iron age

6.3 Local or regional settled landscapes and seascapes - ‘settlement hierarchies’ and ‘clusters of communities’

Evidence for assessing the idea of settlement hierarchies was considered inadequate twenty years ago (Hingley 1992, 34), and arguably remains so:

"The absence of well-defined chronological spans for the various types and scales of settlements still bedevils attempts to establish definitively whether there was a clear settlement hierarchy at any time during the pre-Roman Iron Age; social, economic, regional and chronological variations remain difficult to disentangle and the ambiguities of the data continue to foster a wide range of interpretations" (Armit & Ralston 2003, 182).

"The potential exists, therefore, to allow settlements in the Tees-Forth region to be ranked, but without a programme of large-scale excavation and a firm chronological framework it is unlikely to be realised" (Cunliffe 2005, 318).

"Attempts at defining regional zones in terms of settlement patterns must be regarded as tentative at best, since most regions show considerable diversity of forms" (Harding 2009, 246).

The term ‘hierarchies’ carries an inherent assumption of a rigidly stratified society, although currentmodels of Iron Age society are not necessarily consistent with this (theme 7.4); the term ‘patterns’ is more neutral. Any understanding of settlement hierarchy must depend upon a programme of investigation to create a paradigm for the sequential development of settlement type mainly through the refining, cumulatively, of site chronologies. Only in this way will it be possible to suggest which components of the prehistoric landscape refer to each other and which do not. Such sequences will, of necessity, be localised as the range of settlement forms is more varied in some areas than others. Most regions demonstrate a diversity of settlement form that can be recognised even if it cannot be satisfactorily explained. A more uniform settlement pattern within a region or locality at a given time has been argued to occur in some places (Armit 2002 on Barra and North Uist) and this is interpreted as evidence of an egalitarian society of independent landowning families, or at least one where social distinction was not manifested in architecture and all potential classes lived in the same structures, from elites to tenant farmers. Others believe that such local societies must have had a 'big chief' even if it cannot be detected in the settlement record (e.g. MacKie 2000, 105). A key methodological problem here is the possibility of low-status buildings without earthfast foundations, which would be hard to detect.

Of immediate relevance to assessing social differentiation and cohesion among settlements has been the presence or absence of enclosure. Social variation has often been seen as implicit in the labour obligations embedded in the construction and maintenance of settlement and hillfort enclosures (Hingley 1992, 32). More complex enclosure and multivallation has often been interpreted as a reflection of higher social status, although there has been much debate surrounding this issue (e.g. Banks 2000 on Woodend, although based substantially upon negative artefactual evidence). More recently, alternative models of competitive architectural expression and the demonstration and/or mutual expression of co-operation though mutual dependency have been advanced (Frodsham et al. 2007 on the Cheviots).  Enclosed settlements in these models may be the product of less stratified societies than previously envisaged, where hillforts were seen as elite centres.

Distribution of rectilinear enclosures in the East Lothian plain, © RCAHMS

This debate about the social significance of open versus enclosed settlement is rather simplistic. There is a growing recognition that settlement layouts sometimes evolved in a complex fashion, incorporating both enclosed and unenclosed layouts – influential excavated examples include Broxmouth (Hill 1982), Braidwood (Gannon 1999, on the basis of re-survey), Braehead (Ellis 2007), and observations accrued during the Traprain Law  Environs Project (Haselgrove 2009).

There is no need to assume that enclosure was inherently superior or more desirable to open settlement or vice versa (Harding 2004, 66, 290 contra Hingley 1992, 33 who assumed open settlements formed the lowest level of society in East Lothian). The Roman coin hoards from Birnie, Moray, associated with what might otherwise have been considered a typical unenclosed timber roundhouse settlement is a case in point (Hunter 2002). This emphasises once more the need to investigate settlement patterns on a reqional basis.

The 'clusters of communities' model introduced by Hill (2006) allows for less hierarchical societies than had been previously generally considered. The model has been introduced in order to elucidate the East Lothian record by Lelong (2008) and Haselgrove (2009), but to what extent can archaeological correlates actually be identified? Lelong's (2008) claim for communities a few kilometres across seems plausible but is nevertheless an assertion. The Tweed Valley does exhibit apparently discrete clusters of homesteads (Wise 2000), but as yet they lack excavation and any dating and thus demonstration of contemporaneity. It might be easier to identify clusters of communities in zones of preservation with established geographic boundaries (e.g. islands and isolated glens).

Biases of style and scale in regional research fundamentally affect the extent to which changing settlement patterns in different parts of Scotland can be modelled - i.e. whether areas have 'research frameworks', are 'unsorted' or are 'black holes' (Haselgrove et al. 2001, 23). An example of a well-researched area is the Western Isles, which has a developed and tolerably well understood settlement sequence in many respects for the first millennia BC and AD (Gilmour 2000; Armit 2003; Henderson 2007a), and is an area with a strong established 'research framework'. Nevertheless there are still fundamental questions relating to prehistoric social structure in this area, such as:

  1. The context and chronology of the adoption of Atlantic roundhouse architecture (Gilmour 2000, 2002; Henderson 2007a; MacKie 2008, 2010).
  2. The social and chronological relationships between complex Atlantic roundhouses and wheelhouses (Armit 2003, 135; 2006; Gilmour 2000; Henderson 2000, 121; Harding 2004, 261-2 and 2009, 287; MacKie 2007, 2010), and other contemporary settlement forms (Gilmour 2002);
  3. The dating and role of promontory forts (Burgess 1999; Henderson 2007a).

In East Lothian a nuanced research framework is under construction based upon a range of recent programmes of investigation (Lelong 2008; Cowley 2009; Haselgrove 2009). Nevertheless Haselgrove has been very cautious in his approach to interpreting any diversity of the scale and design of settlement as an indicator of social structure and settlement hierarchy (and considerably more cautious than Lelong).

Macinnes (1982) outlined broad changes in the character of the settlement record in eastern Scotland as evidenced from the largely untapped cropmark record at that time. This, she saw, could reflect contrasting types of social organisation, land tenure, or political centralisation. The complexities of the topic have been explored, inter alia, by Davies (2007) and Cowley (2009), and remain a key area for research; extensive areas of the cropmark record are essentially unsorted (e.g. the Moray Firth; though see Jones et al. 1993).

In many areas (Haselgrove et al. 2001, 23) there is evidence of a diversity of prehistoric building and settlement form, where plausible hypotheses for the local or regional organisation of settlement and society can be proposed but where basic issues of chronology and function need to be resolved before any satisfactory model of settlement development can be accepted, (e.g. Isle of Skye, MacSween 1985; Sutherland and Caithness, Cowley 1999; Angus, Dunwell and Ralston 2008). In Argyll Harding (1997, 2004) and Armit (2009) have moved towards a partial construction of a settlement sequence, while in South-west Scotland (Cowley 2000, Henderson 2007a, 165-6; Cavers 2008) and Strathclyde (e.g. Alexander 2000) the links between the diverse components of the Iron Age settlement record are still unclear. Recent intensive work in East Lothian has provided one model of a means to establish a regional sequence. Other approaches take more of a keyhole approach, such as Cook’s work on Strathdon hillforts (2010), focussed on enclosure sequences, or Martin Wildgoose’s extensive sampling of hut circles in southern Skye, which targets central hearths to extract dating evidence (Wildgoose & Birch, pers comm.). Such approaches do not provide a rounded picture, nor will they recognise complexity in a site, which would cause misleading results. However, they can provide a reasonably rapid and cost-effective first-stage framework for subsequent testing. This would help to frame debate, and encourage others to tackle and challenge the model. In areas of predominantly cropmark archaeology, where the sites are being abraded year on year, such programmes may offer the only hope of extracting some information on overall settlement sequences at a broad-brush level. It is, however, much more difficult to characterise an amorphous (and probably long-lived) open settlement in this way than the specific moments of enclosure construction. The keyhole approach is not ideal, but would provide a means of obtaining basic sequences.

The enquiry must move to a situation where regions can be compared on a more equal footing. Some key 'black holes' sit between other better understood areas and would seem, therefore, to be immediate targets for research (e.g. Fife, between the Lothians and Angus; the western seaboard between Galloway and Argyll (perhaps, arguably, Cape Wrath!); the central and western Highlands. Sampling and dating large numbers of sites provides a valid first step in characterising sequences.

Was there a lower status, peasant, slave or landless element to societies that leaves little recognisable archaeological trace? Procedures for the detection of such an invisible component would have a profound impact on how the demography as well as the spatial organisation of prehistoric societies are modelled (e.g. Armit 2002, 2003; Gilmour 2002 on the Western Isles).

Open settlements appear under-represented in many parts of lowland Scotland except in pockets where cropmark production is good (e.g. parts of Angus) - this is often perceived as a visibility bias (e.g. East Lothian, Cowley 2009), but requires verification, possibly by an alternative method of remote sensing.

There is no overall clear picture regarding the role of 'hillforts', whether as tribal capitals, (seasonal) meeting places, elite residences, or other functions and it is likely that, anyway, their role varied across time and space (Armit 1997a, 50). There is no proven reason to see them as apex of a social triangle (Harding 2004, 290). Some have houses (Eildon Hill, Rideout et al. 1992; Traprain Law, Jobey 1976; Hownam, Piggott 1948) but again there is little obvious distinction between house sizes within hillforts or in comparison with other types of settlement (Harding 2009, 268-9). Promontory forts are also poorly understood.

This question impacts directly on social models for the Iron Age, a key research topic which settlement patterns inform (see theme 7.4).

Upland settlement, the dating and character of ‘hut circles‘, and the relationship to lowland settlement (e.g. in Sutherland, Cowley 1999; in North-east Scotland, Dunwell and Ralston 2008, RCAHMS 2007) may be the result of research biases fuelled by the focus on lowland cropmark excavations. How can this be redressed?

The relationships between timber and stone crannogs and island duns (Harding 2000), and their relationship to land-based settlement remain important research topics. An array of reasons for building on the water has been postulated, ranging from defence to maximising agricultural land onshore; but each site requires analysis within its own context.

6.2 Setting or context of buildings: settlement form, layout and location

Generally there are no marked variations in the size or complexity of buildings to suggest social differentiation either within or between settlements, nor even between different types of site such as open settlements, enclosed settlements and hillforts (e.g. Harding 2004, 180-3 and Lelong 2008, 250 on southern Scotland), although there are some exceptions (Harding 2004, 180-3 on Edgerston, Scottish Borders). There are instances where enclosure was used to sub-divide spaces within settlements, which have been interpreted as evidence for social distinctions - for example  Edin‘s Hall broch, Berwickshire (Dunwell 1999 although see MacKie 2007, 1324 for discussion that this structure is not a broch) and Enclosure 1 at Port Seton East, East Lothian (Haselgrove & McCullagh 2000). However, it seems that for the vast majority of demonstrably Iron Age settlement there is no visible or apparent use of enclosure to define hierarchies of space within settlements. The planned or organised layout of buildings indicates some kind of control of movement or communication within the settlement (Harding 2009, 54), but again, detectable evidence of planning is quite rare. Examples, however, do include a number of enclosed settlements - e.g. Hayhope Knowe (Piggot 1949), while the 'broch villages' of Orkney and Caithness, which are often argued to embody social distinction. These settlements have been interpreted as representing elite residences with their dependents (or kinship groups) clustered around the central structure (Foster 1989; Dockrill et al. 2006; Armit 2003, 97-8; 2006, 254); they are frequently interpreted as the material expressions of dominance and subservience and the centralization of power (Armit 2002). If accepted, this sort of arrangement appears exceptional in Iron Age Scotland (and indeed more widely), but relies on an interpretation of the towers and surrounding houses being contemporary. This is far from certain and other researchers contend that the villages were built after the towers had been substantially demolished (MacKie 1995; 1998, 22-3). Any such hierarchical arrangement would thus post-date the phase of broch construction. Evidence from early excavations is not especially reliable, and more recent excavations provide a firmer guide: at Howe, the second-phase broch was surrounded by a planned settlement (Ballin Smith 1994; MacKie 1998, 23-4).

Aerial image of Gurness, Orkney, © RCAHMS

Site sequence is key here, but often poorly understood - especially as the use of buildings could vary over their lives, and sufficient dating evidence has rarely been obtained to disentangle this (see theme 5.1). The work at Kintore, where large-scale excavations and an extensive dating programme allowed a view of long-term settlement development shows what needs to be done (Cook & Dunbar 2008). Here the Scottish evidence sits a long way behind work in southern Britain, where (for instance) large-scale work on the Thames gravels over 20 years ago illustrated such patterns of changing settlement (e.g. Lambrick 2009 for a recent summary).

Location as a marker of diffference

The location or setting of a building or settlement has also been interpreted as evidence of status or social difference, but this does depend on an understanding of contemporary concepts of landscape. The most common example is a situation on prominent locations, notably hilltops, as in hillforts but also occasional isolated houses (e.g. Culhawk Hill ring-ditch house, Rees 1998).  Most sit within agricultural landscapes, and can be seen as overlooking or embedded in these resources, but others seem to be located for visibility over larger areas or in highly isolated positions (such as some promontory forts), separated from good agricultural land. Understanding of the possible meanings behind site positioning requires not only evidence for the use of the specific settlement, but its relation to neighbours and the nature and meaning of the landscape in which it sits. GIS-based studies offer ways to understand the setting, but need to be interrogated along with information on landscape character and models of landscape meaning.

A similar question of the cultural value of landscape arises with many Atlantic roundhouses. The repeated reuse and longevity of such sites created a sense of place, forging and reinforcing a group’s identity. Some connect this to status (Harding 2004, 292-3; 2009, 288), but Dockrill 2002 has invoked manured infields as an explanation for the phenomenon in Shetland, this rich agricultural resource encouraging groups to stay close to it and maintain it. It connects also to issues of inheritance (Armit 2005a; see 5.4). 

Positioning of sites in relation to features of the earlier landscape has not seen extensive treatment, but Hingley (1996) has noted clear examples in the Atlantic zone of the active reuse of earlier monuments for Iron Age houses, suggesting the manipulation of memory and concepts of ancestry. This is an area meriting more research.

Access to / control of scarce resources

Access to agricultural resources was key for most sites, but some show evidence of differential or more centralised control. An example is the earthwork system associated with Castle O‘er hillfort, Dumfries and Galloway, suggested, by virtue of gate systems and design, the control of livestock (Mercer, forthcoming). The site was therefore interpreted as a locally pre-eminent place within a settlement hierarchy (RCAHMS 1997). Access to and control of intensively managed agricultural land and/or the production of agricultural surplus have also been linked to status, for example in the case of Shetland brochs (Dockrill 2002; see above). Souterrains have been interpreted as storage chambers that are expressions variously of individual wealth, communal storage and redistribution, amongst various other possibilities (Armit 1999, Miket 2002). There are variations in capacity, construction materials, monumentality and context that might relate to differences between communities, but fundamental issues relating to an understanding of the potentially variable functions of souterrains have yet to be satisfactorily explained.

Some buildings or settlements are located close to mineral resources, and the juxtaposition is unlikely to be coincidental - e.g. at  Edin‘s Hall, Scottish Borders (copper mines; Dunwell 1999) and Garleton Hills, East Lothian (haematite; Haselgrove 2009).

  • The nature of broch villages remains unclear, as the evidence for contemporaneity of broch and village is not always strong, although at some phases the two were in concurrent use – when did this happen, and what does it represent in terms of social forms?
  • There is more generally a need for tighter control over site sequences in order to create the building blocks for understanding settlement evolution.
  • Why did people choose to inhabit places such as hilltops, promontories jutting into the ocean and artificial islands in lochs? There is a need not only to study the setting of sites but also to try to reach a better understanding of how the surrounding landscapes were conceived, to assess unusual site placements.
  • The relationship to the inherited landscape and the deliberate reuse of earlier sites are both key topics for further work.
  • There are obvious variations in size, capacity and construction of souterrains, but how does this relate to social variation, and how does this vary in time and space? At present research is still largely clouded by little positive evidence as to what these monuments were used for in their different locations.
  • What is the relationship between settlements and local natural resources? How was access negotiated between different groups?