell, Michelle; Bunting, M. Jane; Sturt, Fraser; Grant, Michael; Aalbersberg, Gerard; Batchelor, Rob; Brown, Alex; Druce, Denise; Hill, Tom; Hollinrake, Arthur; Jones, Julie; Tinsley, Heather; Bayliss, Alex; Marshall, Peter; Richer, Suzi; Whittle, Alasdair


Michelle Farrell

Fraser Sturt

Michael Grant

Gerard Aalbersberg

Rob Batchelor

Alex Brown

Denise Druce

Tom Hill

Arthur Hollinrake

Julie Jones

Heather Tinsley

Alex Bayliss

Peter Marshall

Suzi Richer

Alasdair Whittle


© 2019, The Author(s). Environmental reconstructions from pollen records collected within archaeological landscapes have traditionally taken a broadly narrative approach, with few attempts made at hypothesis testing or formal assessment of uncertainty. This disjuncture between the traditional interpretive approach to palynological data and the requirement for detailed, locally specific reconstructions of the landscapes in which people lived has arguably hindered closer integration of palaeoecological and archaeological datasets in recent decades. Here we implement a fundamentally different method for reconstructing past land cover from pollen records to the landscapes of and around the Somerset Levels and Moors—the Multiple Scenario Approach (MSA)—to reconstruct land cover for a series of 200-year timeslices covering the period 4200–2000calBC. Modelling of both archaeological and sediment chronologies enables the integration of reconstructed changes in land cover with archaeological evidence of contemporary Neolithic human activity. The MSA reconstructions are presented as a series of land cover maps and as graphs of quantitative measures of woodland clearance tracked over time. Our reconstructions provide a more nuanced understanding of the scale and timing of Neolithic clearance than has previously been available from narrative-based interpretations of pollen data. While the archaeological record tends to promote a view of long-term continuity in terms of the persistent building of wooden structures in the wetlands, our new interpretation of the palynological data contributes a more dynamic and varying narrative. Our case study demonstrates the potential for further integration of archaeological and palynological datasets, enabling us to get closer to the landscapes in which people lived.


Farrell, M., Bunting, M. J., Sturt, F., Grant, M., Aalbersberg, G., Batchelor, R., Brown, A., Druce, D., Hill, T., Hollinrake, A., Jones, J., Tinsley, H., Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richer, S., & Whittle, A. (2020). Opening the woods: towards a quantification of Neolithic clearance around the Somerset Levels and Moors. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 27(2), 271-301.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Aug 13, 2019
Online Publication Date Sep 21, 2019
Publication Date Jun 1, 2020
Deposit Date Aug 20, 2019
Publicly Available Date Sep 22, 2020
Journal Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Print ISSN 1072-5369
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 27
Issue 2
Pages 271-301
Keywords Somerset Levels and Moors; Multiple Scenario Approach; Chronological modelling; Palynology; Neolithic; Land cover; Clearance
Public URL
Additional Information First Online: 21 September 2019
Contract Date Aug 20, 2019


Published article (5.1 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© The Author(s) 2019.
Open Access .This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

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