Archaeological cereals as an isotope record of long-term soil health and anthropogenic amendment in southern Scandinavia

Kurt J. Gron, Mikael Larsson, Darren R. Gröcke, Niels H. Andersen, Marianne H. Andreasen, Jens Henrik Bech, Peter Steen Henriksen, Robert G. Hilton, Mads Dengsø Jessen, Niels A. Møller, Finn Ole Nielsen, Poul Otto Nielsen, Anders Pihl, Lasse Sørensen, Jørgen Westphal, Peter Rowley-Conwy, Mike J. Church

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (SciVal)


Maintaining soil health is integral to agricultural production, and the archaeological record contains multiple lines of palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental proxy evidence that can contribute to the understanding and analysis of long-term trajectories of change that are key for contextualizing 21st century global environmental challenges. Soil is a capital resource and its nutrient balance is modified by agricultural activities, making it necessary to ensure soil productivity is maintained and managed through human choices and actions. Since prehistory this has always been the case; soil is a non-renewable resource within a human lifetime. Here, we present and interpret carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of charred cereals from southern Scandinavia. Anthropogenic effects on soils are evident from the initiation of farming 6000 years ago, as is amendment to counteract its effects. The earliest cereals were planted on pristine soils, and by the late Neolithic, agriculture extensified. By the Iron Age it was necessary to significantly amend depleted soils to maintain crop yields. We propose that these data provide a record of soil water retention, net precipitation and amendment. From the start of the Neolithic there is a concurrent decrease in both Δ13C and δ15N, mitigated only by the replacement of soil organic content in the form of manure in the Iron Age. The cereal isotopes provide a record of trajectories of agricultural sustainability and anthropogenic adaptation for nearly the entire history of farming in the region.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106762
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Archaeology


  • Agriculture
  • Archaeology
  • Cereal isotopes
  • Soil health
  • Sustainability


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