Early farming practices at Balbridie brought to light

Analysis of cereal grains recovered from Neolithic sites in Scotland have revealed that the first farmers adapted their methods based on individual soil conditions.

Recent analysis of cereal grains preserved at Balbridie, a Neolithic timber hall that burnt down in the early 4th millennium BC, has shed new light on farming practices during this period, showing that they were not uniform and instead varied by region.

Balbridie in Aberdeenshire was excavated between 1977 and 1981 (see CA 70) but, as part of ongoing post-excavation research, the archaeobotanical samples recovered from the timber hall were recently reassessed using modern scientific techniques. Consisting of over 20,000 cereal grains, this is one of the largest archaeobotanical assemblages recovered from a Neolithic site in Britain and, as such, provides a unique opportunity to learn more about cultivation practices at this time.

IMAGE: R R Bishop, Antiquity Ltd

A multidisciplinary team, including researchers from the University of Stavanger in Norway, as well as from the Universities of Durham, Edinburgh, and the Highlands and Islands, carried out stable isotope analysis on the grains from Balbridie and compared them with similar archaeobotanical assemblages found at Dubton Farm, just to the south, as well as at Skara Brae and the Braes of Ha’Breck in Orkney. The results, which were recently published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.107), showed that Balbridie was a bit of an outlier in terms of farming practices, but that each site had some variation, demonstrating that the first farmers adapted their methods based on individual soil conditions.

At the Orkney sites, barley appears to have been the dominant grain, while at Dubton Farm, it was more evenly split between wheat and barley. At Balbridie, however, the majority of grain was wheat, with a smaller proportion of barley found. The uniformly low nitrogen isotope values at Balbridie indicate that the crops were probably all grown in similar soil, which was unlikely to have been manured. The carbon isotope values, however, were more variable than if they had all been grown under the same conditions. Combined, these results seem to suggest that the crops may have been planted on the same, unmanured, fields but for different harvests.

By contrast, the grains from the other three Scottish Neolithic sites all showed signs of having been cultivated in manured soil, although the degree of manuring varied (above). Additionally, all crops from these sites, especially the ones in Orkney, appear to have been grown in a range of different soils. The stable isotope evidence from the grain stored at the Braes of Ha’Breck was particularly variable, suggesting that the crop may have been planted over a relatively large area. Overall, either by storing grain from different harvests and/or by planting them in different fields, Neolithic farmers appear to have taken steps to protect against crop failure.