5000 years of crops and weeds

Photographs showing the diversity of plant productsIs agriculture sustainable? Will there be food for the next generation? Are we destroying the land in a blinkered grab for profit? Beginning spring 2010, the Living Field will look at whether growing crops is sustainable in Scotland - whether people a thousand years from now will still be fed from the land, or whether farmland will give out, with unimaginable consequences.

5000 years of crops and weeds will go back into the history of the cropped lands in Scotland. It will look at the close association of plants and people since agriculture began. It will examine the present state of cropland and predict what will need to be done to keep it productive. It will treat people as part of the farmed ecosystem, not as something external or unnatural, but like other organisms, shaping it and being ruled by it.

The Living Field Garden, the Institute's farms and the paths network will display many of the plant species during 2010- 2012. The links below will lead to further information and background reading:

Sustainable croplands - the Risks

Photograph: layers, Aberdeenshire farmland (Squire)This project on the history and future of crops and wild plants grew out of current research on the sustainability of food production. Attempts to define sustainability led us back to the early days of agriculture around the coasts of the north east Atlantic. The problems were real in every age - having enough to eat, balancing offtake with what's left for the soil, making cash out of crops to buy things and having time to appreciate the landscape. Did any previous people on these islands get it right or is our task to not get it wrong?

To help answer these questions, 5000 years of crops and weeds will go back into the history of the cropped lands in Scotland. It will look at the close association of plants and people since agriculture began. It will examine the present state of cropland and predict what will need to be done to keep it productive. It will treat people as part of the farmed ecosystem, not as something external or unnatural, but like other organisms, shaping it and being ruled by it.

5000 years will show the effect on agriculture of climate, soil, topography and people in maritime Scotland. It asks whether any past state offers an example of sustainable agriculture. To provide a practical framework for this study, web pages on the Risks will examine what is meant by harm, risk, resilience and sustainability; what poses the greater risk - an extreme event like a volcanic eruption that obscures the sun or the gradual erosion of croplands by poor mangement and a greedy society; and whether and how sustainable food production can be defined.

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The plants

Photograph: teasel, young head, ancient usage (Living Field collection)5000 years looks specially at the plants of arable landscapes, what they do, where they came from, how they are used and what they might yet contribute.  It will look at how migrants and settlers, in wave on wave since the Stone Age, have repeatedly adapted the existing plants and imported their own, not only for food and to feed their animals, but for aesthetic, medicinal and industrial designs.

The Living Field garden, study centre and the surrounding farmland will display examples from the main plant groups used by people from the late Stone Age to the present, including - the cereals, mainly wheats, barleys and oats; plants once used as food, but now weeds; modern weeds from modern crops; herbs for medicine and cooking; legumes for nitrogen fixation and protein; dyes and oils. 

Information on the plants and more detailed reference material will be posted throughout 2010 and 2011 on the Plants web pages.

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The ages

Notes on the introduction, uses, management and development of crops and wild plants in the agriculture of maritime, northern Britain will be added to this website from April 2011. Periods covered include the present - the state of croplands in the early twenty-hundreds; biotech crops; the last 30 years, including some positives not widely appreciated; the agrochemical years and the great rise in yield; the age of improvement through machines, manure and breeding; the influence of the Romans; the Iron Age and the Celts; Bronze Age expansion; the Neolithic where it began; and the future - what has to happen for agriculture to be sustained.

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General reading

Photograph: Strathmore, producing food since the Neolithic (Squire)No single book or treatise covers this topic. The short books in the series The making of Scotland  (ed. Barclay G, Canongate Books / Historic Scotland) are a good beginning. The following is an evolving list of books and articles that should appeal to interested readers who want to get deeper into the subject.

Ashmore PJ. 1996. Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland. BT Batsford / Historic Scotland. 128 pages.  ISBN 0 7134 7530 7.

Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire. 320 pages. ISBN 0 7524 1905 6.

Gombrich EH. 1936. A little history of the world. Translated into english, Yale University Press. 284 pages. ISBN 978 0 300 14332 4 (paperback). [Ignore the blurb - this is a history for grown ups!]

Hawkes J. 1951. A land. Pelican books (1959). 223 pages.

Pryor F. 2003. Britain BC. Paperback published 2004 by Harper Perennial. 488 pages. ISBN 978 0 00 712693 4. .

Rackham O. 1986. The history of the countryside. Dent / paperback edition published in 2000 by Phoenix Press, London. 445 pages. ISBN 1 84212 440 4.

Smout TC. 2000. Nature contested - environmental history in Scotland and Northern England since 1600. Edinburgh University Press. 210 pages. ISBN 0 7486 1411 7 (paperback)

Wickham-Jones, CR. 1994. Scotland's first settlers. BT Batsford  / Historic Scotland. 128 pages. ISBN 07134 7371 1.

Wilson P, King M. 2003. Arable plants - a field guide. English Nature / Wildguides Ltd. ISBN 1-903657-02-4. www.arableplants.fieldguide.co.uk. (More than a guide, valuable on history and significance.)

Wood E. 2009. Peatbogs, plague and potatoes. Luath Press, Edinburgh. 237 pages. ISBN 978 1 906307 37 0 (paperback).

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Places to visit

The Kilmartin House Museum in Argyll, Scotland, UK (excellent for a visit to the stunning Kilmartin Glen) is one of the few museums that gives weight to the importance of farming in the transition from nomadic to settled cultures and in all subsequent transitions in northern Britain.

The National Museum of Rural Life at Wester Kittochside, East Kilbride, Scotland, UK has extensive and detailed exhibitions and a working farm.

Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site including Maeshowe and Skara Brae (both with visitor centres), the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse Settlement.

The Scottish Crannog Centre Loch Tay, west of Aberfeldy, Scotland UK has a reconstructed crannog (a defensive homestead build on wooden piles driven into water) and various displays and exhibits on crannog life.

Other Web links

Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, UK.

Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre, Ireland - excellent and inspiring museum and Neolithic sites (though not much on plants, food and agriculture).

Butser Ancient Farm near Petersfield, Hampshire UK.

Laxton Medieval Village Learning Resource University of Nottingham, UK.

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Thanks

5000 years is based on a research programme on plants, soils and climate funded by the Scottish Government. The following people and organisations have provided material, advice or practical help.

  • Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands -  for seed of emmer wheat, spelt wheat and black oat for the Living Field garden. 
  • Barony Mills, Birsay, Orkney for samples of bere, oat and wheat meal and bere grain
  • Wild colours for advice on natural dyes and dyestuffs

Contact

The contact at SCRI for the 5000 years project is Geoff Squire.

[This page began 1 March 2010. Last updated 19 July 2011 with added text and new links.]

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