iron age

5.2 Regional trends

Broad regional and local patterning of the house and settlement record has been clear for decades, and underpinned Piggott's ( 1966) justification of the delineation of his provinces and regions (see theme 3.3). There is a broad distinction between the stone roundhouse forms of north and west Scotland and the timber houses of south and east Scotland, where the greater diversity of building structural form may imply the existence of a more complex or more varied society (Armit 2002; Henderson 2007a, 126-7). However, there were timber roundhouses in the former area, and stone ones in the latter. Distinct regional identities probably exist, but there are few well defined boundaries to distributions, and much transgression (Haselgrove et al. 2001, 23). Cunliffe ( 2005, 73-5) makes a broad distinction between Atlantic and western Scotland as dominated by strongly-defended homesteads of single family units, and southern and eastern Scotland as a hillfort-dominated zone interpreted as reflecting communal activity of large groups of people based in a range of other subsidiary settlements. This is an acknowledged over-simplification, masking intra-regional and local diversity (see also Harding 2006 ).

Different levels of archaeological survival are, broadly speaking, the product of an east versus west, lowland versus highland, timber versus stone divide. Better preservation of stone architecture in the west allows us to understand the characteristics of buildings, sequences and change over time better than the often plough-truncated remains of timber roundhouses in the eastern lowlands. In the south-east the unique preservation of timber structural traces in the resilient turf of the Cheviot Hills has, to some extent, counter-balanced this tendency and excavations at Kintore (Cook & Dunbar 2008) have shown that when examined intensively on a large enough scale developments over time in roundhouse form can be traced. Burnt-down houses present a particularly valuable resource, as Barber's (1997) analysis of the Bronze Age example from Tormore (Arran), Hodgson's (2001) work on the later Iron Age one from South Shields (Tyne & Wear), or Sharples' (1998) analysis of the burnt layers at Scalloway, amply illustrate. This requires considerable investment in careful excavation and analysis.

  1. Issues concerning raw materials and resource availability (particularly timber and stone) require further exploration, in both chronological and cultural terms, including comparisons between Atlantic and non-Atlantic traditions, but also more nuanced comparisons, including topics such as the South-east vs. South-west chronological distinction in timber usage for buildings (RCAHMS 1997).
  2. Burnt-down houses represent a particularly valuable resource which needs to be seized with careful work in the field and in the lab.


6.9 Research recommendations

From the detailed research recommendations in the foregoing, the following can be drawn out as priorities:

• Enquiry must move to a situation where regions can be compared on a more equal footing. Some key ‘black holes’ sittingbetween other better understood areasare immediate targets for research (e.g. Fife, between the Lothians and Angus; the western seaboard between Galloway and Argyll; the central and western Highlands.

• Programmes of sample excavation provide a valid and cost-effective approach to obtaining a first-stage model of settlement sequence in a region.

• A key question is the visibility and representativity of known settlement patterns. o Open settlements appear under-represented in many parts of lowland Scotland except in pockets where cropmark production is good) – this requires investigation, possibly by an alternative method of remote sensing. o Procedures for the detection of any ‘invisible’ component of the settlement pattern, such as simple houses with turf walls or otherwise lacking foundations, are needed, as this has a profound impact on how the demography as well as the spatial organisation of prehistoric societies are modelled.

• 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?

• The relationship of settlements to the inherited landscape and the deliberate reuse of earlier sites are both key topics for further work.

• 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 landscapes were conceived.

• There is no overall picture regarding the role of ‘hillforts’, whether as tribal capitals, (seasonal) meeting places, elite residences, or other functions and it is likely that their role varied across time and space. This impacts directly on social models for the Iron Age; regionally-based diachronic models are a key desiderata.

• What lies behind the diversity of enclosure forms in some areas? A regionally-structured review of the classification and social context of enclosed places is required.

• The lack of dating evidence for enclosed sites is an issue across the board, as it is a severe constraint in understanding them. ‘Key-hole’ work offers the prospect of obtaining at least an outline chronology in an area relatively quickly, but with the caveat that such approaches will inevitably simplify each site sequence and can only produce a first-stage model.

• The lack of evidence for activities within enclosed sites, due to limited work in enclosure interiors, is a severe constraint, as are the difficulties in connecting interior activity to enclosure sequences. Geophysical survey offers a cost-effective approach to assessing enclosure interiors in favourable circumstances.

• The nature of the largest forts (e.g. Traprain Law, Eildon Hill North, Burnswark) in relation to the wider settlement sequence remains an area requiring further work.