bronze age

1.2.4 21st century

In a note to the 2001 reprint of The Age of Stonehenge Burgess admitted that the broader periods he used had not found acceptance, but his industrial stages (now called metalwork assemblages) have endured as the backbone of the relative chronology of the British Bronze Age.  The prevailing versions are set out in full only in chapter 6 of a volume on lead isotope analysis published in 1998, the work of Stuart Needham, for some thirty years Bronze Age curator in the British Museum. These metalwork assemblages reflect absolute chronology published in Needham’s contribution to the 1995 Verona conference (Acta Archaeologica 1996) where he divided the British Bronze Age into seven periods (plus the Early Iron Age which includes the last metalwork assemblage).  Further radiocarbon dates for Middle and Late Bronze Age metalwork were published by Needham and colleagues in the Archaeological Journal in 1997, but none of those dates was from Scotland (apart from one Early Bronze Age date from the Migdale hoard).  A summary version of Needham’s chronology for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages in southern Britain appeared in June 2010 and a simplified version including the Late Bronze Age is attached as Table 1.


Metalwork assemblage from Rohl and Needham 1998, 122. (Figure 23). These assemblages provide the basis for the sequence and chronology of the Scottish Bronze Age.

Needham has also reviewed the first phase of bronze-working in Scotland - the Migdale-Marnoch tradition formulated by Dennis Britton in 1963 - in the proceedings of the Society’s Scotland in ancient Europe conference (published in 2004, which also included contributions on pre-Migdale metalwork (O’Connor), deposition of Early Bronze Age metalwork (Cowie), and faience (Sheridan and Shortland)) and provided the latest overview of the Beaker sequence (PPS 2005). Needham’s 2011 Rhind Lectures on the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age are available online.

Corpora of rapiers, swords and axes published in the Prähistorische Bronzefunde series and covering Scotland have already been mentioned. Scotland has been well-served by this series, in which published volumes also cover daggers, razors and sheet-metal vessels with volumes on Early/Middle Bronze Age spearheads and shields in preparation.  The corpora of rapiers and swords have both subsequently been updated. These metalwork finds are normally included in the Royal Commission’s online database, CANMORE. New finds, including those by metal detector, are normally reported to the National Museum under Treasure Trove procedure then recorded in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. This facilitates full publication of important finds and updating of corpora.

The possibilities of radiocarbon-dating cremated bone have been fully exploited in Scotland by Sheridan in a series of papers on Cinerary Urns (2003), Food Vessels (2004) and Beakers (2007b), whose value is amplified by similar work on Irish urns (Brindley The dating of Food Vessels and Urns in Ireland 2007), which has greatly improved the absolute chronology of the Early Bronze Age. Dating of daggers graves has also contributed to Early Bronze Age absolute chronology (Rameldry; Baker et al 2003); Lockerbie Academy Kirby 2011; Forteviot in course of study, all building on the corpus of Henshall (1968)). New radiocarbon dates for Bronze Age finds are published annually in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland; these have recently included many dates for Early Bronze Age burials as part of the Beaker People and the Beakers and Bodies Projects.

More recent excavations at the site of Kintore in Aberdeenshire provide a wealth of new information on ring‐ditch structures (Cook and Dunbar 2008), and recent developer‐funded excavations continue apace including new and important sites in the west such as Aird Quarry and The Carrick, as well as Upper Forth Crossing in the east. Mike Parker Pearson’s work at Cladh Hallan, South Uist (Parker Pearson et al. 2005) has produced not only evidence of remarkable treatment of the dead, but through the excavation and sampling approach undertaken has permitted a detailed interpeataion of house architecture and use.

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1.2.3 Late 20th century

Coles' chronological table for the Scottish Bronze Age (Coles, J 1969, 75 Fig.52 ). Though up to fifty years old, this scheme has not been properly updated for the Middle and Late Bronze Age.

John Coles came to Edinburgh in 1957 to undertake research on Scottish Bronze Age metalwork and completed his PhD thesis in 1959. This has been described as ‘the first serious attempt at a systematic collation of data on Bronze Age metal artefacts [in Scotland]’.  The card-catalogue he assembled is available in the Archaeology Department of National Museums Scotland. Coles published the results of his research in a series of papers in the Proceedings, notably three on Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age metalwork (in reverse order: 1959-60, 1963-64 & 1968-69; for a brief survey of the concept of the Scottish Bronze Age in relation to his work, see Ritchie 1999).  In these articles he listed the data; ‘placed them in a chronological framework … sought to define industrial traditions … and highlighted imports and influences from outside Scotland’. Coles catalogued objects by type and county, then gave full details of hoards.  His texts for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages discussed the typology and distribution of each type then went on to consider industrial phases, named after representative hoards or finds, while discussion of the Late Bronze Age sequence was more continuous.  For the Early Bronze Age there were also data on composition (also examined in a separate article in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 1969) and manufacture, though contemporary pottery had not yet be analysed thoroughly enough to shed much light on associated metalwork.  Coles wrote before there was much absolute dating evidence from Scotland. His main chronological table (reproduced here) shows the Bronze Age lasting from the eighteenth century to the sixth, though an end-note acknowledging the effects of radiocarbon calibration suggests a beginning in the twenty-first century cal BC. In her contribution to the Festschrift for Coles (Harding 1999) Alison Sheridan summarised finds and interpretations of Bronze Age material subsequent to his publications.

The metal analyses discussed by Coles were mainly from the Studien zu den Anfängen der Metallurgie project published in the 1960s and 70s. These have been supplemented by Northover (1998, Late Bronze Age Dijon; 1999, copper Bochum; plus unpublished analyses). In December 1960 at a conference in London, Christopher Hawkes gave a lecture setting out a scheme for the British Bronze Age (a two-stage Copper Age and three stages each of Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age, lasting from 1850 to 500 BC). Though samizdat versions have circulated ever since, the scheme itself has never been published.  Coles was present at the conference but did not adopt Hawkes’s scheme, which mentions hardly any Scottish sites or finds, though it came to form the basis of the current sequence for the British Bronze Age (summarised in Table 1) worked out by Burgess and followed by Needham. 

Over nearly fifty years of publication Colin Burgess has been the dominant figure in the study of the British Bronze Age during the later twentieth century.  He contributed to the corpora of rapiers, swords and axes which all cover Scotland, like his textbook on the later Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age (The Age of Stonehenge 1980) but only once has Burgess surveyed the entire period throughout Britain, in the proceedings of a 1972 conference published in 1974.  An article published in the Archaeological Journal in 1969 sets out the later Bronze Age metalwork sequence for the British Isles with reference to the sequence for Brittany published shortly before, with the contents of chronological and regional groups for England and Wales in an appendix, though the Scottish sequence appears in the chronological table. Early and Middle Bronze Age industrial stages were set out in The Age of Stonehenge

Coles included gold in his articles, but gold objects are often dealt with separately from bronze for practical reasons of access to the material.  Joan Taylor  - one of his students - covered Scotland in the geographical corpus which was the foundation of her study of Bronze Age goldwork of the British Isles, published in 1980 though compiled before 1973. George Eogan also included Scottish finds of the gold types he listed in The accomplished art (1994).  Neither study necessarily includes complete references to the Scottish finds listed.

Corpora of three types of Early Bronze Age pottery including Scotland appeared in 1970 (Beakers, D L Clarke), 1978 (Food Vessel Urns, T G Cowie) and 1984 (Collared Urns, I H Longworth also card index in British Museum), while an Edinburgh dissertation on Cinerary Urns (1958, J Barber) remains unpublished.

Work in Highland Scotland had begun to take shape and sites like Kilphedir in Sutherland (Fairhurst and Taylor 1971) extended the interest of roundhouse studies into the highland zone as George Jobey offered an alternative to Feachem's sequence for northern timberbuilt roundhouses. Feachem’s (1965) suggestion that ring‐groove and ring‐ditch houses were not successive construction types was supported, but Jobey re‐asserted Steer's (1955‐56) point that simple‐ring post‐built structures were Bronze Age in date. In his Burnswark Hill report, Jobey (1977‐78) attempted to re‐affirm the idea that post‐built houses pre‐dated those of wall‐slot construction. Jobey’s work at Green Knowe (Jobey 1980) and the Northumbrian settlement of Standrop Rigg (Jobey 1983), tackled the issues of platform settlement, ring‐bank construction, coppicing and agriculture, upland depopulation, and the damage to archaeology caused by afforestation. Jobey resisted the temptation to follow Piggott, Steer and Feachem in seeing development in north Britain as the result of southern immigrants. What we find in Jobey's work is the origins of a reaction to culture‐historical approaches. Instead, enabled by his thorough reading of features and deposits and his appreciation of the problems of survival and excavation, Jobey began to move towards more detailed contextual interpretation at the level of the site. In the late 1970s, of particular note are the excavations of Bronze Age structures at Cùl a’Bhaile in Argyll as Colin Burgess’ (1980) Age of Stonehenge brought together the Bronze Age settlement evidence for the first time. Some of the most influential work conducted in the 1990s was the excavation of wellpreserved unenclosed structures by John Barber (1997) at Kilpatrick and Tormore (Arran), as well as Lairg in Highland (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). In south‐west Scotland, the work of Jon Terry at Uppercleugh, Bodsberry Hill and Lintshie Gutter is now proving influential (Terry et al. 1993; Terry 1993; 1995); the latter site providing some of our earliest C‐14 dates for roundhouse architecture. Patrick Ashmore summarized the Scottish Bronze Age in his comprehensive and authoritative book ‘Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland’ (1996); this remains the only work that covers the entirety of this subject.

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