2.7 Neolithic landscape and the adoption of agriculture

The adoption of agriculture is one of the defining characteristics associated with the emergence of a Neolithic lifestyle. Although pollen studies are more sparsely distributed from the south-east region, the data indicates a predominantly wooded landscape with only small-scale clearances during the early and middle Neolithic, suggesting rather negligible disturbance of woodland.

The palynological evidence for early-middle Neolithic agriculture is rather sparse and the association with disturbance episodes somewhat ambiguous. Barley-type (Hordeum type) pollen was recorded from Ravelrig Bog, the earliest dating to c. 6500 BP prior to the accepted start of the Neolithic. There is little accompanying evidence for clearance associated with these early cereal-type grains and it is possible the barley-type pollen derives from one of the several wild grass species in this group. Several charcoal peaks are recorded from Ravelrig Bog through the Neolithic, although a natural source for these fires cannot be ruled out (GUARD Archaeology Ltd 2014). Undifferentiated cereal type pollen was also recorded from Din Moss dating close to a date of 5340±70 BP (Q-1062, 6280-5950 BP) (Hibbert and Switsur 1976).

Photograph of a cotton field.
Cotton grass at Wedder Lairs, in the Tweed Valley © Richard Webb (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More definite evidence for woodland clearance and agriculture during the later Neolithic is dated to c. 4100 BP at Ravelrig Bog, including weeds associated with grazing animals (GUARD Archaeology Ltd 2014). Barley-type pollen was also recorded in late Neolithic contexts from Swindon Hill dating to c. 4800 BP. Tipping (2010) considered the consistent presence and ecological context of the barley-type pollen at Swindon Hill to be strong evidence for cultivation of barley in the late Neolithic.

Photograph of hilly landscape, showing part of a forested slope.
Swindon Haugh and the forested slopes of Swindon Hill © Oliver Dixon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Climate has been suggested as the principal driver of vegetation change at other sites. Short-lived waterlogging events recorded in quantitative records of peat surface wetness at Cocklawhead (from c. 4700-4200 BP) have been taken to suggest episodic climate deteriorations which may have influenced vegetation on the plateau of the Cheviots (Tipping 2010). Major climate-driven shifts in bog surface wetness have also been recorded from Temple Hill Moss, Pentland Hills, over the last 7500 years. The first major wet-shifts occurs between 6500–6000 BP, followed by further major climate shifts on a millennial scale periodicity, including 5850, 5300 and 4500 BP (Langdon et al 2003). Moreover, the interpretation of synchronous woodland disturbances detected at Yetholm Loch and Sourhope c. 4900–4800 BP now favour climate rather than anthropogenic clearance (Tipping 2010), perhaps linked to a short-lived suppression of summer temperatures (Helema et al 2002).

Photograph of a river, surrounded by green hills. There are some sheep peaking out from the greenery.
Sourhope Burn near Yetholm in the Scottish Borders © Ian Shiell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There is almost no faunal material from the region, but the scale of clearance in the palynological records suggests animal husbandry was insufficient in most cases to promote permanent clearances or the growth of heathland. Although ephemeral, the palynological evidence for human activity suggests communities were active in the valleys and on plateaus such as the Cheviots, engaged in a mix of small-scale cultivation and animal husbandry in small temporary wooded clearings. The question of activity in the uplands remains uncertain beyond the work of Tipping (2010) in the Cheviots where upland summer transhumance was considered unlikely given the relatively small-scale nature of crop cultivation. Additional pollen studies from upland areas would help to balance the current lowland bias in pollen studies.

Photograph of a hilly view. There are dark clouds in the sky, with sunbeams peaking through, shining on the hills.
Oblique view of the Cheviot Hills © HES