Dating agricultural terraces is notoriously difficult. The frequent occurrence of residual material in terrace soils and potential for post-depositional disturbance mean that artefactual and lab-based dating methods often provide conflicting evidence. Here we explore a coupled approach using luminescence field-profiling and OSL dating to elucidate soil formation and mixing processes, and contextualise individual (and associated) sediment ages. Instead of relying on single dates provided by archaeological finds or lab methods, field profiling enables the creation of a complete relative sequence for the sediments associated with a feature. This is demonstrated through a series of case-studies in western Catalonia, Spain, where sequences of earthworks from the Middle Ages through to the present day are reconstructed, and to preliminary studies in the Greek Cyclades, on Naxos and Keros. There are detailed documentary sources for Catalonia, which enable location of many field systems, and understanding of the exploitation and organisation of the medieval landscape from the 9th AD onwards (Bolòs 2004). Here terrace systems have existed from at least c. AD 1000. The Catalan landscape also exhibits a range of terrace types including check-dams, terraced fields, step terraces, braided terraces and irrigated terraces. For these reasons it provides a good region to test methods for dating terraces. In contrast, the case-studies in Naxos and Keros, rely on retrogressive analysis to place the field systems into a relative chronology (Crow et al. 2011; Turner and Crow 2010). Field- and lab-profiling provides the first quantitative means of placing these field systems and agricultural terraces into a temporal framework and providing absolute correlations.
Archaeologists’ attention often remains focussed on identifying specific and spatially defined ancient ‘sites’, rather than thinking more generally in terms of wider landscape history and processes. In part, this has been because it has been difficult to date the evolution of features like terraces or field boundary banks. The case-studies presented here show that luminescence approaches are a valuable tool to re-construct landscape histories. The method has outstanding potential to deepen our understanding of the chronology of terrace systems across the Mediterranean and around the world, and thus to contribute to creating highly detailed histories of land use.