Institute of Archaeology


NERC award for project: Unlocking wetland ecologies and agriculture in prehistory

25 February 2022

Rhiannon Stevens and Hazel Reade (UCL Institute of Archaeology) have been awarded NERC funding for collaborative research with the University of Leeds and UKCEH.


Since the advent of farming, water has been central to agricultural productivity. However, the way in which people made use of natural water resources in the past, or manipulated these resources to meet their needs, is not adequately understood.

While archaeologists can find indirect evidence of water management systems used in the past through the irrigation infrastructure and tools that these practices left behind, or from texts detailing agricultural strategies, they currently do not have adequate methods to directly determine the water conditions a particular field/crop/animal was raised under, particularly in landscapes where the use of wetlands may have been significant.

The overarching aim of this 3-year NERC funded project, led by Rhiannon Stevens with Co-Investigators at the University of Leeds and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), is to develop sulphur isotope analysis of archaeological plant and animal remains as a tool for inferring soil water conditions during agricultural production. Mechanisms will be established through growing plants in the UKCEH GroDome using different watering regimes. By reconstructing soil water conditions under which prehistoric agriculture took place, the role of water use and manipulation of water resources in the establishment and intensification of prehistoric agriculture will be investigated.

The results of this innovative project will have implications for our current food production systems, especially in meeting the challenges of maintaining agricultural productivity under an ever increasingly unpredictable climate.