Case Study: Impact of the Environment: Orkney

Summary of environmental changes at sites investigated by Farrell (2009), © Michelle Farrell

The islands of Orkney provide an excellent opportunity to study the possible influence of environmental conditions on prehistoric human activity within a geographically defined area.  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’ (e.g. Øvrevik 1985; Ritchie 1995).  This has often been attributed to environmental factors such as climatic deterioration, soil exhaustion caused by intensive agriculture during the late Neolithic, effects of Icelandic volcanic eruptions, and the spread of blanket peat.  The basis for these suggestions is unclear, since there is little published evidence for post-Neolithic environmental conditions in the islands and that which does exist comes from areas that are currently considered to be agriculturally marginal.  In order to address these problems, new high-resolution palynological records were obtained from three small wetland basins situated within landscapes with differing degrees of marginality (Farrell 2009).  Radiocarbon chronologies for these sequences show that events previously assumed to be synchronous across Orkney, such as woodland decline and the spread of heathland, are in fact highly variable.

These new records, when synthesised with existing palaeoecological and archaeological data, indicate that during the Bronze Age a pastoral specialism developed in the more marginal parts of Orkney while elsewhere arable cultivation intensified, for example at Blows Moss on South Ronaldsay (Farrell 2009).  This seems to have occurred in response to the expansion and/or fragmentation of population which is argued to have begun during the late Neolithic (Richards 1998), resulting in the exploitation of more marginal landscapes.  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.  For example, the quality of heathland for grazing seems to have been managed by deliberate burning at Whaness Burn on Hoy and Hobbister in Orphir (Farrell 2009), and there is further evidence for adaptation of agricultural practices from Tofts Ness on the island of Sanday, where intensive manuring was carried out to allow continued cultivation in an increasingly marginal environment (Simpson et al. 1998; Dockrill et al. 2007).  There may also have been specialisation in stock-keeping at Tofts Ness, with an increasing emphasis on sheep rather than cattle developing throughout the Bronze Age (Nicholson and Davis 2007).

The gap in settlement evidence for the Orcadian Bronze Age is now beginning to be addressed, with a wider range of Bronze Age settlement types being recognised from the islands (e.g. Downes 2005).  In addition, evidence from archaeological sites such as Crossiecrown (Jones et al. 2010) and Tofts Ness (Dockrill et al. 2007) demonstrates continuity of settlement location across the Neolithic-Bronze Age transition.  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 evidence presented by Farrell (2009) suggests that differences in the way that land was exploited during the Orcadian Bronze Age were the result of several factors.  Farming practices seem to have been modified to cope with a combination of increased population pressure, changes in social organisation, and changing environmental conditions, without any of these necessarily being dominant in driving the changes observed in the archaeological record.  Overall, it now seems clear that the Bronze Age in Orkney was simply a period of change, rather than one of ‘decline’.

Return to Section 3.2 Landscape, Environment, Climate