It has often been assumed that the islands of Orkney were essentially treeless throughout much of the Holocene, with any ‘scrub’ woodland having been destroyed by Neolithic farming communities by around 3500 cal. BC. This apparently open, hyper-oceanic environment would presumably have provided quite marginal conditions for human settlement, yet Neolithic communities flourished and the islands contain some of the most spectacular remains of this period in north-west Europe. The study of new Orcadian pollen sequences, in conjunction with the synthesis of existing data, indicates that the timing of woodland decline was not synchronous across the archipelago, beginning in the Mesolithic, and that in some areas woodland persisted into the Bronze Age. There is also evidence to suggest that woodland communities in Orkney were more diverse, and therefore that a wider range of resources was available to Neolithic people, than has previously been assumed. Recent archaeological investigations have revealed evidence for timber buildings at early Neolithic settlement sites, suggesting that the predominance of stone architecture in Neolithic Orkney may not have been due to a lack of timber as has been supposed. Rather than simply reflecting adaptation to resource constraints, the reasons behind the shift from timber to stone construction are more complex and encompass social, cultural and environmental factors.
- Pollen analysis