bronze age

Periods 3 & 4: The rest of the Early Bronze Age, 20thC – 1700/1600 BC

Early Bronze Age hoard from Gavel Moss, Renfrewshire (Clarke et al. 1985)©NMS This hoard represents the final phase of the Early Bronze Age in Scotland and is part of a small concentration of metalwork on the modern boundary of Renfrewshire and Ayrshire.

Ceramically and in terms of funerary practices, the trends observed for Period 2 continued, with a switch to cremation (mostly in-urned) as the preferred practice over most of Scotland, but with various practices remaining in use, and regional variability as evident as ever. In his Britain-wide re-evaluation of Beaker use, Stuart Needham (2005) characterised this period as marking the end of Beaker use: ‘Beaker as past reference’. Late Beakers, and ‘Beaker-Food Vessel hybrid’ forms, belong to this period, as do the earliest Collared Urns – an urn design which was adopted from further south in England, and then adapted in northern and western Britain and eastern Ireland to become the ‘Cordoned Urn’. In Orkney, the use of steatite urns attests to links with Shetland during this period. Differentiation in grave goods is less marked than in previous periods, although some high-status objects (e.g. daggers) are known from funerary contexts. Both flat (unenclosed and enclosed) and mound-based cemeteries were in use, with many of the latter constituting additions to pre-existing mounds.

Contacts between Scotland and other parts of Britain and Ireland continued, but patterns of interaction may have changed as the Ross Island copper source fell out of use and other copper sources started to be exploited. They also seem to have changed as the focus for design innovation and trend-setting switched from Ireland and northern Britain to inland Wessex, where particularly rich graves were being created for the elite. (See Needham 2000, 2009, 2010, Needham and Woodward 2008 and Needham et al. 2006 for a detailed and authoritative account of the complexities of this period in Wessex.) It is a matter for debate whether a possible elite represented by the rich graves achieved control of resources of tin and copper (as well as on an appropriation of the spiritual power of Stonehenge and related monuments), and whether those elsewhere emulated  Wessex fashions– most strikingly at the Knowes of Trotty in Orkney. Here, in the principal mound in a linear barrow cemetery reminiscent of those seen in Wessex, cremated remains dated to the 20th –19th century BC were associated with components of an old and worn amber spacer plate necklace, several prismatic and hook-shaped amber ornaments (unique to this grave) and four gold foil discs. The latter had probably been mounted on low conical organic objects and worn, with the prismatic and hook-shaped ornaments, on a special garment, perhaps a cape (cf. the Mold Cape, an elite garment that may have been made and used in Wales, in this case interpreted as a direct challenge to the authority of the Wessex elite, rather than as an attempt to emulate Wessex fashions.) The amber spacer plate necklace and prismatic beads, and the inspiration behind the decorated gold foil discs, could possibly have come directly from Wessex and it seems likely that an individual from Orkney had travelled by boat, the length of Britain, to Wessex. Other evidence suggesting emulation of Wessex fashions in Scotland includes a cannel coal skeuomorph of a Bush Barrow-style belt hook found at Law Hill, Dundee, the sheet gold discs from Barnhill, Angus, and a handful of daggers with close parallels in Wessex; but these need not have resulted from direct contact between ‘Scottish’ and ‘southern English’ people. Similarly, the use of faience, and the know-how to make it, might have been adopted from southern England as part of the same general process of emulation (but see Sheridan and Shortland 2004 for a fuller account).

Other evidence relating to prestige objects is less obviously linked to an emulation of Wessex fashions. In terms of metalwork, this concerns Needham’s ‘Metalwork Assemblages IV and V’, and among its developments can be seen the evolution of the dagger into a dirk and then into a rapier, suggesting a change in the nature or style of combat.

Evidence for settlements and land use is again irregularly distributed around Scotland, with domestic assemblages within the Food Vessel tradition known from the Hebrides (e.g. at Kilellan and Ardnave on Islay, and Sligeanach on South Uist); elsewhere, the earliest unenclosed platform settlements were in use in the southern uplands, with their own, southern Scottish-northern English style of domestic pottery as in the ring-banks of Lintshie Gutter and Bodsberry Hill, which seem to demonstrate continuity from the Chalcolithic period in the south-west (Pope forthcoming). Meanwhile Blairhall Burn, as well as Lairg to the north, each has a new post-built house dating to this period.  The stone built houses at Crossiecrown in Orkeny fall out of use within this period (Jones et al. 2010). The Ness of Gruting and Sumburgh timber built houses, both in Shetland falls within this time range as does a solitary timber roundhouse at the Upper Forth Crossing  site in the central valley. The key date for the settlement evidence in this period is 1800 BC, after which we see settlement  and consequent arboreal clearance flourish in both upland and lowland landscapes.

In terms of non-funerary monuments, there is evidence from Upper Largie and from Broomend of Crichie for the construction of timber circles during this period; and the practice of depositing precious items (especially of metalwork) in wetlands or other significant locations continued.

Key research questions include:

  1. What was the overall extent of habitation during this period, and how many of the extant upland house structures, or antecedents of them, are likely to date to this time?
  2. What was the nature of land use during this period? Are many of the sub-peat field walls likely to be of this date, and how were these land divisions used?
  3. What other funerary and non-funerary monument types were constructed or used at his time?
  4. What are the regional narratives for this period


Period 2: The earliest Bronze Age (22nd–20thC BC)

For parts of Scotland, the rapid switch to bronze-using during the 22nd century seems to have ushered in a period of great change, reflected mainly in the expression perhaps of marked status distinctions in funerary monuments. The adoption of bronze (and the inception of the Migdale-Marnoch bronze manufacturing tradition in the North East – the first unequivocal evidence for metal production in Scotland) necessitated the operation of a yet more complex network of contacts than hitherto, over which copper from south-west Ireland (and elsewhere(?)), and tin (almost certainly in ingot form) from south-west England, travelled. Status distinction – which, for the first time, includes female differentiation – is reflected in the following ways:

  1. For men (mostly senior adult males): continuation and elaboration of the Period 1 tradition, including daggers/knives (as, for instance, at Forteviot), ornate archery equipment and the use of jet and jet-like buttons; also bronze jewellery, and stone battle axeheads. In the case of the Migdale hoard – which seems to comprise a high-ranking man’s possessions – evocations of Bavarian fashions (e.g. in the graded bronze bangles and the sheet bronze jewellery, possibly from a head-dress) suggest long-distance links;
  2. For women: jet and jet-like jewellery (especially spacer plate necklaces, skeuomorphs of Irish gold lunulae) and metal jewellery (e.g. bronze armlets, for instance from Melfort and Masterton).
  3. Some ‘rich’ child graves are also known, as in the case of two from Doune (Hamilton 1957), one associated with a miniature battle axehead, the other with a miniature macehead.

Hoard of Early Bronze Age flat axes from Hill of Finglenny, Aberdeenshire © NMS Some of the axes have been deliberately broken. The hoard was deposited near the possibly contemporary enclosure of Wormy Hillock.

For both sexes, conspicuous consumption in the construction of the funerary monument is evident, such as in the size and/or construction of the cist itself, the siting of cist graves in pre-existing sacred monuments, or the construction of large and imposing cairns. If the Clava cairns and recumbent stone circles had not been constructed during Period 1, they would have been constructed during this period, and they appear to represent  regionally-specific high status funerary monuments.

The areas in which burials display the most obvious evidence for status differentiation (such as the Kilmartin Glen and around the northern end of the Great Glen, parts of eastern Scotland) are areas that probably had greater access to key resources such as metal and agricultural surpluses respectively.  Very active networks of interaction operated, with north-east Ireland/south-west Scotland/Great Glen/north-east Scotland being a major conduit for metal from Ireland, and south-west Scotland/east Scotland/north-east England being another network, around which jet jewellery made by specialist producers near Whitby circulated. The recent discovery (through isotopic analysis) that the aforementioned rich male from a cist at Culduthel, near Inverness, had grown up in north-east Ireland is but one of several pieces of evidence for links between Ireland and north-east Scotland (the others including the Irish Bowl Food Vessel from Seafield West and the gold lunula and hair ornaments from Orbliston, Moray). In the heart of Argyllshire, to the south of the southern end of the Great Glen, rich and/or imposing graves in the Kilmartin Glen attest to links with Ireland, evidenced by Irish-style Food Vessels, and carvings of flat axeheads on cist slabs; with north-east Scotland (as in the partial infilling of the Temple Wood South stone circle to form a ring cairn, reminiscent of a Clava ring cairn); and with Yorkshire (as in the Whitby jet jewellery and in the unique footed Food Vessel from Upper Largie, which embodies both Yorkshire and Irish traits).

In terms of ceramics, this is the period during which most Scottish Beakers were manufactured (i.e. Needham’s ‘fission period’ – which may have started as early as c 2300 BC), but it is also the period when the Food Vessel tradition was adopted, and when the first cinerary urns were used. It appears that the practice of using Food Vessels was adopted from Ireland and from north-east England (especially Yorkshire), probably as a fashionable novel alternative to Beaker pottery; there is no evidence to suggest that it developed within Scotland (although Scottish variants did subsequently emerge). In Aberdeenshire and Moray, it appears that most of the inhabitants preferred to continue using Beakers while further south, in Tayside and Fife, Food Vessel use became popular. The earliest cinerary urns – which developed as part of the Food Vessel tradition – were used in Scotland during the 22nd or 21st century BC and reflect the beginning of a trend towards cremation as the preferred method of disposal of the dead. A variety of funerary practices were in use: while the inhumation of unburnt, crouched bodies in cists, usually either in flat cemeteries or under mounds, is the commonest mainland practice, enclosed and unenclosed cemeteries featuring the deposition of cremated remains, either in-urned or un-urned, are known from this period, as are other practices. The sealing of some Neolithic megalithic monuments may well have occurred during this period, as well as the re-use of such monuments for burial (as at Embo, Highland, for example). At Eweford, East Lothian, non-funerary ceremonial activity at an ancient, Early Neolithic long mound is attested with the deposition of thousands of barley grains, and their ceramic container, on the mound. Elsewhere, the deposition of metalwork in special locations in the landscape, presumably as a votive act, is attested (Cowie 2004).

Considerable regional variability existed, although its details tend to be unclear in many areas. The phenomena described above tend to apply to parts of mainland Scotland (although including the southern Hebrides and Clyde islands). Orkney seems to have been on the northern periphery of mainland developments and networks: there is little Beaker pottery (and what is there includes non-mainstream variants); ‘classic’ single crouched interments in cists are relatively rare, with cremation appearing to be the preferred funerary rite; and high-status objects are few (mainly comprising one bronze flat dagger, a spacer plate from a jet necklace and a V-perforated button of albertite). Shetland appears to have followed its own, insular trajectory.

For most of Scotland for this early Bronze Age period the evidence is heavily biased towards funerary and artefactual finds, with relatively little known about settlement and land use. The exception is the Western Isles, where the evidence is skewed towards the latter (e.g. at Northton, Dalmore and Cnip), and sandhills areas such as Glenluce (where the nature of the activities needs to be understood better). Occupation continues at the platform settlement of Lintshie Gutter, whilst in the east a solitary roundhouse is found at the long‐term lowland site of Upper Forth Crossing. Overall, few houses currently date to this period.

Burnt mounds dating to Period 2 have been found near Crawford in Lanarkshire, and at Stair Lodge in Dumfries and Galloway (Ashmore 1996, 83). A burnt mound dating to a little earlier than these (Period 1) was excavated on Machrie Moor, Arran (op. cit.)

Key research questions relating to this period:

What was the nature of settlement and land use? Old finds of settlement evidence (as at Muirkirk, Ayrshire) could usefully be revisited; the question of where occupation assocaited with Kilmartin Glen monuments is located; and a round-up of all the settlement and land use evidence for this period from the whole of Scotland is recommended.

What was going on in those parts of Scotland where the main trends noted above are not evident? In particular, the regional narratives for Shetland, Orkney, the north-west Mainland and the central Highlands need to be fleshed out (if indeed there was an appreciable presence in these last two areas).

What was the nature of the long-distance links (as in the case of the Lumphanan neck rings and ceramic influences on Beaker design in north-east Scotland) with Central Europe, southern Germany and with early Veluwe Netherlands?

How did the flow of objects and materials circulate around Britain and Ireland? Where there, for instance, materials and artefacts or even people, animals or secondary products, taken to Ireland in exchange for Irish copper, and how was the supply of material organised? Whilst the BPP/B&P projects have produced evidence for reciprocal human movement between Scotland and Yorkshire, what was the nature and scale of exchange activities or of specialist production, and what can the Scottish evidence contribute to these wider questions?

Burial and society – what can burial from this period tell us about how was society organised? Can the funerary evidence can be taken as some indicator of the nature of social organisation, of women were being accorded richly furnished burials, in apparent contrast to EBA Period 1?