iron age

3.7 Inherited landscapes

The Iron Age inhabitants of Scotland did not, of course, live in a previously-empty landscape. Various studies have looked at continuity and change over the long term in settlement patterns through later prehistory (e.g. Barber 1997; McCullagh & Tipping 1998), and there has been more limited work on ancient concepts of past landscapes (especially early prehistoric sites and their reuse; e.g. Hingley 1996. This idea of the inherited landscape remains a significant area for research. So too does a comparative approach between different periods. The character of mid-late Bronze Age settlement seems markedly less regional than that of the Iron Age, and while some regional units seem to recur at different periods (e.g. the two-fold division of north-east Scotland at the Mounth; Maxwell 1990, fig 6), others show very different patterns; a long view of regionality issues would be very valuable.

3.8 Different landscapes

It is perhaps too easy to construct normative views of stable, pragmatic farming communities, but various strands of evidence remind us of other uses of the landscape.

Roundhouse archaeology, for example, is an area where the remarkable Scottish record has much to offer, both in terms of the architecture and the way it was employed in the daily lives of the people who occupied them. The recoverable evidence is by no means uniform across every roundhouse, but examples at Birnie (Moray) and Culduthel (Inverness), for example, have preserved architectural details of superstructures that can only be described as monumental, and as analyses proceed these will reveal relationships between the physical components of the architecture and the resource base represented by the settlement‘s hinterland. Burnt down, one structure at Birnie has also retained detail of its floor plan and the various practices played out there at the point of its abandonment. Likewise the buildings excavated in a machair environment in South Uist at Cladh Hallan contain successive floor levels revealing details of life and death, intertwining the prosaic and extraordinary in everyday activities and rituals that span from individual buildings to the surrounding landscape. Other niches in the differential levels of preservation found across Scotland offer similar possibilities. Crannogs and waterlogged structures, for example at Cults Loch (Wigtownshire) and Buiston (Ayrshire) give glimpses of the relationship of people with organic materials, both in the construction of buildings but also for all manner of artefacts in everyday use that are otherwise unknown to us.

The detail from these examples and others need to be employed critically across wider areas and integrated with other information coming from pits and ditches in settlement where the floor-levels have been lost. At the enclosure of Braehead (Renfrewshire), for example, but evidence from ditches and other cut features suggests episodic or seasonal use (Ellis 2007). Seasonal use of any structure raises interesting questions that have wider ramifications for the use of the landscape as a whole. This is an important strand of research which carries over into the duration of use of structures within settlements and indeed the settlements themselves, to challenge concepts of all sites displaying relatively static long-term settlement patterns, a perspective founded in modern experience of the historic environment.

There are certainly hints that the relationship between people, their settlements and the landscape is much more complex than has been allowed previously. Where bone survives human remains are routinely recovered from domestic contexts (e.g. Armit and Ginn 2007), but the more general question of disposal of the dead in the landscape is a major issue. The burials that have been found to date certainly only represent a tiny proportion of the population, suggesting single events being used in very specific roles. Recent discoveries at Knowe o‘Skea, with an extraordinary assemblage of children and neonates serves to point up how little is known of burial practices and where these took place in the landscape.

The Knowe of Skea, a multiperiod site with a funerary complex contains the largest MIA cemetery known in Scotland. Preservation conditions are excellent and the assemblage offers unprecedented potential for the in-depth study of an Iron Age population and its burial practices‘ © EASE Archaeology

Equally the discoveries in High Pasture Cave , Skye, reveal a place in the landscape which is clearly different from the norm of settlements, where individual deposits and burials seem to have been carried out over long periods of time. The remarkable assemblage of artefacts will enable a wide range of interpretations, from the use of the cave and its mouth and how that related to the community involved, and perhaps how that community related to the surrounding landscape. From how far afield were people coming? And what else were they doing when they got there? The limestone environment has allowed some spectacular preservation amongst the deposits here, and there is more fugitive evidence of caves being used elsewhere, often involving human remains, such as have been found at MacArthur‘s Cave near Oban, or at Covesea in Moray (Saville and Hallen 1994; Armit et al. 2011). To these can be added what are to all intents and purposes artificial caves, such as souterrains and the subterranean structure found at Minehowe. Many of the metalwork hoards that have been discovered, some evidently in bogs and watery places, reveal wider votive practices in the landscape.

Landscape cannot be understood without considering waterscapes, from lochs and rivers to maritime connections. This is self-evidence in the case of crannogs, but is relevant also to contacts between groups and resource use, especially in the Atlantic areas (e.g. Henderson 2007a). In much of the north-west Highlands, for instance, seaborne links would have been the easiest way to link inhabitants in the isolated pockets of good land. The Atlantic façade has seen some study (Henderson, ibid) but issues of waterborne contacts have barely been tackled for other areas (see the ScARF Marine and Maritime panel report).

The Iron Age landscape was a complex place in which the continuity of day-to-day life, year on year, was punctuated by specific actions at specific places. This is the arena in which people lived and died, ploughed and grazed, and met and parted. This is where individuals and communities negotiated their relationships, and where the prosaic processes of subsistence were integrated into other worlds involving both the living and the dead. Research must approach these at many levels, not simply to explore the relationships of material culture to domestic and ritual practice in local, regional and national space, but also in time, from one-off actions to repeated patterns of behaviour. It must explore changes through time and how these relate to the evolution of society from the Late Bronze Age to the early medieval period.