The contribution of integrated geoarchaeological methods to the interpretation of life-histories of rural settlement sites

Rural settlement sites were dynamic and often complex, and each one will have had a unique lifehistory that evolved out of a specific physical and social environment, a distinctive cultural and economic context, and a historically contingent network of material and economic entanglements. The distinctiveness of each settlement’s developmental trajectory and social and material interactions with neighbouring (or more distant) settlements, means that it is highly fruitful to focus research on the individual biography of each site. Yet the complexity and dynamism of settlement sites, which can result in complicated and disturbed stratigraphy, means that their excavation, analysis and interpretation can pose an immense challenge to archaeologists.

To understand the full biography of settlement sites, it is necessary to seek evidence for the pre-site environment, whether any alterations were made to the site to prepare it for settlement, and whether the development of the site included any phases of periodic or seasonal occupation. We also need to excavate and analyse sites in a way that enables us to determine whether there were distinct functional areas in residential buildings, on farmsteads, and in the wider rural landscape. We need to understand the nature of the spatial relationships between activities associated with household production, such as animal management, the production of storable food products, textiles, and iron (which might be associated with specific age or gender identities within the household), and activities associated with daily living (e.g. cooking, eating, toileting, sleeping). We also need to use methods that will enable us to understand how these functional areas changed and/or changed locations over time. Finally, we need to be able to understand the final phases of the settlement site, and how its physicality has been altered by post-depositional processes.

Geoarchaeological methods, when integrated well into an archaeological research design, have the potential to contribute information to each of these aspects of a settlement’s life-history. These methods become particularly important on rural sites that do not have sufficiently good organic preservation for the survival of insects or uncharred wood or plant macro-fossils. Soil micromorphology in particular has been tried and tested as a means of providing high-resolution data about site stratigraphy, and the composition, origins, and post-depositional alteration of different archaeological contexts, which would otherwise be difficult to infer. When integrated with other geoarchaeological techniques that also offer information about the spatial organisation of activity areas, such as multi-element, micro-refuse, magnetic susceptibility, and lipid biomarker analyses, the archaeologist has a potentially powerful toolkit for understanding the life-history of settlements. Drawing on a number of case studies from early medieval rural sites in northern Europe, including the in-progress micromorphological analysis of soil and sediment from Bornais, on the island of South Uist, Western Isles of Scotland, this talk will discuss how the high-definition data generated by integrated geoarchaeological approaches can provide information crucial to the understanding of the life-histories of rural settlement sites.