Negotiating Coasts and Islands: Landscape and Environmental Perspectives

Organisers Matt Law (Cardiff University), Julia Best (Cardiff University), Jennifer Jones (Cardiff University) and David Smith (University of Birmingham)
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2011 marks thirty years since the publication of Brothwell and Dimbleby’s ‘Environmental Aspects of Coasts and Islands’, whose contributions presented several scientific frameworks for interpreting coastal and island sites and the biological assemblages they yield. Much has changed in thirty years, not least the refinement of isotopic analyses, the availability of larger palaeoecological datasets allowing more nuanced interpretation, and an increasing desire by workers in both camps to bridge the divide between cultural and environmental archaeology. In the UK, there has been a particularly rich range of coastal and island sites investigated thanks to numerous research, volunteer, and developer-led projects. Coasts may be either central or marginal to past societies, and are ecotones that offer diverse natural resources as well as opportunities to spread goods, livestock, people and ideas. This session welcomes papers which explore recent methodological and theoretical developments in the study and interpretation of past human – environment interactions in coastal and island settings.

Seeing through the sand: prehistoric settlement & environmental change on Herm

Speaker: Chris Scarre (Durham University)

The small Channel Island of Herm combines several distinct habitats within its restricted compass, ranging from steep rocky coasts and rolling upland plateau in the south to a dune-fringed sandy lowland in the north. Where upland and lowland meet, a row of modest megalithic monuments (mainly tombs) constitute the island’s most striking archaeological remains. Four seasons of fieldwork (2008-2011) have sought to determine the environmental history of northern Herm since the last glacial and to place the tombs within the broader context of Neolithic settlement. Through an extensive series of trenches and auger holes we have revealed the changing morphology of the prehistoric land surface that lies buried beneath the extensive deposits of aeolian sand that cover this part of the island. Much of the lowland plain, to our surprise, was once occupied by a deep marine inlet, and prehistoric communities extensively manured the land to keep marginal soils under cultivation. Other traces of settlement and cultivation (notably plough marks) indicate the tombs were built within an agricultural landscape. This has relevance for the proposal that islands were sometimes favoured places for burial by communities visiting from neighbouring mainlands. One of the most striking outcomes of the Herm project has however been the detailed environmental history of the island.

A palaeoecological approach to understanding the impact of coastalchanges on past societies, Isles of Scilly, UK

Speakers: Marta Perez (University of Plymouth), Ralph Fyfe (University of Plymouth), Roland Gehrels (University of Plymouth) & Dan Charman (University of Exeter)
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Relative sea-level rise and storm intensity are key factors influencing the subsistence strategies of coastal communities throughout the Holocene. The inundation and alteration of coastal ecosystems and resources of coastal areas will have a greater impact in island communities, dues to the constraints on the extent and viability of the terrestrial resource base.

Islands are also more sensitive to the intensity of storms, particularly on the northwest Atlantic coast of Europe, where storm surges on exposed coasts produced high sea floods and movement of sands.

Possible responses of people in the past may have included abandonments and/or population displacement and intensification of use of a smaller land area. We will explore these possibilities using the Isles of Scilly as a case study. These are an archipelago of small islands located 28 miles off the South West coast of England with a rich archaeological record from the Early Bronze Age onwards.

We will present stratigraphy and results analyses from cores collected from the two main wetland areas of the Scillies on St Mary’s: the Higher Moors and the Lower Moors. Terrestrial pollen records are used to detect past changes in local vegetation. Loss on Ignition and particle size analysis are used to create a record of storm intensity in the islands. Chronologies for these records will be provided using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating. It will then be possible to look for correlation between changes in vegetation, archaeological and sea-level records.

Islands & isotopes: Using a holistic approach towards understanding Marine Resource use in the North Atlantic Island

Speaker: Jennifer Jones (Cardiff University)

The coastal dwelling communities of the North Atlantic Islands have a long and complex relationship with the sea. Understanding this changing relationship over time is a constant challenge faced by archaeologists studying the region. The development of scientific techniques such as stable isotope analysis and lipid residue analysis have changed the way we can begin to understand marine resource use in the islands. To date human stable isotope evidence has been a focus of research, however faunal vales can be just as useful to understand foddering practises, to put the human data into context, and to generate models of background carbon and nitrogen values through time. Using zooarchaeological information alongside stable isotope data is crucial in identifying smaller scale patterns in marine food use that may not necessarily show up in the stable isotope analysis such as occasional or seasonal use of marine foods, Zooarchaeological studies are essential in recognising alternative uses of marine resources such as for artefact manufacture, or architectural construction. By using newer scientific techniques alongside more traditional zooarchaeological analysis it is possible to generate holistic models of marine resource use through time.

On the Evidence for Bronze Age Funerary Rites: Change or Continuity? Understanding Human Remains Excavated from Langstone Harbour

Speaker: Edwin Pearson (University of Exeter)

The special wildlife conservation area of Langstone Harbour also contains a rich archaeological record which has been gradually disappearing, and is now doing so at an increasing rate. The present-day marine inlet, consisting of intertidal mudflats, channels and remaining islands has been formed by erosion of the prehistoric low-lying river basin rather than by inundation, as in the case of other estuarine archaeological sites (e.g. Wootton-Quarr, Goldcliff, Hullbridge, Blackwater Estuary, Shannon Estuary). This erosion continues today at an ever-increasing rate on North Binnes Island (Pearson 2009) and has exposed a wealth of archaeological data for time periods from the Palaeolithic to the present, most notably revealing Bronze Age funerary practice centred on prehistoric river outlets, in particular a very recent discovery of a buried human cranium. The islands have, indeed very uniquely to Britain, undergone minimal affect by anthropogenic activity since the Iron Age and for this reason represent an undisturbed transitional period of funerary rights spanning the Middle to Late Bronze Age. There has been little emphasis on Late Bronze Age practices involving human remains throughout Britain. New ground-breaking evidence at Langstone Harbour has recently shed light on Bronze Age funerary principles and ideologies in connection with other sites in Britain, in particular Stonehenge, and in-depth technological aspects of cremation processes. A difference in burial types between contexts has also exposed a specific timeframe for potential cultural shift from the Middle to Late Bronze Age. This may have implications for the dawn of the Iron Age.

Beach Detritus as a Cultural Resource in Island Societies

Speaker: Matt Law (Cardiff University)

To a continental/ mainland mindset, islands can often seem marginal, although in fact they may have been at the centre of widely-connected seaborne trade routes. Despite the scope for maritime trade, material acquisition may be difficult. Island flora and fauna are usually impoverished relative to continents, particularly with respect to terrestrial species, and mineral resources may also be quite poor. In this scenario, items cast ashore by the sea can represent a valuable source of raw materials This paper briefly considers this in relation to the Outer Hebrides, Scotland in light of excavations over the past thirty years. The kinds of materials cast ashore, their original source and their uses will be discussed, as well as the implications of such chance arrivals of materials for social organization.

A Bird’s eye view: Interpreting landscape & environment use through avian remains

Speaker: Julia Best (Cardiff University)

In Brothwell and Dimbleby’s ‘Environmental Aspects of Coasts and Islands’ Don Brothwell, Don Bramwell and Graham Cowels discussed the relevance of bird remains for understanding coastal and island sites.  Thirty years on avian archaeology has become much less marginalised and has great potential to inform upon human resource exploitation, habitat use and movements around the landscape. This paper discusses avian material from the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.  It explores the range of habits being exploited for fowling, seasonal resource landscapes and the acquisition of birds from locations at some distance from a site.  The newly analysed assemblage from Cille Pheadair on South Uist will be used as a case study to explore in greater detail the avian-human relationships present in these landscapes. Human impact on past bird populations will also be considered for species such as the great auk, while alterations in the species chosen for exploitation will be used to infer changes in the use of the resource landscape.

Can insects be used to differentiate between ‘high’ & ‘low’ salt marsh environments in the archaeological record?

Speakers: David Smith & Kalla Nayyar (University of Birmingham)

Insect faunas from Bronze and Iron Age buildings at the Goldcliff and Redwick sites on the Gwent Levels, Wales have been used to suggest how such features may have been used in the past and the environments in which they occurred. A relatively unexplored part of this is the part of the fauna that is associated with saline conditions and salt marsh. Results from this analysis suggest that it may be possible to differentiate between ‘low’ salt marsh and ‘high’ salt marsh.  This may influence the daily and seasonal use of these archaeological features and suggest, along with other factors, the length of occupation of the site.

Lastly a plea will be made to stop calling submerged forests eroding out of beach deposits  ‘coastal woodlands’. The insect remains suggest they are not.

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