TerraSAgE: Terraces as Sustainable Agricultural Environments

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology


Across the world terraced landscapes have been created to produce diverse crops, to improve soils and to manage water resources - historically, they have been critical in many areas for dry-land agriculture. Despite this widespread occurrence, the history of agricultural terraces has remained poorly understood, largely due to problems in dating their construction, modification and use. This failure to understand the history of terraces has hampered broader research on the histories of landscapes, limiting knowledge of how settlements operated within their wider landscapes and of how terraces reflect the long-term investment choices made by rural communities. A new technique for dating soil profiles developed by members of the project team has recently demonstrated unique potential to unravel the formation and development of terraces through time (Kinnaird et al. 2017). Applied in parallel with geoarchaeological techniques, including chemical and micromorphological analysis, and broader landscape survey, these methods presents an opportunity to revolutionise understanding of past terrace systems and their landscapes - and to reveal and evaluate the societal, economic and environmental strategies that underpinned their construction, evolution and abandonment. Our project will answer research questions in four key areas about the history of terraces:
- When and how were terraces constructed, maintained and managed in different periods and regions?
- What were the triggers for terracing, and why were they sometimes abandoned?
- Has terracing proved an environmentally sustainable land-use strategy for rural communities?
- Did terraces enable greater resilience to economic or ecological instability, and did they help mitigate the impacts of past climate change?

TerraSAgE is geared towards uncovering knowledge of past landscapes and using it to model scenarios of change and thereby inform sustainable strategies for the future of land-management. Terraces provide a unique case for understanding long-term environmental impacts of land-use and evaluating long-term sustainability in agricultural practice and policy. For example, studies have demonstrated how the EU Common Agricultural Policy led to more intensive farming, mechanisation and new terracing techniques in the Mediterranean, including land-levelling, the introduction of new crops like vines and almonds, and less stable, bulldozed 'bench' terraces. This shift from pre-20th century 'traditional' terracing had major environmental consequences, causing widespread erosion and impacting soil health and drainage. Better understanding of how historic periods of transformation in farming impacted the land are essential to provide better information with which to underpin future sustainable land-use and create informed policies for future resilience, particularly in the face of increasing demand for food and climatic instability. Such needs are not limited to Europe and can be identified around the world. TerraSAgE's research, though conducted in Europe, will have relevance for global terrace conservation and management. In this sense, the project will contribute to progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (for example Goal 2 'Zero Hunger' and Goal 15 'Life on Land', which are both concerned with the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems). Because the approach of TerraSAgE will examine the relationships between environmental concerns about soil, water and management and cultural heritage issues, the project will also contribute towards the implementation of the European Landscape Convention (which has been signed and ratified by all the countries where the project will work), whose revolutionary definition of landscape emphasises the indivisibility of its natural and cultural aspects.

Planned Impact

- Who might benefit from this research?

TerraSagE is designed to benefit several different audiences besides academic researchers.
- The first audience is members of local communities in the project's Case Study areas, including farmers and landowners.
- The second category includes organisations which function at a broader geographical scale, including agricultural collectives and regional government officials in the Mediterranean, and engagement with education in schools in the UK.
- The third potential group of beneficiaries is national and international policy makers with responsibility for guiding strategies for rural landscape management.

- How might they benefit from this research?

The project includes a series of engagement activities at different geographical scales which are designed to reach different types of stakeholders. Activities are designed to avoid simple 'top-down' dissemination of scientific results, but to promote active engagement and where possible the establishment of dialogue between communities with different responsibilities. The ultimate ambition is for the research to influence policies and practices at local, regional and international levels which will deliver benefits to different stakeholders through new types of engagements with terraced landscapes and their management.
- At the local level, the project's community engagement workshops will invite local stakeholders to contribute their knowledge and experience of terraced landscapes to inform 'collective community maps'. These will be used later to inform dialogue with regional/national agencies (alongside the research results) and to promote the local values of terraced landscapes - including cultural values as well as economic and environmental ones - in regional and national policy-making. The research results themselves will be discussed during multi-stakeholder follow-up workshops, to raise awareness of the historic character of the Case Study landscapes and consider potential management strategies.
- At the regional level, collective bodies (such as farming cooperatives) and local/national government agencies (such as heritage departments and ministries) will be invited to the follow-up workshops, each of which will be designed to address specific issues relating to the individual Case Study regions. These workshops will provide a forum to debate the project results in the context of local and regional priorities, with the ultimate goal of promoting sustainable management strategies with local buy-in which maximise the benefits to a range of interested communities. Such strategies would be applicable at regional as well as local levels, and could inform the development of future policies at regional and national scales.
In the UK, the research results will be used to create interactive workshops on sustainable landscape management for schools which will be disseminated through the University of St Andrews' 'GeoBus' initiative. These activities will reach up to 10,000 young people each year from 2022: they will promote awareness of the possibility of addressing gobal issues through local actions, and the role of research in addressing global challenges.
- At national and international scales, TerraSAgE will seek to engage policy makers responsible for sustainable landscape management, environmental risk and planning, and rural development. The project results will be presented through policy briefing notes and policy briefing workshops to relevant officers from national and international government bodies and funding agencies. The team will highlight the potential of future policies based on the research results to contribute to the achievement of international goals such as UN Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 15, and to the implementation of international treaties such as the European Landscape Convention. Our aim is to feed in to future policy, for example revisions to the Common Agricultural Policy.


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Description The history of agricultural terraces remains poorly understood, due predominantly to problems in dating their construction and use. This has hampered broader research on their significance of terracing, limiting knowledge of past agricultural practices and the long-term investment choices made by rural communities. We have applied OSL profiling and dating to the sediments associated with agricultural terraces and earthworks across the Mediterranean region to date their construction and use.

Preliminary results from widely-dispersed pilot studies reveal that although many terraces were used in the first millennium AD, the most intensive episodes of terrace building occurred during the later Middle Ages (c. AD 1100-1600). This innovative approach provides the first large-scale evidence for both the longevity and medieval intensification of Mediterranean terraces.
Exploitation Route The research is currently still at a fairly early stage. Nevertheless, preliminary results clearly indicate potential for the research to have positive impact as several levels through collaborations which target key beneficiary groups.
• Structured engagement with local communities in case-study areas;
• Knowledge-exchange targeting regional stakeholders including planning authorities and agricultural collectives;
• Informing and influencing policy at national and international levels, particularly in relation to environmental sustainability.
We anticipate that the project will have societal and economic impacts from local farms to international policy through activities designed to cultivate ongoing engagement and promote communication between stakeholders in terraced landscapes with different responsibilities, for example farmers and heritage managers.
Sectors Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie Individual Fellowship
Amount € 224,934 (EUR)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 06/2021 
End 05/2023
Description Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie Individual Fellowship
Amount € 212,934 (EUR)
Funding ID 890561 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 10/2020 
End 09/2022
Description University of Granada 
Organisation University of Granada
Country Spain 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Our team is leading this collaborative project, including planning and delivering fieldwork, geoarchaeological lab analyses and GIS/spatial analysis. We have overall responsibility for delivery of the work programme including training and activities designed to increase the impact of the research with policy makers and citizens.
Collaborator Contribution University of Granada play a key role in designing and delivering the engagement strategy for the project. This includes community engagement workshops in each case-study area, coinciding with field survey and sampling. Specific activities in each workshop include activities such as participatory mapping and workshops in the field.
Impact The project is at a relatively preliminary stage so outputs are currently pending.
Start Year 2019