Environment as Agent and Actor in Iron Age, Medieval, and Early Modern Ulster

With NSF support, Dr. Tina Thurston and UK colleagues are conducting three years of fieldwork in County Armagh and County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, seeking to understand how long-term climate and environmental change interacted with changing political organization and livelihood during the last two millennia in the former polity of Ulster. Even as political conditions shifted over time, many climate change effects are also apparent, with impacts that often left socioeconomic systems obsolete, propelled change in every sector, and perhaps ultimately contributed to protection from or vulnerability to external powers. Our study views the political development of chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires between AD 1 - 1700 as instrumentalizing natural conditions to strengthen economies, guide policy, and govern, yet the same conditions also led many to falter, fragment, and reorganize. While our study does examine elite culture vis-à-vis ecological change, our primary goal is elucidating how such changes impacted the ordinary people subject to these regimes, and how they navigated demands for taxes, military service, and other obligations. We also seek data on how individuals and communities dealt with climate and environmental change in their daily lives, by altering livelihood practices, strategizing land and animal management, and implementing new ideas. During 2011–2013 the team will carry out full coverage survey, using ground-based geochemical survey, IFSAR remote sensing, and airborne hyperspectral analysis, all non-invasive, remote sensing methods that perform well with Northern Ireland’s impeded visibility, to establish a database from which settlement and population dynamics can be understood, a necessary step before social and political changes can be interpreted. Sites will then be tested, AMS dated, and characterized for site type and usage. Simultaneously, local paleoenvironmental studies will be conducted to establish conditions directly surrounding studied communities, complimentary with extant large-scale Irish climate and environmental data. The project’s ultimate goal is to compensate for historical and archaeological biases toward elite culture by using ethnohistoric approaches and novel field strategies to find the missing record of ordinary people. The dynamic socioecological landscape is both a proxy for and impress of cultural processes. Climate scholars argue that resolution of current global problems lies partly in comparative study with past responses to environmental turbulence. Governments cannot legislate all behavioral and attitude changes; ordinary people play crucial roles in coping with changing milieus. Our study emphasizes interplay between successive rulership regimes and ordinary people’s practical management of change.

Lead Investigator: 
Time Lags
Northern Ireland
Temporal Scope: 
AD 1- 1700