Landscapes from the outside: the extent of prehistoric settlement

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spatial patterning of prehistoric and early historic sites in the Dublin area; A Mesolithic, B Neolithic, C Earlier Bronze Age, D Later Bronze Age and Iron Age (from Stout and Stout 1992).

The impact of prehistoric settlement on the Irish landscape was much more widespread than has been previously suggested. Examination of the overall pattern of distribution of monuments and artefacts indicates that there were very few areas of Ireland that did not witness prehistoric activity. Analysis of regional or local sequences suggests activity through the major periods in prehistory, but what does change is the character of the evidence (see Stout and Stout’s 1992 study of the spatial patterning of prehistoric and early historic sites in the Dublin area). This raises the question of the degree and nature of continuity in this evidence.

The reliance on pollen analysis to suggest the character and effect of prehistoric farming and vegetational history has led to a perception and presentation of the evidence of the settlement landscape as representing phases of farming expansion alternating with regeneration of the forest cover (e.g. Weir 1995). The prominence of this view in the literature has led to simplistic formulations of the character of the prehistoric landscape when interpreted by, for example, historical geographers (e.g. Smyth 1993:404; Whelan 1994:63). However, the difficulties of interpretation of the pollen record in landscape terms (e.g. Edwards 1979, 1982) should make us very wary of accepting a reconstruction of the course of human impact on the environment that, by definition, is based on derived rather than direct landscape evidence. It is clear that palynological interpretation is also influenced by views put forward in the archaeological literature, leading to the danger of a circular argument. Thus until recently any apparent decrease in archaeological evidence was frequently read as representing an equivalent reduction in the extent and intensity of human settlement and as indicative of increasing economic difficulties (see Woodman 1992:297). Gaps in the archaeological record for particular timespans, such as the late prehistoric so-called ‘dark age’ between 600–300 BC, were seen to indicate periods of agricultural adversity, usually attributed to climatic deterioration or environmental stress, and the pollen evidence was both slotted into this framework and used to support it.

But perhaps more at issue are two aspects of the way in which we as archaeologists look at prehistoric human activity in the landscape. First, there is the question of our ability to detect human activity when there are no large-scale, high-profile monuments or easily datable artefacts. One obvious example is the sparsity of megalithic tombs dating to the Neolithic in the southern half of Ireland —an area that is now known to have been extensively settled during the Neolithic period. Another example is the recently realised potential of estuarine landscapes in later prehistory (e.g. O’Sullivan 1995), areas that had previously not featured in archaeological research strategies. Ironically the great wealth of surviving prehistoric monuments in Ireland has tended to lead to a devalued view of other types of archaeological information, such as lithic scatters and the distribution and context of metalwork. Second, there is the tendency to assume that the human response to environmental change can be isolated from other aspects of life. For example, the growing emphasis on bogs, rivers and lakes from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age as places of deposition of metalwork and other material could be a response to a deteriorating and wetter climate, but it also has to be seen as a trend in social behaviour that stretches over two millennia, as a complement to activity on dry land such as burial practice and in the context of the nature and value of the material placed in wetland contexts (Cooney and Grogan 1994).


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