Sustainable change: settlement, environment and the temporality of Neolithic western Ireland

Whitefield, Andrew
Time is significantly under-theorised in the study of Irish prehistory, and evidence continues to be compartmentalised within the generalising classifications of the Three Age system. The process of Neolithisation is often taken as having been abrupt, characterised by the widespread adoption of settled-mixed-farming: permanent houses and fixed agricultural plots. This interpretation has endured since the establishment of prehistoric archaeology in Ireland, and recent quantitative research has been taken to confirm the traditional view. It is the contention of the present study that new data are often assimilated uncritically into an anachronistic culture-historical framework. The resulting characterisations of Neolithic life rely on misleading conflations of evidence. By suspending the orthodox view of life in Neolithic Ireland, and revisiting the data critically, the present study argues that many widely-held assumptions are importantly wrong. In making this case, the concept of time is first problematised, and the treatment of time in archaeology critiqued. The concept of the Neolithic is similarly deconstructed; its place in the archaeological imagination and significance to Irish national identity examined. The analysis focuses on two 'iconic' classes of material remains: field systems and rectangular timber 'houses'. The dating of both is dependent on palaeoenvironmental evidence, and the refinement of radiocarbon-based chronologies using Bayesian statistics. The application of these techniques is critically reviewed. It is demonstrated that no field system in Ireland is securely dated to the Neolithic, and that the varied function of Neolithic rectangular timber structures has been misleadingly conflated under the typological label 'house'. The study concludes that the development of traditionally-defined Neolithic lifeways in Ireland was an accretive process, varying in tempo according to local conditions. A focus on western Ireland demonstrates the inadequacy of island-wide culture-historical models of change. In order to capture temporality at the scale of the participants, an agent-centred approach is proposed.
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland