2.8 Later Prehistory and the development of agricultural landscapes

By Kristian Pedersen and Alexander Brown

Archaeological and palynological evidence strongly suggests that farmers moved into the uplands for the first time in the centuries in the early Bronze Age, as suggested for Northumberland by Burgess (1984), although the lowland plains and foothills remained agriculturally productive. It is difficult to understand the scale of these early agrarian clearances. The palynological evidence implies that small ‘farmsteads’ isolated by still-untrammelled forest were characteristic (Tipping 1995a).

Photograph from above of a snow-dusted landscape.
Oblique aerial view towards Yethom Loch with Pirmside in the foreground © HES

Broadly contemporaneous declines in woodland are recorded by Tipping (2010) from the Cheviots, including Yetholm Loch c. 4100 BP, from 3900 BP at Sourhope, at Swindon Hill from 4300 BP and after 4100 BP at Cocklawhead (Tipping 2010). There is also a significant decline in woodland cover recorded at Ravelrig Bog from 3900 BP, together with trace levels of cereal type pollen including oats and wheat (Avena–Triticum) and barley (Guard Archaeology Ltd 2014). By comparison, the pollen sequence from Dogden Moss suggested a well-wooded landscape during the Bronze Age (Dumayne-Peaty 1999a). Many of the other sequences from the region lack associated radiocarbon dates.

Photograph of  a field of brown moss
Dogden Moss © James T M Towill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some of these declines in woodland could be natural rather than anthropogenic in origin, or indeed a combination of the two. Contemporaneous declines in oak are recorded by Tipping (2010) at sites in the Bowmont Valley c. 4000 BP, corresponding with one of the synchronous regional dying-off events identified in the oak dendrochronological records for North West Europe (Kelly et al 2002). There is no clear corresponding pattern in oak at this time from Ravelrig Bog.

There is a significant increase in soil erosion and fluvial instability within river valleys within the northern Cheviots from c. 4500 BP. Tipping (1992) had initially argued that the palynological evidence for cultivation was sufficient to initiate increased fluvial activity, but a link between climate and geomorphic activity now seems more likely. Periods of increased activity are recorded widely in alluvial records across Britain, corresponding with climate phases and a shift to cold/wet conditions identified in bog records and other palaeoclimate records (Langdon et al 2003; Hughes et al 2000; Macklin et al 2005). A major shift in bog surface wetness is recorded from the Temple Hill Moss at 4500 BP (Langdon et al 2003). This is not to discount the increased evidence for agricultural activity during from the Bronze Age, but there is a recognition that vegetation changes in palynological records may equally be a response to rather than cause of change (Tipping 2000).

Climate deterioration is registered across Europe at c. 2700 BP (Barber et al 2003). There is limited evidence for climate deterioration from the region at this time, and the evidence for abandonment of upland sites is ambiguous from both archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records. One of the few palaeoclimate studies from Scotland at Temple Hill Moss does however provide supporting evidence for climate change apparent as a major shift in bog surface wetness dating from 2800-2450 BP (Langdon et al 2003). Nonetheless, the palynological evidence from upland Scotland in general has been taken to suggest a measure of continuity in pastoral activity during through the Bronze Age (Tipping 2002).

In the mid-late Iron Age of southern Scotland (c 2500–2000 BP) the intensity, scale and extent of anthropogenic activity accelerates noticeably. The increasing evidence for widespread alteration of the landscape reflects the rich settlement and burial evidence for the Iron Age in the region.

Map of southern scotland
Map from RCAHMS Hillforts Monograph 1 (Fig 1.2) showing location of pollen sites in southern Scotland © HES
Photograph of a hill. The sky is clear, save a single large cloud, which casts a shadow on the green hill beneath it.
Park Law Iron Age Settlement near Sourhope © Graham White (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Ravelrig Bog, the most pronounced phase of woodland clearance is noted during the pre-Roman Iron Age (GUARD Archaeology 2014). Sudden and rapid clearance of woodland was recorded at Dogden Moss from c. 2520 BP. Significant disturbance of woodland and increased soil erosion also occurred within the Bowmont Valley during the late Iron Age. Woodland clearances were dated at Yetholm Loch to around c. 2125 BP and Sourhope and Cocklawhead from c. 2050 BP. The severity of the change was considered to reflect the establishment of a planned landscape (Tipping 2010). Similar severe woodland clearance and soil erosion is visible at many sites across southern and central Scotland and northern England (eg Dumayne-Peaty 1998; 1999a; 1999b; Dark 2000). The timing and extent of clearance appears to have varied between locations, although the vast majority of these clearances occur during the Iron Age, with marked evidence for intensification from c. 2100 BP onwards (Tipping 2010).

photograph of a snow-dusted hill.
Defences on the NE side of Blackbrough Hill, from a survey photograph taken during the Bowmont Valley Survey © HES

The drivers of increased agricultural intensification have been debated, with demographic expansion considered overly simplistic (Tipping 2010). Alternative hypotheses suggest a link within increasing status and wealth, settlement reorganisation, an increased focus on the production of agricultural surpluses, and the development of extensive cattle ranching (Hunter 1997; Dockrill 2002; Mercer 2018). There is clearly a need to understand how the archaeological settlement evidence relates to the palynological evidence for intensifying land-use.