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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Mike Church

Bishop, R. R., Church, M. J., Lawson, I. T., Roucoux, K. H., O’Brien, C., Ranner, H., Heald, A. J. & Flitcroft, C. E. (2018). Deforestation and human agency in the North Atlantic region: Archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence from the Western Isles of Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 84: 145-184.

Author(s) from Durham


This paper considers the timing and mechanisms of deforestation in the Western Isles of Scotland, focusing in particular on the landscape around the Calanais stone circles, one of the best preserved late Neolithic/early Bronze Age monumental landscapes in north-west Europe. We present new archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence from a soil and peat sequence at the site of Aird Calanais, which spans the main period of use of the Calanais circles. We then draw on a new synthesis of archaeobotanical and palynological evidence from across the Western Isles and a review of comparable data from the wider North Atlantic zone, before assessing the role of early farming communities in clearing the wooded landscapes of the region. Pollen and radiocarbon dating at the site of Aird Calanais reveal that a layer of birch branches, dating to the late Neolithic (2912–2881 cal bc), was contemporaneous with a decline in woodland at the site, as well as with the major phase of Neolithic activity at the Calanais stone circle complex. However, our synthesis of the pollen and plant macrofossil evidence from across the Western Isles suggests that the picture across these islands was altogether more complex: woodlands declined both before, as well as during, the Neolithic and deciduous woodlands remained sufficiently abundant for Neolithic fuel procurement. Finally, we consider the implications of the results for understanding the interactions between first farmers and woodlands in the wider North Atlantic region.