Project

Cultivating Societies: Assessing the Evidence for Agriculture in Neolithic Ireland

Goal: Funded by Heritage Council, INSTAR programme. Whitehouse, N.J. (PI); Schulting, R.J. (Co-I); Bogaard, A. (Co-I); McClatchie, M. (Co-I/RF); Barratt, P. (RF), McLaughlin, R. (RF)

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Project log

Nicki J. Whitehouse
added a research item
When compared with earlier periods, the Neolithic in Ireland (4000–2500 cal BC) witnessed enormous changes in the foods being produced, and the work involved in their production and processing. Several crops were introduced – archaeobotanical studies indicate that emmer wheat became the dominant crop, with evidence also for barley (hulled and naked) and flax. Gathered resources were not abandoned; on the contrary, there is substantial evidence for a variety of nuts, fruits and leafy greens. Zooarchaeological studies indicate that new animals also arrived, including domesticated cattle, pig and sheep. Recent studies have provided substantial information on the timing and nature of these new ways of farming and living, but the focus is often on ingredients rather than food products. There are many challenges in determining which foods were being made with these new crops and animals, and in assessing their dietary and social importance. While cereals have been found at many sites, for example, it is not clear if they are being ground, boiled or other techniques are used for their processing. In this paper we explore aspects of food production, processing and foodways in Neolithic Ireland, drawing upon evidence from archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, isotopes, human skeletal remains and artefacts.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added an update
Recent publication just out summarising of some of the Neolithic land use and land cover data at 6000 BP in Ireland. This includes a new REVEALS pollen reconstruction for Ireland, that was done by Jane Bunting.
 
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added a research item
The earliest evidence for agriculture in Ireland has been dated to the Early Neolithic period, beginning around 4000 BC. From the outset of the Neolithic, previous food procurement strategies—including hunting, fishing and gathering—began to be replaced by plant and animal husbandry. Archaeological texts often mention the ‘first farmers’ when referring to the Neolithic period. While the main crops are known to have been wheat and barley, far less is known about the balance between them, the relative importance of different varieties within these crops, the methods used in crop production and the intensity of agricultural activity. This paper will examine the evidence for cereal cultivation in Neolithic Ireland—based upon archaeobotanical studies—and introduce a new research project that aims to investigate the timing, nature and effects of the introduction of agriculture into Ireland.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added 2 research items
Research into the origins and spread of agriculture, and its associated societal impacts, is a major focus in world archaeology. This transition is one of the most important in human history, as it is associated with the development of settled societies, puts humans firmly at the heart of production, consumption and distribution of food, and has traditionally been seen as paving the way for the development of stratified societies. Ireland is often conspicuously absent from such discussions. A major review of early Neolithic farming across Europe included evidence from just two Irish sites (Colledge et al. 2005), while a recent study focusing on crop production and use in Neolithic Britain referred to evidence from just ten sites in Ireland (Jones and Rowley-Conwy 2007). Ireland has, however, valuable and extensive evidence to contribute more fully to these debates.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added 2 research items
Ireland has often been seen as marginal in the spread of the Neolithic and of early farming throughout Europe, in part due to the paucity of available data. By integrating and analysing a wealth of evidence from unpublished reports, a much more detailed picture of early arable agriculture has emerged. The improved chronological resolution reveals changing patterns in the exploitation of different plant species during the course of the Neolithic that belie simplistic notions of a steady intensification in farming, juxtaposed with a concomitant decline in foraging. It is possible that here, as in other areas of Europe, cereal cultivation became less important in the later Neolithic.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added an update
Writing new paper synthesising palaeoenvironemntal record for agricultural record and its ecological legacies. Much to say so its going to be a long one.
 
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added a research item
This paper synthesizes and discusses the spatial and temporal patterns of archaeological sites in Ireland, spanning the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age transition (4300–1900 cal BC), in order to explore the timing and implications of the main changes that occurred in the archaeological record of that period. Large amounts of new data are sourced from unpublished developer-led excavations and combined with national archives, published excavations and online databases. Bayesian radiocarbon models and context- and sample-sensitive summed radiocarbon probabilities are used to examine the dataset. The study captures the scale and timing of the initial expansion of Early Neolithic settlement and the ensuing attenuation of all such activity—an apparent boom-and-bust cycle. The Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods are characterised by a resurgence and diversification of activity. Contextualisation and spatial analysis of radiocarbon data reveals finer-scale patterning than is usually possible with summed-probability approaches: the boom-and-bust models of prehistoric populations may, in fact, be a misinterpretation of more subtle demographic changes occurring at the same time as cultural change and attendant differences in the archaeological record.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added a research item
The origins of agriculture and the shift from hunting and gathering to committed agriculture is regarded as one of the major transitions in human history. Archaeologists and anthropologists have invested significant efforts in explaining the origins of agriculture. A period of gathering intensification and experimentation and pursuing a mixed economic strategy seems the most plausible explanation for the transition to agriculture and provides an approach to study a process in which several non-linear processes may have played a role. However, the mechanisms underlying the transition to full agriculture are not completely clear. This is partly due to the nature of the archaeological record, which registers a practice only once it has become clearly established. Thus, points of transitions have limited visibility and the mechanisms involved in the process are difficult to untangle. The complexity of such transitions also implies that shifts can be distinctively different in particular environments and under varying historical and social conditions. In this paper we discuss some of the elements involved in the transition to food production within the framework of resilience theory. We propose a theoretical conceptual model in which the resilience of livelihood strategies lies at the intersection of three spheres: the environmental, economical and social domains. Transitions occur when the rate of change, in one or more of these domains, is so elevated or its magnitude so large that the livelihood system is unable to 'bounce back' to its original state. In this situation, the system moves to an alternative stable state (from one livelihood strategy to another).
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added an update
It is still possible to access the Cultivating Societies web page, which includes the archaeobotanical data base as it stood in 2011. http://www.chrono.qub.ac.uk/instar/index.htm
This web site will be migrated and updated to a more secure platform later in 2017.
 
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added 3 research items
a b s t r a c t A multi-disciplinary study assessing the evidence for agriculture in Neolithic Ireland is presented, exam-ining the timing, extent and nature of settlement and farming. Bayesian analyses of palaeoenvironmental and archaeological 14 C data have allowed us to re-examine evidential strands within a strong chronological framework. While the nature and timing of the very beginning of the Neolithic in Ireland is still debated, our results e based on new Bayesian chronologies of plant macro-remains e are consistent with a rapid and abrupt transition to agriculture from c. 3750 cal BC, though there are hints of earlier Neolithic presence at a number of sites. We have emphatically confirmed the start of extensive Neolithic settlement in Ireland with the existence of a distinct 'house horizon', dating to 3720e3620 cal BC, lasting for up to a century. Cereals were being consumed at many sites during this period, with emmer wheat dominant, but also barley (naked and hulled), as well as occasional evidence for einkorn wheat, naked wheat and flax. The earliest farmers in Ireland, like farmers elsewhere across NW Europe, were not engaged in shifting cultivation, but practised longer-term fixed-plot agriculture. The association between early agriculture and the Elm Decline seen in many pollen diagrams shows that this latter event was not synchronous across all sites investigated, starting earlier in the north compared with the west, but that there is a strong coincidence with early agriculture at many sites. After this early boom, there are changes in the nature of settlement records; aside from passage tombs, the evidence for activity between 3400 and 3100 cal BC is limited. From 3400 cal BC, we see a decrease in the frequency of cereal evidence and an increase in some wild resources (e.g. fruits, but not nuts, in the records), alongside evidence for re-afforestation in pollen diagrams (3500e3000 cal BC). Changes occur at a time of worsening climatic conditions, as shown in Irish bog oak and reconstructed bog surface wetness records, although the links between the various records, and assessment of causes and effects, will require further investigation and may prove complex. This period seems to have been one of environmental, landscape, settlement and economic change. The later 4th millennium BC emerges as a period that would benefit from focused research attention, particularly as the observed changes in Ireland seem to have parallels in Britain and further afield.
The contributions 2014 indicate that research into the study of early agriculture continues to remain a flourishing area of science. We discuss the contribution of the volume's papers and provide a review of how they add to our knowledge about the process to early agriculture, its development and impacts upon the Holocene landscape. The main focus of many of the papers is on the European Neolithic record, with several contributions focussing on research from other regions. Our understanding of the processes happening in Europe is deepening to a level where we have a relatively good understanding of events at a regional level and moving towards understanding at a continental level. This contrasts with other areas of the world where there is still considerable need for intensive primary data collection and where the narrative of agricultural subsistence practices varies considerably. In some regions, existing models of understanding may not be fully adequate and the process of “agriculture” in these areas was likely substantially different to how this occurred in Europe and the Near East. Indeed, it is clear that a more nuanced understanding of how we currently define ‘agriculture’ is necessary. This recognises the diversity of agricultural practises that are evident in different areas of the world, which may be quite removed to what might be recognisable as ‘agriculture’ in places such as Europe. It is evident that the switch from hunter-gatherer subsistence to agro-pastoralism had a huge effect on the Earth system, impacting biodiversity, land cover and the global carbon cycle. Archaeologists have much to contribute towards our knowledge of these impacts and the development of the modern ‘cultural landscape’.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added a research item
Baltinglass is a multi-chamber Neolithic passage tomb in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, excavated in the 1930s. This paper presents the results of a radiocarbon dating programme on charred wheat grains and hazelnut shell found underlying the cairn, and on cremated human bone found within and near two of the monument’s five chambers. The results are surprising, in that three of the six determinations on calcined bone pre-date by one or two centuries the charred cereals and hazelnut shells sealed under the cairn, dating to c. 3600–3400 cal bc . Of the remaining three bone results, one is coeval with the charred plant remains, while the final two can be placed in the period 3300/3200–2900 cal bc , that is more traditionally associated with developed passage tombs. A suggested sequence of construction is presented beginning with a simple tomb lacking a cairn, followed by a burning event – perhaps a ritual preparation of the ground – involving the deposition of cereal grains and other materials, very rapidly and intentionally sealed under a layer of clay, in turn followed by at least two phases involving the construction of more substantial chambers and associated cairns. What was already a complex funerary monument has proven to be even more complex, with a history spanning at least six centuries.
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added an update
The latest publication associated with this project is, this is a GOLD Open Access paper:
McLaughlin, T. R., Whitehouse, N. J., Schulting, R. J., McClatchie, M., Barratt, P. and Bogaard, A. 2016. The Changing Face of Neolithic and Bronze Age Ireland: A Big Data Approach to the Settlement and Burial Records. Journal of World Prehistory 29, 117-153. doi:10.1007/s10963-016-9093-0
The following paper is in press:
Schulting, R.J.; Sheridan, A.; McClatchie, M.; McLaughlin, R.; Barratt, P. and Whitehouse, N.J. (in press, 2017) Radiocarbon dating of a multi-phase passage tomb on Baltinglass Hill, Co. Wicklow. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.
 
Nicki J. Whitehouse
added a project goal
Funded by Heritage Council, INSTAR programme. Whitehouse, N.J. (PI); Schulting, R.J. (Co-I); Bogaard, A. (Co-I); McClatchie, M. (Co-I/RF); Barratt, P. (RF), McLaughlin, R. (RF)