Later prehistoric vegetation dynamics and Bronze Age agriculture at Hobbister, Orkney, Scotland

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The Bronze Age in Britain was a time of major social and cultural changes, reflected in the division of the landscape into field systems and the establishment of new belief systems and ritual practices. Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain these changes, and assessment of many of them is dependent on the availability of detailed palaeoenvironmental data from the sites concerned. This paper explores the development of a later prehistoric landscape in Orkney, where a Bronze Age field system and an apparently ritually-deposited late Bronze Age axe head are located in an area of deep blanket peat from which high-resolution palaeoenvironmental sequences have been recovered. There is no indication that the field system was constructed to facilitate agricultural intensification, and it more likely reflects a cultural response to social fragmentation associated with a more dispersed settlement pattern. There is evidence for wetter conditions during the later Bronze Age, and the apparent votive deposit may reflect the efforts of the local population to maintain community integrity during a time of perceptible environmental change leading to loss of farmland. The study emphasises the advantages of close integration of palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data for interpretation of prehistoric human activity. The palaeoenvironmental data also provide further evidence for the complexity of prehistoric woodland communities in Orkney, hinting at greater diversity than is often assumed. Additionally, differing dates for woodland decline in the two sequences highlight the dangers of over-extrapolation from trends observed in a single pollen profile, even at a very local scale.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-486
Number of pages19
JournalVegetation History and Archaeobotany
Issue number4
Early online date5 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Agriculture
  • Bronze Age
  • Field systems
  • Orkney
  • Pollen analysis
  • Votive deposition


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