Opening the woods: towards a quantification of Neolithic clearance around the Somerset Levels and Moors



Farrell M, Bunting MJ, Sturt F, Grant M, Aalbersberg G, Batchelor R, Brown A, Druse D, Hill T, Hollinrake A, Jones J, Tinsley H, Bayliss A, Marshall P, Richer S & Whittle A (2020) Opening the woods: towards a quantification of Neolithic clearance around the Somerset Levels and Moors. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 27 (2), pp. 271-301.

Environmental reconstructions from pollen records collected within archaeological landscapes have traditionally taken a broadly narrative approach, with few attempts made at hypothesis testing or formal assessment of uncertainty. This disjuncture between the traditional interpretive approach to palynological data and the requirement for detailed, locally specific reconstructions of the landscapes in which people lived has arguably hindered closer integration of palaeoecological and archaeological datasets in recent decades. Here we implement a fundamentally different method for reconstructing past land cover from pollen records to the landscapes of and around the Somerset Levels and Moors — the Multiple Scenario Approach (MSA) — to reconstruct land cover for a series of 200-year timeslices covering the period 4200–2000 cal BC. Modelling of both archaeological and sediment chronologies enables integration of reconstructed changes in land cover with archaeological evidence of contemporary Neolithic human activity. The MSA reconstructions are presented as a series of land cover maps and as graphs of quantitative measures of woodland clearance tracked over time. Our reconstructions provide a more nuanced understanding of the scale and timing of Neolithic clearance than has previously been available from narrative based interpretations of pollen data. While the archaeological record tends to promote a view of long-term continuity in terms of the persistent building of wooden structures in the wetlands, our new interpretation of the palynological data contributes a more dynamic and varying narrative. Our case study demonstrates the potential for further integration of archaeological and palynological datasets, enabling us to get closer to the landscapes in which people lived.

Somerset Levels and Moors; Multiple Scenario Approach; Chronological modelling; Palynology; Neolithic; Land cover; Clearance

Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory: Volume 27, Issue 2

FundersEnglish Heritage
Publication date30/06/2020
Publication date online21/09/2019
Date accepted by journal08/08/2019

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Professor Alexandra Bayliss

Professor Alexandra Bayliss

Professor, Biological and Environmental Sciences

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