Pollen study sees no sign of Bronze Age population drop in Orkney

Michelle Farrell extracing blanket peat samples from Hobbister, Orphir.

A long-held idea that the population of Orkney dropped in the Bronze Age appears to be far from correct, according to the latest palaeoecological data gathered from the county. Michelle Farrell and Dr Jane Bunting, from the University of Hull, have been back in the county collecting environmental samples to supplement those collected last year.

Michelle’s research, part of her work for a PhD on Palaeoecology and prehistoric human society in Orkney, was outlined at a science festival talk in Kirkwall last week. Her preliminary finds indicate that there was no major change in the level of human activity in Orkney throughout the Bronze Age.

The assumption is that the population of Orkney declined as the climate deteriorated. Increased rainfall and falling temperatures meant, it was suggested, life became harder and resulted in an exodus from the islands.

But according to Michelle, pollen from last year’s samples indicates otherwise.


Picture: Jane BuntingCores were taken from sites in the West Mainland, Hoy, Westray, Minehowe in Tankerness and South Ronaldsay.

Analysis of pollen grains found in these “environmental archives” document how the vegetation changed over time, allowing an interpretation of how the land was used.

A drop in cereal cultivation, for example, would be represented by a decline in cereal pollen, and related weeds, along with an increase in pollen from the weeds and grasses that moved in to colonise the former cereal fields.

After a year of counting pollen, Michelle is convinced the exodus – cited as the apparent lack of Bronze Age remains in the county – didn’t happen.

“There’s no suggestion that they went anywhere,” Michelle said. “The climate may have changed but the people persevered. There was no drop in activity and there was no land abandonment.”

On Hoy, for example, it appears that the Bronze Age inhabitants were managing the spreading heathland – burning the heather much as we continue to do today.

Samples taken from South Ronaldsay, with its good farmland, and Hoy, with less arable land, show that in both areas people continued to work right through the Bronze Age. But at both sites there seems to be a lack of pollen associated with cereal growing but plenty of evidence for grazing animals.

“There was clearly people about ‘doing stuff’ added Jane Bunting. “People seem to have just adapted and got on with what they needed to survive.”

The research has also confirmed the extent of tree cover in prehistoric Orkney.

“There’s quite a lot of tree pollen which has shown us that birch, hazel, willow and alder growing here around 4000BC,” said Michelle. “We’ve also got pine pollen which could mean there was pine growing here, although we need to do more work on this. It’s possible that the pine pollen was blown here from else where – carried on the wind – but from the amount we’re seeing, I think it must have been growing somewhere.”

This woodland, they suggest, was probably similar to that which survives at Berriedale in Hoy, which is made up of birch, hazel and alder. However, the exact nature of this tree cover is not clear yet.

“It may have been low scrubby woodland,” said Jane, “but even if that were the case it was coast-to-coast scrub. And this itself would have provided shelter for what might have been larger, more substantial, areas of woodland in the middle.”

“But then the Neolithic people either came in and removed the woodland – clearing the land for their own use – or arrived as the woodland was starting to disappear.”

As well as continuing the pollen analysis, this year’s work also hopes to shed light on the suspected climate change that took place in Orkney from the Bronze Age onwards.

In particular, Michelle and Jane hope they can track the climate conditions – ascertaining when, and how severe, any change took place – using samples of blanket peat taken from Hobbister in Orphir. The development of blanket peat is dependent on rainfall, so it’s hoped the Hobbister cores will allow a picture of Orkney’s prehistoric rainfall pattern.

At the end of the second year of sampling, Jane Bunting is looking forward to more.

“You definitely need more environmental work up here. There’s so much to study across the landscape.

“Further study would allow a clearer picture of Orkney’s prehistoric landscape, and as such, help understand more about the many well-preserved archaeological sites across the islands.

She added: “I want to know more about the Orkney landscape in prehistory, as well as the objects found and the buildings the people were using and living in.”


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