bronze age

1.2.2 Mid 20th century


Cairnpapple under excavation by Professor Stuart Piggott and aerial view of the henge and cairn. Cairnpapple was the earliest Bronze Age excavation carried out to modern standards in Scotland (although it was approached as a henge), and is of central importance to the period in providing a stratified sequence, © RCAHMS.

Gordon Childe (1892-1957) wrote the Preface to his textbook on the European Bronze Age in Edinburgh in 1930 and the focus for the study of the Scottish Bronze Age passed to Edinburgh University. Almost fifty years after Anderson’s Rhind lectures Childe published the next survey of Scottish prehistory in 1935.  He noted that Montelius had distinguished five periods, but was content with what had then become the conventional division into Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages based on typology of tools and weapons: flat axes and daggers; flanged axes, palstaves and rapiers; socketed axes and swords. However, Childe went on the compare and contrast Scottish bronze types with those from England.  While Early Bronze Age types were briskly equated with those south of the border, Middle Bronze Age types were common only in southern Scotland. Childe also noted the scarcity or absence from Scotland of various types characteristic of the Late Bronze Age in England and recognised the Irish origin of many contemporary gold ornaments.  Childe treated the Bronze Age chronologically, beginning with Beaker invaders, Food Vessels and other Early Bronze Age objects, then Early Bronze Age monuments and settlement. Cinerary Urns and accompanying material followed, with a separate section on Early Bronze Age burials in the Northern Isles.  The Late Bronze Age was represented by invaders using flat-rimmed pottery, building recumbent stone circles and living in settlements such as Jarlshof and Skara Brae, who reached Scotland when iron was already in use.


Late Bronze Age hoard found at Adabrock, Ness, Isle of Lewis. ©NMS Late Bronze Age hoard found at Adabrock, Ness, Isle of Lewis. In addition to axes and other tools, this hoard contains razors, beads of gold, amber and glass and fragments of a sheet-metal vessel of continental origin. ©NMS.

A decade later Childe published another synthesis (the 1944 Rhind Lectures) concentrating on indigenous development more than external influences and dividing Scottish prehistory into six stages.  Beaker pottery defined Stage III, though it persisted into Stage IV, defined by Food Vessels and including the Migdale hoard. Cinerary Urns distinguished Stage V with Late Bronze Age metalwork (exemplified by the Adabrock hoard) said to be contemporary. Childe devoted three chapters of his main text to these stages under the titles ‘Early Bronze Age’, ‘Heroic Age’ and ‘Late Bronze Age’ respectively. Thus, the Early Bronze Age was populated by users of Beakers and associated material, Childe’s ‘heroes’ were chiefs buried in daggers graves and in conspicuous monuments such as Kilmartin Glebe Cairn, while subsequent material was attributed to the Late Bronze Age. In a short appendix on bronze typology, Childe in effect reverted to Evans’s scheme, reintroducing a second stage of the Early Bronze Age equivalent to the Arreton assemblage in addition to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. He repeated that Middle Bronze Age types were practically unknown beyond southern Scotland and noted again that most of the sword types which could be used to subdivide the Late Bronze Age in England were unrepresented north of the border. In an appendix on absolute chronology, Childe argued that his Stage IV and Food Vessels persisted well into the currency of the Late Bronze Age elsewhere in Britain, so that the Late Bronze Age in northern Scotland at least would not have begun until the mid-first millennium BC.

Stuart Piggott did not produce such a detailed synthesis of Scottish prehistory, but he did make several contributions to the Bronze Age in Scotland while in Edinburgh: excavations at Cairnpapple, Clava and Croft Moraig, the Badden cist slab, the Horsehope hoard, and other grave-groups and hoards – notably Migdale. Some of this work was done in collaboration with colleagues or pupils, while his pupils (e.g. Audrey Henshall, Derek Simpson and especially John Coles) published substantial contributions themselves. Ian Shepherd’s catalogue of V-bored buttons appeared posthumously in 2009. Cairnpapple, Clava and Croft Moraig have all been subject to reinterpretation. To quote Roger Mercer (1998, 440) :

“His own revolutionary work upon the Neolithic and Iron Age of Scotland is perfectly matched by that of one of his postgraduate students, John Coles, who gave a modern foundation to Scottish Bronze Age Studies in which Piggott took great pride.”

At first consideration, Feachem (1961) saw platform settlements as intrusive and Iron Age; however by 1965 he was beginning to consider them as Late Bronze Age. Combining the work of Margaret Piggott and Kenneth Steer with his own excavations – at Glenachan Rig, Harehope, and Green Knowe in the Scottish Borders (Feachem 1958‐59; 1959‐60; 1961) – Feachem (1965) created the first roundhouse typology. This classification, despite being based on just a few type‐sites has actually stood the test of time reasonably well (Pope forthcoming). Feachem (1965) was clearly inspired by the work of Margaret Piggott regarding both excavation strategy – the deliberate targeting of structures – and house reconstruction.

1.2.1 19th and early 20th centuries

The Three-Age system was adopted more readily in Scotland than in other parts of Britain or in Ireland so the Bronze Age has been an integral part of discussions of Scottish archaeology since Sir Daniel Wilson’s account published in 1851 (The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, first edition). In this he explicitly acknowledges C J Thomsen’s (1788-1867) classification in 1816 of the prehistoric collections of the Royal Museum of Northern Antiquities in the Christiansborg Palace, into Stone, Bronze and Iron Periods as ‘now universally adopted in the nomenclature of archaeological science’.

Wilson was the author of the first catalogue of the Society’s museum, published in 1849 (Synopsis of the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland), in which material identified as pre-Roman was dated to the Stone or Bronze Periods (iron, he considered, replaced bronze only under the Romans) both classified as Celtic. In later editions pre-Roman objects were simply classified by material.  However, the presumed author of these later versions of the catalogue, Joseph Anderson (1832-1916), keeper of the museum from 1869 to 1913, used the ‘Age of Bronze’ in his Rhind Lectures, published in 1886, in which he gave ‘a general review of the existing materials for the Archaeology of Scotland’.  Anderson devoted three lectures to the Bronze Age, covering burials, with associated pottery metalwork and other grave-goods, stone circles and bronze objects, settlements being at that time unknown.

In The ancient bronze implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain and Ireland (1881), Sir John Evans (1823-1908) - an Honorary Fellow of the Society - generally treated Scottish finds in separate sections of his respective chapters on the main bronze types. Evans sometimes noted where Scottish forms differed from those elsewhere in Britain but did not otherwise consider separate typology or chronology for Scotland.

Evans never devoted much attention to chronology and his tripartite division of the material, though accurate in sequence, can now be seen as distinctly unequal in that he separated what is now defined as the Arreton assemblage (Needham’s Period 4; see Table 1) from the preceding phases of the Early Bronze Age on the one hand and the whole of the Middle and Late Bronze Age on the other.  It was left to the great Swedish scholar Oscar Montelius (1843-1921) to set out the chronology of the British Bronze Age in greater detail in an article published in Archaeologia in 1908. Montelius’s absolute chronology in particular – a Copper Age starting around 2500 BC and the end of the Late Bronze Age around 800 BC - was so far ahead of its time that his contribution was rejected by British scholars (Piggott described it as ‘curious’ fifty years later) and has now been largely forgotten. Like Evans, Montelius listed Scottish finds separately but his chronology covered the whole of Britain.

John Abercromby (1841-1924) (A study of the Bronze Age pottery of Great Britain and Ireland…1912) divided Bronze Age pottery into Beakers, Food Vessels and Cinerary Urns, the last comprising in Scotland Collared Urns, Pygmy Cups, Cordoned Urns, Encrusted Urns and Enlarged Food Vessels.  Urns occurred throughout his five periods, which lasted from 2000 to beyond 400 BC.  ‘With the best will in the world’ he found Montelius’s absolute chronology unacceptable.

In 1923 J G Callander (    -1938), Director of the Museum, read the Society a paper on Bronze Age hoards.  He acknowledged Montelius’s scheme but judged it unsuitable for Scotland (Graham, 1981, recalls the antagonism that Callander felt for anything foreign) because certain types were lacking here.  Callander divided hoards among four periods:  I, flat copper axes; II, flat bronze axes; III, flanged axes and palstaves; IV, socketed axes.  Beakers and Food Vessels were assigned to Period II, cinerary urns to Period III. Gold ornaments were assigned to the three later periods.

Following Alexander Curle’s hut‐circle excavations at Bonchester Hill (Scottish Borders) and Loch Asgaig and Kinbrace in Sutherland (Curle 1909‐10; 1910‐11), Curle and Cree used similar techniques in their excavations at Traprain Law. By 1922, Curle and Cree were responsible for discovering the first circular structure using area excavation. Unfortunately, the decision to dig to four pre‐established levels, meant that they failed to identify anything but the most obvious of features and, despite numerous hearths, areas of paving and at least two stone‐founded circular structures, no cut features were discovered