Environmental indifference? A critique of environmentally deterministic theories of peatland archaeological site construction in Ireland

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Climate change, whether gradual or sudden, has frequently been invoked as a causal factor to explain many aspects of cultural change during the prehistoric and early historic periods. Critiquing such theories has often proven difficult, not least because of the imprecise dating of many aspects of the palaeoclimate or archaeological records and the difficulties of merging the two strands of research. Here we consider one example of the archaeological record – peatland site construction in Ireland – which has previously been interpreted in terms of social response to climate change and examine whether close scrutiny of the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records uphold the climatically deterministic hypotheses. We evaluate evidence for phasing in the temporal distribution of trackways and related sites in Irish peatlands, of which more than 3,500 examples have been recorded, through the examination of ~350 dendrochronological and 14C dates from these structures. The role of climate change in influencing when such sites were constructed is assessed by comparing visually and statistically the frequency of sites over the last 4,500 years with well-dated, multi-proxy climate reconstructions from Irish peatlands. We demonstrate that national patterns of “peatland activity” exist that indicate that the construction of sites in bogs was neither a constant nor random phenomenon. Phases of activity (i.e. periods in which the number of structures increased), as well as the ‘lulls’ that separate them, show no consistent correlation with periods of wetter or drier conditions on the bogs, suggesting that the impetus for the start or cessation of such activity was not climatically-determined. We propose that trigger(s) for peatland site construction in Ireland must instead also be sought within the wider, contemporary social background. Perhaps not surprisingly, a comparison with archaeological and palynological evidence shows that peatland activity tends to occur at times of more expansive settlement and land-use, suggesting that the bogs were used when the landscape was being more widely occupied. Interestingly, the lulls in peatland site construction coincide with transitional points between nominal archaeological phases, typically defined on the basis of their material culture, implying that there may indeed have been a cultural discontinuity at these times.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-31
Number of pages15
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Early online date17 Dec 2012
Publication statusPublished - 01 Feb 2013


  • Peatland archaeology
  • Holocene climate change
  • Environmental impact
  • Environmental determinism
  • Ireland
  • Summed probability functions


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