After many decades of conflicting terminologies for the later third millennium BC (Late Neolithic, Final Neolithic, (early) Beaker period, Copper Age, Early Bronze Age, not to mention Andrew Selkirk’s suggested LaNEBA), a critical debate has recently begun about how we should label and interpret the period of ‘transition’ from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Various strands of individual research came together in a Prehistoric Society conference on the British Chalcolithic in April 2009 (publication in press). This still does not mean there is wholehearted consensus over the case for defining a Chalcolithic and it might be ventured that the case should anyway be considered independently for each region on the basis that the character of society was not uniform across Britain during the late third millennium BC.
The ‘Chalcolithic’ did not of course exist in the minds of the people of the time, except insofar as social groups would have been aware if they held significantly different outlooks and values relative to the old social order, and again relative to any emergent social tendencies which crystallised as ensuing structures. The value of such a definition in archaeology must therefore rest on a broadly based consideration of how society was changing over this period; it would have little virtue if based solely on one aspect, notably the phase of use of unalloyed copper metallurgy.
For Britain in general, a case has been made for the period between circa 2450 and 2150 BC, being one of dynamic social change set in train by the insertion of a totally new set of cultural values, those appertaining to the Beaker life-way, into the indigenous scene of the preceding Late Neolithic. Salient questions remain regarding varied regional responses (including within Scotland) and, given a potential sequence of changes over just three centuries, of where precisely to place defining boundaries. Nevertheless, it is difficult to recognise much common ground between the state of society in the 22nd century and that of the 25th century. Moreover, by defining a Chalcolithic, we do manage to avoid the ambiguities caused by the double-labelling of this period of critical social transformations.
Topics of particular relevance to a Scottish oriented discussion around the Chalcolithic include:
- There is a need for further targeted excavation henges, recumbent stone circles and Clava cairns, following on from impressive campaigns of work over recent decades on these key monument types. Henges, in particular (and in Scotland), give the impression of relatively seamless continuity from the beginning of the third millennium through into the early second; but does the outward morphology mask change in use? One can point, for example, to the fact that single-grave burials were only permitted within these precincts after about 2200 BC.
- The orientations of Clava cairns and RSC’s are frequently linked to cosmological interpretations; can this line of enquiry be broadened to take in other aspects of contemporary culture and is chronological resolution adequate to seek critical changes in cosmological outlook?
- Is there any basis for culturally tied economic strategies over the early third to early second millennium span?
- Refining the extent to which Grooved Ware culture contexts continue after 2450/2400 BC and if so by how long. Of six dated sites thus far published, one (Littleour) does seem to belong in this later period, but a better statistical base is needed.
- The research undertaken within the Beakers and Bodies Project and Beaker People Project, have provided a solid platform for empirically assessing mobility and diet in (mainly) late third millennium populations. We await full assessment of the bodies of data yielded to see what gross patterns of change might be discernible. Ultimately this might need to be bolstered by more early Food Vessel and contemporary inhumations (assuming enough skeletal remains survive in the region); moreover, all further opportunities to analyse primary Beaker skeletons in Scotland must be seized, since this data-set is currently minimal. The biggest interpretative problem stems from the total absence of suitable skeletal material of the preceding Grooved Ware culture.
- Trying to define the geographical spread and density of primary Beaker contexts (mainly graves, but ‘domestic’ contexts should also be reviewed) – these notionally of the early Chalcolithic (2450/2400 – 2300/2250 BC)
- If there are various critical cultural changes around the 22nd century, why do climax Beaker graves (in Scotland dominated by the Short-Necked Beaker complex) appear to continue little altered from 2300/2250 – 1950 BC? Can any changes be documented?
- What part is played by the appearance of Food Vessel burials as a contrasting burial mode? Can we refine their relationship to the later Beaker sequence and thereby clarify the extent to which the distinction is temporal or spatial? Does this blur a convenient end-point for the Chalcolithic?
- Can settlement assemblages containing Beaker and/or Early Bronze Age ceramics be sequenced better? What implications for changing conceptions of identity and how do they relate to the funerary modes? Are there significant ruptures, or a more gradual process of continual modification in the light of new influences and impulses?
- What was the currency and ultimate fate of the fine lithic repertoire of Grooved Ware communities? Specific to Scotland are the carved stone balls of the north-east and the many fine maceheads, including evidence for production especially in the northern Isles, but the question is hampered by the dearth of datable contexts. Newly excavated examples of the latter could potentially give a critical boost to this enquiry. Meanwhile, a reappraisal of the respective rock sources used for Late Neolithic and earliest Bronze Age (stage 1 battle-axes) could be instructive regarding continuity or disjuncture in production.
- The social implications of the metalwork repertoire before and after 2150 BC; for example, how defining was the currency of halberds, and the near absence of early daggers? Why do halberds continue a little beyond the metallurgical transition?
- The organisation of metallurgy before and after 2150 BC; to what extent did the adoption of bronze metallurgy change networks of inter-dependence and inter-regional perspectives? The emergence of the Migdale-Marnoch tradition is relevant here. Is any change in the contexts of metalwork deposition discernible?