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Title: Farming on the edge in the Bronze Age : prehistoric settlement and field systems in Shetland
Author: Christie, Claire L.
ISNI:       0000 0004 9358 5289
Awarding Body: University of Aberdeen
Current Institution: University of Aberdeen
Date of Award: 2019
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The transition to agriculture is one of the fundamental transformations in human society, but the evolution, organisation, and character of early farming landscapes of the Neolithic and Bronze Age in many regions are poorly understood. Longstanding difficulties in the identification of settlement sites and their poor preservation have led to divergent theories surrounding the nature of early farming (see Thomas 1991). In Scotland, a collation of the evidence indicates a complex and regionally diverse range of settlement patterns and agricultural practices. The opportunities to explore prehistoric settlement and agricultural practices at a landscape scale are limited. The rarely paralleled (but poorly understood) preservation of extensive prehistoric houses, field systems, and burial monuments in the West Mainland, Shetland afford on such opportunity to understanding prehistoric societies. The archaeology of Shetland in terms of extent and preservation can be characterised not by individual sites, but by preserved prehistoric landscapes. The remains, preserved by the spread of peat and the lack of subsequent intensive plough-based agriculture, are widely considered to date from the Neolithic - Bronze Age. Our present understanding of the archaeology of Shetland is founded upon two principles: that distinctive site types can be identified and that they date to the Neolithic/Bronze Age. The principle aim of this thesis was to more fully understanding the potential diversity of settlement forms. The methodological approach of this thesis to map landscapes using aerial photography transcription and field survey produced a detailed dataset. The mapping revealed striking levels of variation with sites ranging in scale from unenclosed houses and singular enclosures to irregular field systems and extensive boundaries. The application of GIS analysis illuminated differences in topographic setting and landscape associations between different site types. The results of this analysis enable a more nuanced discussion of the chronological relationship between features, their development and overall function. In exploring chronological development, it became apparent that sites contained hidden levels of complexity. This thesis exemplifies the value of adopting a multi-scalar approach combining landscape and site-based analysis. The excavations of small site at Troni Shun provide a cautionary tale in assuming that form defines function and date. The excavations revealed unequivocal evidence for significant reuse and remodelling in the first millennium AD. As a result, sites previously understood as having a single chronological horizon can no longer be uncritically interpreted as such. The key outcomes of this thesis are to highlight the potential for the reuse, recycling and remodelling of sites and to establish a more secure chronological framework. The combination of the survey and excavated evidence with detailed reassessment of the radiocarbon dates from Shetland indicates that the field systems are likely to date from the Bronze Age. This allows for the archaeology of Shetland be incorporated into wider discussion of Bronze Age societal developments. The title of this thesis is deliberately problematic with the results challenging the perception of Shetland as “on the edge” in prehistory and in archaeological research.
Supervisor: Noble, Gordon Sponsor: Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Agriculture, Prehistoric ; Excavations (Archaeology) ; Bronze Age ; Neolithic period ; Shetland (Scotland)