Research Article: Manuring practices in the first millennium AD in southern Sweden inferred from isotopic analysis of crop remains

Date Published: April 18, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Mikael Larsson, Jakob Bergman, Per Lagerås, Peter F. Biehl.


This study uses crop stable nitrogen isotope analysis of charred grain to explore manuring practices in arable production at the affluent regional center Uppåkra and a set of smaller surrounding sites, dating to the first millennium AD in southern Sweden. The isotopic analysis focuses on hulled barley, the principle crop in the Scandinavian Iron Age, and the minor crops: bread wheat, emmer wheat, rye and oat, are included to compare manuring practices in cultivation of other crop species during this period. A field experiment was first conducted to establish relationships between manuring and δ15N values in modern grain from known growing conditions. The data formed an interpretive framework to reconstruct past agricultural practices and manuring intensity in the archaeological study area. Our results from the ancient grains have demonstrated that barley from the early phase in the study area (AD 0–200) varies widely in its δ15N values, reflecting mixed manuring regimes. In the following periods (AD 200–1000), isotopic values are relatively high overall, indicating systematic input of manure. In this paper, we explore whether the isotopic data that indicates sustained and high manuring levels could reflect the wealth of Uppåkra and its surrounding areas by showing prosperity also in its agricultural production, since intensive manuring would have required more resource and labor investments. The new crop nitrogen isotopic data shed light on the agricultural practices of a long-lived Iron Age center and its surrounding areas.

Partial Text

During the Scandinavian Iron Age (500 BC–AD 1050), several large and affluent settlements developed which occupied central positions of economic and political power [1,2]. One of these settlements was the regional center Uppåkra in southern Sweden, dating back to the first century BC, and it remained an important site for over a millennium [3–6]. Such continuous habitation of a settlement was rare in northern Europe at that time.

The results from the nitrogen isotope analysis of modern barley in the field experiment show a clear difference in grain δ15N values from growing conditions with long-term absence of manuring compared to manured treatment. It has provided an interpretive framework that allows us to compare values from known growing conditions with archaeological grain from sites in the study area to explore past manuring practices and intensity in arable production.