Stable isotope evidence for salt-marsh grazing in the Bronze Age Severn Estuary, UK: implications for palaeodietary analysis at coastal sites

Kate Britton, Gundula Mueldner, Martin Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Citations (Scopus)


Stable isotope analyses of modern coastal and salt-marsh plant species ('salt-loving' plants or halophytes) have demonstrated that these are significantly enriched in N-15 compared to other terrestrial plants. Coastal salt-marshes were far more extensive in the past than they are today. They represented a vast and much-exploited resource in many areas of the UK and north-western Europe and were considered to be prime land for the grazing of animal stock.
This paper aims to test whether the unusual isotope chemistry of halophytes and other coastal plants allows for the identification of salt-marsh grazing in the past through the stable isotope analysis of herbivore skeletal remains. We present the results of carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of bone collagen of herbivores from the middle and late Bronze Age sites of Brean Down, Redwick and Peterstone in the Severn Estuary, UK. Here, direct archaeological evidence indicates salt-marsh grazing as a deliberate herding strategy.
The animal bone isotope data from these three Severn Estuary sites are significantly enriched in N-15 in comparison to other Holocene faunal data-sets from the UK. We interpret this as evidence that the isotopic signatures of coastal and salt-marsh plants are passed on through the food chain and conclude that stable isotope analysis of animal bone collagen has great potential for investigating salt-marsh or coastal exploitation in the past. Our results also demonstrate that herbivore stable isotope values may vary significantly between different sites and regions within the UK. They underline the necessity for complementary faunal data-sets when undertaking palaeodietary analyses Of human remains. (c) 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2111-2118
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number8
Early online date12 Mar 2008
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2008

Bibliographical note

Many thanks to Steven Minnitt and Somerset County Museum; Prof. John Allen; Prof. Steven Nortcliff; Dr Petra Dark, Michael Andrews, Franz Street, Karen Wicks and Mike Issacs (University of Reading); Dr Roland Bol (IGER); Dr Angela Lamb (NIGL Keyworth); Astrid Caseldine (University of Wales, Lampeter); and Prof. Michael Richards (MPI–EVA and Durham University). This research was funded by a NERC studentship in Geoarchaeology to KB (ref: NER/S/M/2005/13512).


  • stable isotope analysis
  • carbon
  • nitrogen
  • bone collagen
  • salt-marsh
  • halophytes
  • coastal
  • Severn Estuary
  • Bronze Age


Dive into the research topics of 'Stable isotope evidence for salt-marsh grazing in the Bronze Age Severn Estuary, UK: implications for palaeodietary analysis at coastal sites'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this