bronze age

5.4.3 Houses or shrines?

Places such as bogs and recumbent stone circles may have been considered liminal parts of the landscape, at least in certain contexts, but ritual activities were not restricted to these areas. In other parts of Britain and Europe, Bronze Age roundhouses and the settlements in which they were located formed a focus for particular types of ritual practice (e.g. Brück 1999b; Gerritsen 1999). Acts of votive deposition were carried out at significant points in the lifecycle of the household (for example foundation or abandonment), while animal burials and deposits of grain and quernstones suggest a concern to maintain the fertility of land and livestock. Deposits of human bone, metalwork and other items marked critical points in settlement space, such as boundaries and entrances. Together, such offerings ensured the well-being of the household, so that the annual agricultural cycle may have become metaphorically linked with both places of spatial transformation and the lifecycle of the settlement and its inhabitants. In Scotland, sites such as Cladh Hallan on South Uist (see also the ScARF Case Study: Cladh Hallan) provide similar evidence.

Although some have suggested that finds such as these indicate we are looking not at houses but at shrines (e.g. Becket and MacGregor 2008), it is important to remember that most pre-modern societies are unlikely to have drawn the same categorical distinction between ritual and secular activities as is done today (Brück 1999a; Bradley 2005a). Anthropological research indicates that ritual practice forms an intrinsic element of daily life in many contemporary societies (e.g. Waterson 1990); household shrines are widely found across east and southeast Asia, for example in Japan, while special ceremonies accompany the construction of houses in many parts of Indonesia. If this was the case in the Bronze Age, it suggests that ritual activities were always not restricted to the elite but were likely to have involved all members of the community, at least on certain occasions.

The similarity between domestic and ceremonial architecture (for example timber circles and post-built roundhouses, or ring cairns and ring banks) has been noted by Bradley (2005a) and this requires further investigation. There are differences in astronomical orientation between roundhouses (which tend to face east or southeast – towards the rising sun) and some monuments (such as recumbent stone circles) which are thought to reference lunar rather than solar cycles. Overall, though, both categories of site display a concern with the movement of heavenly bodies and associated concepts of death, fertility and rebirth. In southern Britain, the circular ceremonial monuments of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age appear to have been replaced by circular domestic architecture in the Middle Bronze Age. In Scotland, the longer chronology for monuments such as stone circles indicates that these may often have been contemporary with roundhouses, suggesting a very different link between ritual and domestic architecture.

Indeed, it seems likely that other aspects of daily life in the Bronze Age, including what modern thinking would normally categorise as productive or technological activities, may also have been accompanied by ritual acts. The swords, spearheads and other objects deposited in Duddingston Loch, Edinburgh, had been deliberately broken, bent and burnt (Coles 1959/60). Such acts of ritualised destruction did not merely symbolically signify death, however. Contemporary technologies such as metalworking and potting subjected artefacts to fire and fragmentation both in the early stages of the productive process (for example, the smelting and casting of copper alloys) and in later recycling (for instance the use of grog temper in pottery). As such, the deliberate destruction of artefacts acted not only as a means of transformation but was considered essential to the regeneration of life in the face of death (Brück 2006). This means that the sorts of concerns indicated by evidence for Bronze Age belief systems (diurnal and seasonal cycles of death and rebirth) were reflected both in depositional activities and in transformative technologies (such as metalworking and cooking); it therefore seems likely that ritual acts may have been an intrinsic element of productive activities. This is hardly surprising, as there is evidence from other parts of Britain that the making of metal was regarded as a magical process and its practitioners (like the Amesbury Archer) regarded as special individuals (Fitzpatrick 2003). The working of other materials also hints that the boundary between craft and magic was seen as permeable. The curation of jet beads from older necklaces and the deposition of items such as fossils in mortuary contexts hint that certain materials – jet, amber, faience, gold, natural geological freaks – were probably attributed magical powers and used as amulets (e.g. Sheridan and Davis 2002). Again, this suggests that the boundary between the sacred and the profane was not as rigid as it is in the modern, Western world.

Key research questions include:

  1. Are the ritual practices evident in the houses at Cladh Hallan the exception or the norm? This site, unlike those excavated in other areas, was exceptionally well-preserved, with floor levels surviving intact.
  2. Are there regional differences in the prevalence or character of rituals of foundation, abandonment, etc.?
  3. How do these practices change over time?
  4. How do they relate to the increasing ‘monumentalisation’ of the domestic domain over the period?
  5. What was the relationship between roundhouses and pre-existing and/or contemporary circular monuments?
  6. What was the role of the craftsman in Bronze Age society?
  7. How did economic, ritual and political power intersect?


See also the ScARF Case Studies: Cladh Hallan / Ballachullish / Sculptor's Cave


5.4.1 Natural places

(left) View of Arthur’s Seat and Duddingston Loch (©RCAHMS) and (right) bronzes from Duddingston Loch.  This find consists mainly of weapons that had been broken or burnt before deposition in the water and also the ring handle from a bronze bucket. (©NMS)

Bronze Age communities did not draw a sharp distinction between ritual and secular activities as is done today (Brück 1999a). As will be seen below, ritual activities took place on settlement sites. Religious beliefs informed daily practice because they provided the fundamental conceptual framework for understanding how the world works. That said, however, there is strong evidence to suggest that special places on the edges of the inhabited landscape were reserved for particular forms of ceremonial practice (Fontijn 2002).

Late Bronze Age shield from Yetholm, Roxburghshire. Shields like this are among the finest objects from Bronze Age Scotland; they were hammered out of a single piece of bronze. While probably intended mainly for display, they would have been strong enough for use in combat.   ©NMS

The deposition of metalwork and other finds at significant places within the natural landscape is one of the key ritual practices of the Scottish Bronze Age. Wet places, in particular, were singled out for attention. Bronze objects, often comprising high status items and artefacts of probable ritual significance were thrown into rivers, lakes and bogs. Examples include the Early Bronze Age halberd deposited in a bog at Whiteleys, Wigtownshire (Hunter 1868), and a number of Late Bronze Age swords from the River Tay (Coles 1960, 85); this was clearly a practice with a long history. At Yetholm in southern Scotland, three Late Bronze Age shields were also found in a bog (Coles 1960, 132). Such finds are likely to represent votive offerings to gods or ancestors: in many cases, they would not have been recoverable, so it is difficult to explain their deposition in functional terms (e.g. Bradley 1990). Bronze weaponry was the main category of artefact deposited in such contexts and this fact has been interpreted in a variety of ways: for example, some have suggested that this was a means of ritually decommissioning the weapons of vanquished enemies while others suggest that these objects were deposited in the context of particular lifecycle rites. It has been argued that only those who held positions of particular social and economic standing could have afforded to relinquish such objects; such acts of ‘conspicuous consumption’ would have enhanced their reputations as wealthy and powerful individuals in the eyes of their neighbours (ibid.). However, although the deposition of high status objects such as the three shields from Yetholm can be interpreted in such terms, the deposition of one or two flat axes may have had a quite different significance: the desire to express personal status may not have always been paramount and depositional practice may relate to other concerns, for example the life-histories of the objects or the people associated with them.

The three decorated axes from Dunsapie Crag, Edinburgh (after Cowie 2004, fig. 20.5). Axes like this were exported to Scandinavia and central Europe.

Other eye-catching features of the natural landscape, for example rock outcrops, mountain tops, mountain passes and caves, were also a focus of votive deposition. For instance, a hoard of three Early Bronze Age flat axes was found below the summit of Arthur’s Seat on Dunsapie Crag, Edinburgh (Cowie 2004), while two further artefacts of the same type were found in the Pass of Ballater, Aberdeenshire (Ralston 1974, 77-78). In the Sculptor’s Cave at Covesea, Moray, a large quantity of bronze objects and human remains were retrived (see the ScARF Case Study : Sculptor’s cave, Covesea). The stairwell and paved entranceway at High Pasture Cave on the Isle of Skye probably date to the Iron Age, but there is evidence for activity at this site during the Late Bronze Age including – possibly – feasting and metalworking. On Orkney, souterrains – underground dry-stone walled chambers accessed via a long, narrow passage – may have provided a localised and man-made equivalent of sacred caves in other areas. The souterrain at Ness Breck, Orkney, dates to the Later Bronze Age (Carruthers and Lee forthcoming). 

Rock Art

It is possible that open air rock art continued to be created during this period, although it is now thought that this practice predominantly dates to Late Neolithic or earlier (e.g. Waddington 1998). The most common motifs are geometric – notably cup marks and cup-and-ring motifs. These were pecked onto outcrops and boulders.

As elsewhere along the Atlantic facade, there are concentrations of rock art in particular landscapes, for example on the southern flanks of Ben Lawers overlooking Loch Tay. Bradley has suggested that rock art was created to define the edges of territories, and to mark particular resources (such as ponds or lakes) or routeways through the landscape, especially in the uplands where communities may have shared access to summer grazing (e.g. Bradley 1997). However, he argues that it may also have drawn attention to cosmologically-significant places, including not only important features of the natural landscape – as in the case of Ben Lawers – but also monuments: further south, he suggests that rock art marks out routeways approaching the Millfield Basin in Northumberland, where there is a major concentration of Late Neolithic monuments.

Ormaig Rock art ©RCAHMS

Recent excavation at rock art sites by both Bradley and Andy Jones has attempted to understand the kinds of activities that were carried out at these locations: at Ben Lawers, for example, a cobbled surface and scatters of worked quartz were found at the foot of rock art panels (Bradley et al. 2010). In Scotland, there is evidence for the ongoing creation and/or re-use of rock art during the Bronze Age.

The standing stones at Nether Largie in the Kilmartin Glen with their cup-and-ring marks may date to the Later Bronze Age. Particularly unusual in a British context are the depictions of Early Bronze Age axes from one of the cists under the cairn at Ri Cruin in the same area (Jones 2001). In contrast, the curvilinear motifs on one of the slabs from the cist at Balblair, near Inverness, recall aspects of the art from Middle Neolithic passage tombs and it has therefore been suggested that in this case, the artwork was re-used from a much older monument (Dutton and Clapperton 2005).

Together, the creation of rock art and the deposition of metalwork and other objects suggest that Bronze Age people viewed prominent features of the natural landscape as sacred places (cf. Wyss 1996; Bradley 2000a; Cowie 2004); as will be seen below, the orientation of Bronze Age monuments towards mountains also supports this suggestion. Caves, bogs, mountains, lakes and other features provided a conduit between heaven, earth and the underworld so that gods, spirits and ancestors could be addressed and propitiated. As such, these places were considered to possess liminal or otherworldly characteristics that provided a context in which ideas of danger, difference and distance could be addressed and mediated.

The decorated cist slabs from Balblair, with suggested position of the corpse (this did not survive) (after Dutton and Clapperton 2005, fig. 2).

Distinctions between self and other and between the familiar and the foreign were central to the activities that were carried out at these sites. Features such as rivers and bogs form natural geographical boundaries and, as such, provide a perfect example of the interplay between political power and religious beliefs. Those who deposited metalwork into the water enhanced their own status in the eyes of their community by propitiating the gods; at the same time, we might interpret such acts as political posturing at what may have been boundaries between neighbouring groups.

However, the Bronze Age concern with ‘natural places’ should not be taken to indicate that culture and nature were strictly differentiated. Instead, it may suggest that elements of the ‘natural’ landscape were socialised - powerful places that were highly meaningful and that may have been considered animate entities in their own right (cf. Pálsson 1996). This has important implications for the Bronze Age economy: contrary to traditional archaeological narratives which posit intensification of production over the course of prehistory, landscape was not simply an object of economic exploitation. Doubtless, the social and religious significance ascribed to it informed ‘economic’ activities such as agriculture and mining.

Key research questions include:

  1. Can regional traditions in the deposition of metalwork be identified? For example, although Early Bronze Age daggers are found in graves in the south-east of Scotland, in Orkney they were deposited in bogs. How did these regional traditions change over time?
  2. Were different kinds of depositional practice carried out in different kinds of waters (e.g. lakes, bogs, fast-flowing vs slow-moving rivers, etc.)?
  3. How have taphonomic factors affected our current distribution maps of metal objects? For example, only the Rivers Tay and Clyde have been dredged but other Scottish rivers are also likely to have foci of deposition in the past. Targeted metal-detection at locations that may have seen depositional activities in the Bronze Age (for example around fords) might prove useful.
  4. How have recent activities/histories of research affected our distribution maps? For example, are metal-detectorists more active in some regions than others?
  5. What is the spatial relationship between locations where metal objects were deposited and other contemporary sites, such as cairns or settlements? Were rivers and bogs really ‘marginal’ elements of the Bronze Age landscape? Although Trevor Cowie and Brendan O’Connor have discussed the landscape contexts of certain bronze finds (e.g. O’Connor and Cowie 1985), our understanding of the relationship between hoards and other classes of site needs to be improved. Integrating information on metal findspots with historic environment records will place depositional practices more firmly in their landscape setting. For Scotland, existing databases (e.g. John Coles’s card index at NMS; data held by RCAHMS on CANMORE; and Peter Bray’s database of metallurgical information) could be brought together to enable clearer understanding of the landscape context of different traditions and types of metal object.
  6. Palaeoenvironmental analysis and targetted excavation at significant hoard sites may further illuminate the landscape context of metal deposition.
  7. How did the significance of particular natural places change over time? How persistent were such traditions?
  8. What is the date range for both the production and use/re-use of Scottish rock art?
  9. How does the corpus of rock art found in Early Bronze Age burials relate in stylistic terms to open-air rock art and to megalithic art? Why might rock art and/or megalithic art have been re-used in such contexts?

See also the ScARF Case Studies: Cladh Hallan / Ballachullish / Sculptor's Cave