bronze age

Period 1: Chalcolithic (Early Beaker), 25th–22nd century BC


Archery equipment: a cannel coal belt ring and stone wristguard from near Craigiehall, Perthshire and Fyrish, Evanton, Ross-shire, respectively. The belt ring was likely from a quiver belt, while the wristguard would offer protection from the bowstring, © NMS

This is marked by the appearance of a range of novelties from the Continent, comprising the following:

  1. objects of metal (copper and gold – but see below regarding the gold);
  2. the Beaker pottery tradition (novel both in form and in its technology of manufacture);
  3. a funerary tradition featuring individual interment, initially in simple graves or in wooden cist-like structures, with gender-specific ‘rules’ regarding body position and status-specific rules concerning grave goods; an emphasis on portraying some men as warriors/hunters; and the provision of food/drink for the journey into an envisaged afterlife;
  4. novel archery accessories: barbed and tanged arrowheads, belt rings and wristguards (see below regarding bows);
  5. Continental dress fashion: the use of buttons as a dress accessory;
  6. (arguably) the use of a fire-making kit comprising a flint strike-a-light and iron pyrites/ore;
  7. (possibly) the use of oval houses (as seen in the Western Isles).

These Continental influences appear in a Scotland which, like most of the rest of Britain and Ireland, apparently had no Continental contacts for several centuries (with Orkney voles, the earliest speciments from around 3000 BC currently offering the best candidate for the most  direct links between Scotland and the Continent). There may indeed have been long-distance movements of objects, ideas and people within Britain, and between Britain and Ireland, in the centuries preceding the 25th century BC – as suggested, for example, by sharing of certain Grooved Ware designs across large parts of Britain and Ireland, and by the claimed similarity in house design, c 2600 BC, between Durrington Walls in Wiltshire and Skara Brae in Orkney. However, Late Neolithic Britain and Ireland are marked by an apparent lack of interaction with the Continent. It is this contrast with the strong Continental comparanda for every aspect of the Beaker ‘package’ and with isotope evidence for immigration into Britain, at least by the Beaker accompanied burials of the ‘Amesbury Archer’ and arguably also the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’ and a man found at Sorisdale, Coll, that points towards the introduction of ‘the Beaker package’ by small numbers of immigrants from the Continent. Why these people came, and whence they came, remain topics for debate but it seems likely that the reasons included: i) a Continental ethos whereby male standing was measured not only by prowess as a hunter/warrior but also by the undertaking of heroic, long-distance journeys; ii) (in the south of England, and presumably subsequent to the above) the renown of inland Wessex, especially around Stonehenge, as a major centre for seasonal festivals; and iii) the search for sources of copper and gold to exploit. It may well be that people came from different parts of the Continent to different parts of Britain and Ireland: while the Amesbury Archer may have come from southern Germany/Switzerland/Austria (and note that the isotopic evidence is currently being revisited (Fitzpatrick 2011), and the Boscombe Bowmen could have come from northern France, in Scotland the artefactual and structural evidence suggests the Rhine delta and environs as a possible area of origin (at least for the Upper Largie, Newmill and Biggar Common individuals), with the Atlantic façade another possible candidate (for material found in western Scotland and Ireland, as Case suggested.

There is currently no proof that Scottish copper ores were being exploited at any time during the Chalcolithic or Bronze Age (even though exploitation of sources in the SW at some point during the 2nd millennium cal BC is suspected); analyses of the earliest copper items suggest that the copper used came either from south-west Ireland or from the Continental sources implicated in ‘Bell Beaker metal’ (and see O’Connor 2004, 206 on the copper used for some Scottish halberds, though note that the example said to be from Dunass has since been shown to be from the Channel Island of Alderney). As regards the earliest metalworking in Scotland, Ian Shepherd proposed, in regard to the copper neck rings from Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire (Shepherd and Bruce 1986), that Dutch metalworkers settling in north-east Scotland may have been making copper objects from a date equivalent to the early Veluwe period in the Netherlands (i.e. c. 2300 BC). If that is correct, then there may well have been metalworking in this part of Scotland prior to the ‘Migdale-Marnoch’ tradition of bronzeworking in Period 2 (cf. Cowie 1988).

It is not yet apparent when gold artefacts first appear in Scotland; a recently‐obtained C14 date for the rich male grave at Culduthel, on the outskirts of Inverness, has revealed that the gold caps of the copper wristguard rivets date to 3735±35 BP (SUERC‐26462, 2200–2040 cal BC at 1σ, 2280–2030 cal BC at 2σ), thereby suggesting perhaps that these are more likely to date to Period 2 than to Period 1. Similarly, it is a moot point whether the gold lunulae and the pair of gold basket‐shaped hair ornaments found in Scotland (at Orbliston, with a lunula) pre‐date the 22nd century, in view of the facts that: i) at Harlyn Bay, a lunula was associated with a Migdale (Period 2) bronze axehead; ii) the C14 date for a lunula box from Crossdoney, in Ireland, spans the Period 1–Period 2 time bracket; and iii) the Beaker designs found on lunulae relate to Beakers in use between c 2300 and c 2000 BC.

The earliest houses on the mainland, and the Northern Isles do seem to suggest continuity from the Late Neolithic period. One of the earliest houses on mainland Scotland is in the south-west at the platform settlement of Lintshie Gutter, and the platform settlements of Argyll also seem to hold much potential for deriving from this period and on the eastern mainland, three structures from Kintore may also date to this period. A pair of houses at Crossiecrown on Orkney date to this period (Downes and Richards 2000; Jones et al. 2010) with C14 dates indicating Late Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Early Bronze Age phases, and both Beaker and Grooved Ware together in the same midden.

The distribution of the earliest Beaker finds in Scotland is remarkably extensive, with all-over-cord (AOC) Beaker having been found as far north as Shetland, for example. However, as Needham has argued, the impact of the ‘Beaker package’ may well have been relatively slight for much of this ‘Period 1’, with the alien people and their alien practices being regarded as a curiosity, rather than as something to be emulated. In Shetland, evidence for the Beaker period is slight, while in Orkney it is unclear whether anything of the Beaker ‘package’ appeared until Period 2. Elsewhere, however, there seems to have been an uptake/flourishing of the novel tradition, especially in the Hebrides, where funerary, domestic and agricultural evidence dating to Period 1 is known, and in north-east Scotland. Furthermore, the presence there of metal objects made of Irish copper from Ross Island, Co. Kerry (with around 20 axeheads and several halberds known) suggests the establishment of an extensive network of contacts through which such objects circulated.

The key research questions relating to this period:

Did these putative immigrants actually come from the area around the Rhine delta and the Atlantic façade? And did they come as individuals, or as small groups? At present, owing to the shortage of skeletal material from the earliest Beaker graves (since most have been dug into free-draining ground, thereby eventually destroying the body), much of the argument for area/s of origin rests on artefactual and structural evidence. We need to find more examples of earliest Beaker graves containing preserved skeletal material (especially molar tooth enamel, for strontium and oxygen isotope analysis). Also, given that the early Beaker graves must have been constructed by people familiar with Continental tradition, this implies that we are not just dealing with isolated individual immigrants.


This copper head band, also known as a diadem, one of two found at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. The ends of the rod taper into spade-like terminals. A similar diadem, in gold, is known from the Netherlands, and the copper is a composition found in Dutch and Breton objects. The Lumphanan examples emphasise the existence of links across the North Sea at a time when the earliest metal objects, and knowledge of metalworking, was reaching Scotland. ©NMS

A specific additional question relates to the oval-shaped houses known from (subsequent) Beaker settlements in the Western Isles: was this house form introduced from the Continent, or does it represent a type with regional variants such as those in Shetland? More must be discovered about early Beaker domestic structures in general.

Has the range of introduced innovations at this time been characterised correctly? Several questions remain, such as:

  1. The date of the earliest gold objects in Scotland: do they date to Period 1, or to Period 2 (by which time bronze had been adopted)?
  2. Beaker bows: it is unclear whether Piggott was correct in suggesting that the short, composite, recurve bow was introduced as part of the Beaker ‘package’. Until diagnostic traces have been found, the debate about Beaker bows has to continue.
  3. Were the earliest halberds in use before bronze began to be used? The currently-accepted currency, in Ireland and Britain, is c 2300–1900 BC. Can this be confirmed and/or refined?
  4. Now that Richard Bradley’s fieldwork has demonstrated that Clava cairns, recumbent stone circles and 2-entrance henges were constructed during the second half of the 3rd millennium, it would be useful to be sure whether the first two monument types were built during Period 1 (i.e. before bronze began to be used) or Period 2.
  5. Any Scottish evidence for horses: now that the Newgrange domesticated horse bones have been dated to the Iron Age, is there any evidence from Britain or Ireland that domesticated horses were a Beaker period introduction, as previously thought?

If people were prospecting for metal in Scotland at this time, did they find and exploit it? And was there any metalworking in Scotland during this period?

Just what was the context of Beaker 'novelties' in different parts of Scotland? The nature, dynamics and tempo of related changes needs to be clarified, as does the character of the Late Neolithic society in different parts of Scotland, in which the Beaker ‘package’ appeared. The question of what was happening in those parts of Scotland where Beaker pottery is rare or absent also needs to be addressed.

 

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2.3 Research recommendations

  1. Research into what distinguishes a Bronze Age way of life, including similarities and contrasts with the Neolithic and Iron Age
  2. In order to build the richly evidenced over-arching narratives, robust data sets combining a range of information that is accessible are required
  3. Comparisons, links and contrasts between Scotland and other countries should be explored. These will vary over time. In the EBA parallels should be sought with  Ireland and England and in N. Germany and the Baltic in particular.  Ireland and England remain significant throughout (Ireland particularly in the MBA). In the LBA parallels may be sought along the Atlantic façade  and across the North Sea into N.Germany and the Baltic as well as in N France and Central and S Germany.
  4. How can Scottish metalwork be better dated?
  5. LBA‐EIA transition needs better understanding – drawing together and characterizing the evidence as a start 
  6. More complete understanding of whole range of ‘ritual’ monuments – for example of new evidence (such as henge monuments) and understanding of stone rows ‐ integrated with burial, settlement and artefact evidence
  7. What happened at 1400 BC? Why doesn’t the metalwork reflect this major transition in the settlement evidence

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