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The environmental context of later prehistoric human activity in Orkney, Scotland

Farrell, Michelle


Michelle Farrell


M. Jane Bunting

Barbara Rumsby

Martyn Pedley


This thesis investigates concepts of marginality and the response of human populations to changing environmental conditions in prehistoric Orkney. Archaeological remains from the Orcadian Bronze Age are less visible than those from the Neolithic and Iron Age, leading to suggestions that the Neolithic-Bronze Age transition represents a cultural and/or economic 'decline'. This 'decline' has often been attributed to environmental deterioration, although there is little published evidence for post-Neolithic environmental conditions in the islands and that which does exist comes from areas that are considered agriculturally marginal today.

Palaeoecological records from three small wetland basins situated within landscapes with differing degrees of marginality are presented here. Radiocarbon chronologies for these sequences show that events previously assumed to be synchronous across Orkney, such as woodland decline, are in fact highly variable. High-resolution analysis has been carried out between c. 3000 cal. BC and c. 600 cal. AD (late Neolithic to Iron Age), and records compared with the distribution of archaeological sites in order to reconstruct changes in land-use, farming practices and settlement patterns across this time period. The new records have been synthesised with existing palaeoecological and archaeological data in order to review the evidence for the hypothesised 'Bronze Age decline' in Orkney.

These data indicate that during the Bronze Age a pastoral specialism developed in the more marginal parts of Orkney while elsewhere arable cultivation intensified. This seems to have occurred in response to the fragmentation of society and population which is argued to have begun during the late Neolithic. There are indications of a slight climatic deterioration and of the spread of heathland at some sites in the late Bronze Age, and it seems that farming practices were adapted in order to cope with changing environmental conditions.

Although there are distinct cultural differences between the Neolithic and Bronze Age, there is now no reason to suggest that Orkney underwent a 'decline' shaped by environmental deterioration during the latter period. The changes seen in the archaeological record at this time are likely to result from a combination of environmental, social and cultural factors.


Farrell, M. (2009). The environmental context of later prehistoric human activity in Orkney, Scotland. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 15, 2011
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords Geography
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Geography, The University of Hull
Award Date Sep 1, 2009


Thesis (18.7 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2009 Farrell, Michelle. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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