case study

Case Study: Balachullish

The Ballachulish figure, as discovered in 1880.

The Ballachulish figure, as it is now.

At Balachullish, in western Scotland, an anthropomorphic figure was found in a bog in 1880 by workmen building a wall (Christison 1881; Coles 1990). The figure, carved from a single piece of alder and with quartzite eyes, is female and stands almost 5 feet high. It has been dated to 730-520 BC, a period spanning the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age transition. The pubic area is deeply carved and the figure appears to hold a phallic object over its abdomen; it may therefore have been a representation (or embodiment) of a fertility deity. The use of quartzite pebbles to create the eyes is interesting; as we will see below, this material was considered to have magical qualities in prehistory.

The figure was found lying on its face in the bog. Above it were the remains of wickerwork panels, suggesting it may originally have stood in a shelter of some sort, overlooking the dangerous stretch of water where Lough Leven meets the sea. Here, a deity guarded a liminal zone, and parallels may have been drawn between the perils of travel and encounters with the other world.


Return to Section 5.4 Belief systems and ceremony in Bronze Age Scotland

Case Study: Chronological developments - ‘Broad’ and ‘Narrow Blade’ technologies

In Scotland, analysts found that the vast bulk of Mesolithic lithic assemblages related in form to the English Later Mesolithic, narrow blade, template. Moreover, the few sites which did produce typologically Early Mesolithic, broad blade, artefacts in English terms, such as Morton A in Fife and Lussa Bay on Jura, lacked reliable stratigraphy and contexted 14C dates to confirm their supposed status (Saville 2004b). The situation was further complicated by a series of 14C determinations obtained from the site at Cramond, Edinburgh, in undoubted association with a chert industry characterised by narrow blades (i.e. conventionally Later Mesolithic in English terms) , which proved to be the earliest dates in Britain for such material (Saville 2008; Waddington 2007). These dates show that people with a developed narrow-blade technology were in Scotland by c. 8400 cal BC (Saville 2008: 211–213), and they are backed by other, early, dates for material that would be regarded as conventionally  ‘later’ were it to be found in England. 

This situation provokes several questions, such as: how do the broad blade  sites relate to the Scottish Mesolithic?  There are undoubtedly sites with conventionally ‘broad blade’ industries in Scotland; when were they in use; and what was the relationship between broad-blade technology and narrow blade technology.  With regard to the narrow-blade microlithic technology, at what date did  it arrive or develop in Scotland? In general how did lithic technology develop over the 4000 years to the end of the Mesolithic period?

Microliths from Cramond ©NMS

The early existence of narrow-blade technology in Scotland may help to explain the relative dearth of broad blade associated Mesolithic sites, if we conclude that the actual time-span into which broad blade assemblages might have occurred is quite restricted (cf. Waddington et al. 2007, 219-223).  Or it may be that the two industries have a quite different relationship in the north of the British Isles.   Nevertheless, it is difficult to offer a similar explanation as to why there appear to be so few Mesolithic sites (whatever the type of industry) from the end of the period, at the time when Neolithic economy and technology were becoming established. All things being equal, one might have expected there to be an expanded population and thus significant settlement evidence after so many millennia. Had Later Mesolithic people been so profligate with their resources that population decline becomes an explanation? Or was there a change in technology (particularly lithic technology) that has as yet not been fully identified, as suggested by some (e.g. Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009)?

Blades from Lussa Bay ©NMS

Current evidence suggests the incursion of peoples from several ‘homelands’ (in interesting similarity to current theories of the arrival of the Neolithic) and the picture will undoubtedly be refined as knowledge of the prehistoric populations of Doggerland increases. The precise incursion/s of people into Scotland in the early Holocene is still the subject of much debate, and the likely paucity of evidence for any colonisation phase represents a challenge. With regard to the end of the period, models, such as Lacaille’s of a Mesolithic way of life enduring in some regions need to be tested.  It is clear that chronology and typology have still to be refined. 

Clarification of the position of broad blade sites is one research priority: validation and understanding of the broad blade assemblages of Scotland in general is needed. Excavation to better understand broad blade sites, in the Tweed Valley for example, would be very useful.  Another priority must lie in clarification of the relationship, if any, between broad and narrow blade sites.  Finally, identification and excavation of industries representative of the later, pre-Neolithic period of the Mesolithic is undoubtedly important.

Return to Section 2.2 Mesolithic