News  |  Posted June 27, 2016

ScARF Student Bursary Report: Association of Environmental Archaeologists #5

I’m grateful for the ScARF bursary that allowed me to attend the recent Association for Environmental Archaeology conference in Kirkwall, Orkney, and present a poster on research into prehistoric apiculture that I conducted the previous year with support from the Carnegie Trust. While I am studying my degree in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands at the Orkney College campus and am spoiled by the stunning archaeological resources of the island, living in a peripheral area can make it difficult to attend conferences, and being able to take part in a conference that corresponded with the theme of my research was an invaluable and rare experience for me.

Murray Sherlock Stewart's poster at AEA

Murray Sherlock Stewart’s poster at AEA. The poster can also be seen on Murray’s researchgate page at

My research had three aims – to introduce honey bee behaviour and biology to archaeologists in order to equip them with the knowledge to understand how the species interacts with the environment and the specialised knowledge required to successfully harvest bee products such as honey and wax. Secondly, I reviewed the current availability of archaeological publications on the subject of beekeeping. Finally, I conducted a case study on the viability of Orkney as a suitable location for prehistoric apicultural practices. It was this case study that I chose to highlight in the poster so as to best represent the theme of the conference and link it to the unique archaeological character of the Orkney archipelago.

Direct evidence of honey bees are missing in the archaeological record and are difficult to test for (with limited exceptions, such as traces of wax). I took an interdisciplinary approach, and was able to identify a site on the southern Orkney island of South Ronaldsay as a potential lead for further investigation. Starting with a survey of place names, the site of Honeysgeo was quickly recognised as an outlier in the pattern of place names throughout Atlantic Scotland, being the only bee-related place name I could find. I then looked at research conducted on Bronze Age pollen deposits at various sites throughout Orkney to isolate plant species that are selectively pollinated by honey bee species. The proliferation of heather on Orkney as the Bronze Age progressed was interpreted as being in line with a change of beekeeping behaviour throughout the north of Europe, with forest-style beekeeping giving way to moveable hives in areas with high concentrations of heather, where similar, contemporary patterns of deforestation appear. The archaeology of the site at Honeysgeo includes an assemblage of features and artefacts, most prominently a stone-lined burial cist and stone axe. Excavated in 1965, information on these finds is brief, yet suggests the site was of some significance prior to the introduction of the Norse-origin place name.

Although I have produced academic posters for class assignments, creating one based on my own independent research, and deciding what information to select and highlight was a challenge in of itself! As I am continuing the final year of my undergraduate degree in Archaeology on a part-time basis, I intend to continue to pursue my research into the site at Honeysgeo as well. Engaging with archaeologists with expert knowledge and skills in the fields of zooarchaeology and palaeenvironments at the conference has helped inform the approaches I want to take in the next stage of my research. As a field of study with almost no existing body of work, I am exceedingly thankful to ScARF for recognising the relevance of my research, and providing me with the opportunity to test the waters of an archaeological conference!

Murray Sherlock Stewart
BA (Hons) Archaeology candidate
University of the Highlands and Islands