Agriculture and Domestic Husbandry

There are several sources of evidence relating to the agricultural (and horticultural) activities of Neolithic farmers in Highland Region: plant macrofossils, usually in the form of charred cereal grains (sometimes with chaff from crop processing); pollen evidence for domesticated plants and for weeds associated with cultivation; ard marks that may relate to Neolithic cultivation (at Lairg); evidence suggesting soil erosion and run-off, such as can be caused by cultivation; querns and grain rubbers, used to grind cereals (and possibly other plant materials); and grain impressions on Neolithic pottery. Other indicators that could potentially be used are the burnt-on organic residue encrusted on the surface of pots, which can be examined for possible traces of charred plant structures through Scanning Electron Microscope [SEM] imaging), plus cereal and other plant lipids sealed in the body of sherds, which can now be detected thanks to recent advances in lipid analysis (Hammann and Cramp 2018). SEM imaging and plant-lipid analysis have not yet been attempted on Neolithic pottery from Highland Region, and the latter technique requires sherds to be from waterlogged contexts, so the potential for its application in this Region is limited. One final proxy for agricultural activity is pollen evidence for forest clearance, although this needs to be used with caution: not all clearance necessarily relates to the creation of cultivable areas – trees are also felled to build wooden structures, for example – and not all agriculture involves clearance at a scale that would show on a pollen diagram. Indeed, as has been argued (eg Farrell et al 2020), a past over-reliance on evidence for woodland clearance as a proxy for agriculture has led to flawed models of boom and bust in farming.

An excellent review of Scottish Neolithic archaeobotanical remains (plant macrofossils) discovered between 1960 and 2009 was published by Rosie Bishop (Bishop et al 2009), and information on post-2009 finds can be found in various specialist reports, mostly residing in grey literature. Bishop’s review of seven assemblages from Highland Region (namely Bellfield Farm, North Kessock; Culduthel phases 7–8 [MHG51630]; Embo (MHG11630); Kinbeachie [MHG58909]; Lairg; and Milton of Leys [MHG54230]) confirmed that the following domesticated cereals were grown in Highland Region: barley (including naked and hulled barley), wheat (including emmer wheat) and oats. Both two-rowed and six-rowed naked barley was present at Kinbeachie on the Black Isle (Holden and Hastie 2001).

Subsequent palaeobotanical reports are consistent with this picture, with the assemblage from Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works adding bread wheat and flax to the range of cultivars (Ramsay 2014; MHG60873). All of these species will have been introduced to Scotland (and Britain more widely) from the Continent, as the wild progenitors do not exist here (Gron et al 2020). Apropos the presence of naked six-row barley at Knocknagael Farm (near Culduthel and Slackbuie; MHG54504), Susan Ramsay remarked that naked barley – which is easy to thresh – is rarely found in post-Neolithic contexts, probably due to a downturn in temperature with cooler, wetter summers favouring the cultivation of the harder-to-process hulled six-row barley instead (Ramsay 2016, 10). Note that while Timpany argued that the oats and hulled barley from Culduthel Phase 9 could not be earlier than Iron Age (Timpany 2012), their presence elsewhere in Neolithic contexts (as documented by Bishop) suggests that they could indeed be Neolithic – unless, of course, the remains from elsewhere are intrusive from later activity.

The range of potential arable weeds comprises fat hen, docks and cleavers (from Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works: Ramsay 2014); common fumitory, mustards, sedges, grasses and spike rush from Culduthel Phase 9 (Timpany 2012); and chickweed and goosefoots at Bellfield, North Kessock (Timpany 2009).

At Lairg, the presence of burnt emmer and barley chaff remains in a pit believed to be of Neolithic date has been taken to indicate that emmer was stored in the spikelet, and barley was stored in the ear (Holden 1998). The high proportion of emmer in this pit contrasts with its absence from Bronze Age contexts at Lairg, and this seems representative of a switch away from wheat cultivation in favour of barley as the climate became cooler and wetter over the course of the fourth millennium.

As for other indicators of agricultural activity, at Lairg it is uncertain whether the ‘Randomly arranged ard marks’ (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 203) are definitely of Neolithic date, although they may be. There does, however, appear to be a phase of intense soil erosion, necessitating the laying-down of ‘armoured gravel surfaces’ (ibid), that is likely to relate to cultivation, even though the pollen evidence for tree cover changes does not indicate the opening-up of large areas for cultivation.

As for cereal grain impressions on Neolithic pottery, two possible examples were noted on pots from Culduthel (Phases 7 and 8: Pots 2 and 12, species undetermined), but what is needed is a systematic study of all Neolithic pottery from Highland Region to check whether other cereal impressions may exist.

As regards the scale and organisation of agricultural activity, a long-held, generalised belief that Neolithic farmers engaged in ‘slash and burn’ agriculture, cultivating fields for a short time until the soil became exhausted of nutrients, then moving on to clear and cultivate a new area, has recently been challenged (Rowley-Conwy et al 2020). Longer use of small fields, crop rotation practices and the addition of fertiliser would all have permitted farmers to stay in one place. No Neolithic field walls have been found in Highland Region, but hedgerows or fencing would have sufficed to protect fields from animal trampling. The view held by some archaeologists (eg Thomas 2013), that early farming was not sedentary and that communities regularly moved around, is simply contradicted by the evidence for cereal cultivation, which requires year-round occupation in order to manage the planting, growing, harvesting and storage of the crop.

The claim by Stevens and Fuller (eg 2012) that there was a generalised collapse in farming in Britain and Ireland around 3600 BC, resulting in a shift to a nomadic pastoralist existence, has been robustly and persuasively challenged by Rosie Bishop (eg 2015). A recent, detailed palaeoenvironmental study of the evidence from Lairg, featuring the use of a high-resolution Bayesian chronology, has shown that there was continuous cultivation of this upland environment from at least as early as 3660–3435 cal BC (McDonald et al 2021). McDonald et al’s research has shown that the farmers adapted to changing climatic conditions over the course of the Neolithic by shifting the balance of cereal cultivation to barley at the expense of wheat, and by targeting well-drained soils.

There is much that still needs to be discovered about the range of Neolithic cultivars; vegetables are notoriously hard to identify as they generally only survive in exceptional environmental conditions, for example. More high-resolution palaeoenvironmental studies like the Lairg study are required to fill out the detail of Neolithic agriculture.

As for animal husbandry, evidence is sparse, as bones tend not to survive in the acidic soils of Highland Region, and where animal bones do survive in chambered cairns, there is no guarantee that they are of Neolithic date. No round-up of the available evidence, analogous to Bishop’s corpus of palaeobotanical evidence, has yet been attempted and it is recommended that this be undertaken, especially as regards any faunal finds from recently-excavated sites. The rare evidence includes fragments of calcined sheep or goat bones from a Late Neolithic pit containing Grooved Ware at Raigmore (Pit 49: Harman 1996; MHG54911); two unburnt cattle bone fragments were also found in contexts that may date to the Late Neolithic (ibid). Bone artefacts from chambered cairns may well be of Neolithic date, and these comprise a perforated ox phalange found at Lower Dounreay (MHG2479; Davidson and Henshall 1991, fig. 20); a ‘scoop’ made from an ungulate bone, possibly a femur; and a ‘chisel’ made from a split long bone.

Given the paucity of faunal remains, the evidence from lipid analysis is an important source of information about the domesticated species that were kept. Very little lipid analysis has yet been undertaken on Neolithic pottery from this Region, but nine out of 16 analysed sherd samples from Tornagrain were found to contain lipids, and it was clear that these had been cooking pots (EHG5445; Dunne and Evershed 2019). Eight of the nine samples contained ruminant dairy fat (deriving from milk, butter or cheese) from cattle, sheep or goat; the ninth contained adipose fat from both a ruminant species and pig. Analysis of five sherds from Culduthel (phases 7 and 8; MHG51630) produced evidence, from two of these, for the presence of degraded animal fat (Crampet al 2014, Supplementary figure S3 and Supplementary table S3). The fact that both dairy and adipose ruminant fat has been identified at Tornagrain indicates that here, as elsewhere in Neolithic Britain and Ireland, cattle (and/or sheep/goats) were exploited for their dairy products as well as for their meat (ibid).

The fact that no large Neolithic assemblage of faunal remains has been found means that details of kill-off patterns or other aspects of herd management cannot be obtained.

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