Palaeoecological methods can provide an environmental context for archaeological sites, enabling the nature of past human activity to be explored from an indirect but alternative perspective. Through a palynological study of a small fen peatland located within the catchment of a multi-period prehistoric complex at Ballynahatty, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, we reconstruct the vegetation history of the area during the early prehistoric period. The pollen record reveals tentative evidence for Mesolithic activity in the area at 6410-6220 cal BC, with woodland disturbance identified during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transitional period ca. 4430-3890 cal BC. A more significant impact on the landscape is observed in the Early Neolithic from 3950 to 3700 cal BC, with an opening up of the forest and the establishment of a mixed agricultural economy. This activity precedes and continues to be evident through the Mid-Neolithic during which megalithic tombs and related burial sites were constructed at Ballynahatty. Due to chronological uncertainties and a possible hiatus in peat accumulation in the fen, the contemporary environment of the Ballynahatty timber circle complex (constructed and used ca. 3080-2490 cal BC) and henge (dating to the third millennium cal BC) cannot certainly be established. Nevertheless, the pollen record suggests that the landscape remained open through to the Bronze Age, implying a long continuity of human activity in the area. These findings support the idea that the Ballynahatty prehistoric complex was the product of a gradual and repeated restructuring of the ritual and ceremonial landscape whose significance continued to be recognised throughout the early prehistoric period. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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