Arable agriculture in prehistory: new evidence from soils in the Northern Isles
Northern Isles; Orkney; Shetland; Scotland; UK
Iron Age, Bronze Age, Neolithic
A Neolithic agricultural soil, a Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age soil and a range of midden
deposits were analysed from the multi-period settlement sites of Tofts Ness, Sanday, Orkney and Old
Scatness, Shetland. The analysis was undertaken in order to compare the midden material which
had accumulated within the settlement to the cultural material in the arable fields. The comparison
was undertaken in order to determine whether manuring was practised in the Neolithic and, if so,
to identify which materials were selected as fertilizers. Thin section micromorphology, phosphate
analysis, particle size distribution and loss on ignition were used to identify and characterize the
materials which were added to the soil. The results indicate that in the Neolithic period at Tofts Ness
the middens themselves were cultivated, although midden material was also added as fertilizer to
the fields around the site. The cultivation of midden heaps in the Neolithic may have been a common
practice and is evidence for intensive arable agriculture on a small scale. The cultivation of a Late
Bronze Age to Early Iron Age midden at Old Scatness, Shetland suggests continuity of the practice.
Parallels are drawn with other Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites.