2.5 Endings

Defining the end of the Neolithic has tended to be a matter for debate in the past, with discussion revolving around whether the appearance of metal, Beaker pottery use and other Continental novelties during the 25th century BC occasioned the end of a 'Neolithic' lifestyle, or whether pre-existing traditions persisted alongside the novelties. The term 'Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age' has been used by some as a convenient (if incorrect) way of describing the three centuries between the first appearance of metal and the beginning of bronze use during the 22nd century BC. As argued in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Panel report, the term 'Chalcolithic' is the most appropriate term to use to describe this period; but since the appearance of the 'Beaker package' clearly did not occasion an instant and widespread transformation of society in Scotland, it is useful to review briefly the principal developments during that period as they relate to pre-existing traditions and practices.

The novelties, which may well have been introduced by a small number of immigrants from the Continent (principally the Rhine delta and possibly also the Atlantic façade), before eventually being adopted and adapted by people in Scotland, comprise the following:

  1. the use of copper, and subsequently gold;
  2. the Beaker ceramic tradition, Continental in both design and manufacture;
  3. A funerary tradition featuring individual interment, initially in simple graves or in wooden cist-like structures, with gender-specific 'rules' regarding body position and status-specific rules concerning grave goods; an emphasis on portraying some men as high status warriors/hunters; and the provision of food/drink for the journey into an envisaged afterlife;
  4. Novel archery accessories: barbed and tanged arrowheads, belt rings and wristguards, if not also composite bows;
  5. Continental dress fashion: the use of buttons as a dress accessory;
  6. Arguably the use of a fire-making kit comprising a flint strike-a-light and iron pyrites/ore;
  7. Potentially the use of oval houses (as seen in the Western Isles).

The reasons for their appearance could have been partly the undertaking of heroic, long-distance journeys by elite men and their retinues, as part of a widespread social practice in Continental Europe; partly a search for metal, particularly copper; and partly the straightforward exploration of new areas. The very widespread distribution of early, Continental-stlye Beakers (including as far north as Shetland, in the case of a worn sherd of All Over Cord-decorated Beaker from Stanydale) is consistent with the 'long distance journeying' idea.

Reactions to this appearance of exotic Continental novelties seem to have varied. In north-east Scotland they included the eventual construction of a range of non-Continental style monuments to honour certain individuals, with Beaker pottery featuring in the rituals: Clava ring cairns and passage tombs, recumbent stone circles and two-entrance, oval henges (Bradley 2000; 2005; 2011). The Clava passage tombs may represent a revival of the earlier, Neolithic practice of passage tomb construction.

Elsewhere, Beaker use did not really 'take off' in Orkney, where the social dynamics of the preceding centuries continued, with the use of the Ness of Brodgar continuing until 2300 BC. As noted above, the Ring of Brodgar may have been built after 2500 BC. Pre-existing chamber tombs of various types were re-used; the infamous remains of the white-tailed sea eagles of the Isbister 'Tomb of the Eagles' were deposited between 2450 and 2000 BC (Pitts 2006), as were the remains of dogs, deposited in the Cuween passage tomb (Sheridan 2005a). Humans were also buried in chamber tombs at this time; whether any chamber tombs were actually constructed in Orkney after 2500 BC remains to be demonstrated.

White-tailed sea eagle. From Pitts 2006; Photo: Nature Picture Library

In Shetland, Beaker pottery seems to have been adopted as a novel ceramic style, but its use was in a local idiom (e.g. in the Ness of Gruting house, built according to Shetland architectural tradition) and its development followed an insular trajectory. The same can be said for Beaker use in the Hebrides. Furthermore, in the Western Isles, it is clear that the chamber tomb inside the Callanish stone circle was built after the appearance of Beaker pottery, since worn sherds of an international-style Beaker were securely stratified in its lower cairn material (Ashmore forthcoming).

Elsewhere in Scotland, the question of how long Grooved Ware continued to be used after Beaker pottery appeared has not been satisfactorily answered. The latest dated Scottish Grooved Ware comes from Littleour, Perth and Kinross (Barclay and Maxwell 1998), with organic residues in two vessels having been dated to the second half of the third millennium BC; but the wide spread of dates from this assemblage suggests that there may be an issue with the encrusted organic residue on the pots that provided the samples, and re-dating of this assemblage is recommended. (See below, 3.3.1. for further details.) Similarly, the question of whether any Grooved Ware shows influence from Beaker pottery (or indeed vice versa) needs to be bottomed out. Presence of twisted cord impression on some Grooved Ware may not be a convincing indicator of Beaker influence.

Likewise, it is unclear whether other kinds of non-Beaker pottery were in use when the 'Beaker package' appeared. There is tentative evidence from Mye Plantation, Dumfries and Galloway, where a pile from a putative pit-fall trap produced a date of 3913±39 BP (2560-2240 cal BC at 2σ, UB-3882 (Sheridan 2005b). In between two pits in the line of pits were found sherds of what appears to be a hybrid between Grooved Ware and Impressed Ware pottery (See Theme 5). Whether this was contemporary with the dated timber is, however, uncertain.

Therefore, there remain many unanswered questions, prominent among which are the following:

  1. For how long did a recognisably 'Neolithic' way of life (however defined) continue after the appearance of the Beaker package? And what went on in parts of Scotland that were scarcely (if at all) touched by the Beaker phenomenon?
  2. What were the other responses (apart from those listed above) to the appearance of the Beaker package? And what caused the demise of the Late Neolithic social system in Orkney, perhaps around 2300 BC?
  3. Was Grooved Ware the only pottery type in use in the period immediately preceding the appearance of Beakers? If not, then what was used?
  4. Basic information about the nature of settlement, land use and subsistence strategies needs to be gathered. The effect of the localised, intermittent episodes of forest regeneration as identified for the second half of the 3rd millennium by Richard Tipping (1994) need to be explored: was there a shift in settlement?

2.3 Subsequent developments during the Early and Middle Neolithic, c 3800-c 3000 BC

A suite of developments, including a secondary expansion of farming communities and a process of regionalisation, can be identified for the period c 3800-3000 BC. It has become customary to call part of this period the 'Middle Neolithic', but its definition has tended to be nebulous and opinions differ as to where to place its notional start date. In fact, given the diversity of developments around Scotland and the absence of a clear horizon of generalised change, the use of this term is more a matter of convenience - as a way of breaking up a near-millennium of developments - than a marker of widespread change. Where used in the succeeding text, it will refer loosely (and arbitrarily) to the second half of the third millennium.

The principal developments during this c 800-year long period can be characterised as follows:

2.3.1 Expansion

of 'the Neolithic', both in terms of an infilling of landscapes in the areas of earliest Neolithic activity and a spread of the 'Atlantic' (passage tomb-associated) Neolithic from western Scotland to the Western and Northern Isles and the northern mainland. Indications are that this latter process may have taken place as early as the 38th or 37th century BC, and that farming and its associated traditions probably reached Shetland directly from western Scotland, rather than via Orkney. (See Theme 3 for details.) It is assumed that this relates to population growth but was not necessarily driven by that growth: in other words, it is unlikely that there would have been a land shortage on the mainland that occasioned a move out to the islands. Other factors probably informed the decision and the desire to explore new areas cannot be ruled out as a factor.

2.3.2 Diversification and hybridisation in material culture, monuments and traditions.

A process of regionalisation can be traced, as material culture, structures and traditions underwent 'style drift' with the passing of generations. (See Theme 3) Thus, for example, the 'traditional Carinated Bowl' pottery of the 39th/38th century became 'modified CB' pottery, with the changes (in shape, decoration and manufacture style) occurring at different rates and in different ways in different parts of Scotland. Similarly, in south-west Scotland, over the course of the 38th and 37th centuries BC, one can trace the development of CB-associated funerary monuments from their non-megalithic beginnings, through simple stone translations (e.g. at Mid Gleniron and Cairnholy) to 'Clyde cairns' (see Theme 6). In the west, the development of passage tombs from the simple form as seen at Achnacreebeag, and the geographical expansion of this funerary monument tradition, can be traced. Other, regionally-specific styles of chamber tomb emerged elsewhere in Scotland (e.g. the stalled cairns of Orkney). Likewise, cursus monuments - which may represent an aggrandisement of Early Neolithic rectangular mortuary enclosures - emerged at some time between 3800 and 3650 BC (Cook et al. 2010) and are associated with 'modified CB' pottery; the few very long bank barrows in Scotland (such as the Cleaven Dyke: Barclay and Maxwell 1998) may be alternative expressions of a similar concept. In eastern Scotland, the late fourth millennium re-emergence of large timber structures (e.g. at Balfarg Riding School) of similar size to the Early Neolithic 'halls', but not necessarily roofed, represents another aspect of regional diversity. Other expressions of diversity include variation in house building styles, with stone houses being constructed in areas that were relatively timber-poor (i.e. the Northern and Western Isles).

The hybridisation referred to above relates to the fact that the descendants of the two 'strands' of earliest farming communities - that is, the 'Atlantic Neolithic' (for want of a better term) and the 'CB Neolithic' - must have interacted and shared design ideas. In western and south-west Scotland the trajectory of ceramic development shows a merging of the 'Atlantic' and CB traditions into what Jack Scott termed 'Beacharra' pottery, and the same specific variety of modified CB pottery can be found in Clyde cairns (e.g. Glenvoidean) and a passage tomb (Achnacree) alike. Similarly, the chamber tomb of Clettraval on North Uist provides the clearest evidence for the incorporation of elements of both passage tomb and Clyde cairn design in the creation of some megalithic monuments in the Western Isles (Henshall 1968; Henley 2004). And on the northern mainland, in Caithness, the appearance of the passage tomb funerary tradition and its interaction with the CB Neolithic tradition can be perceived (e.g. in the form of multi-phase monuments, where the long cairn format of the CB Neolithic tradition was superimposed on passage tombs (as at Camster Long, Caithness: Figure a).

Figure a: Multi-phase monument construction at Camster Long, Caithness, where a horned long cairn was superimposed on two pre-existing passage tombs with round cairns. From Henshall 1972

The particular trajectories of change that can be traced in different parts of Scotland - see Theme 3 for details - will have been influenced by the amount, kind and direction of interaction between different regions. With Shetland, for example, a marked regionalisation may well relate to a relative paucity of outside contacts over the course of the 4th millennium, while in south-west and western Scotland, influences resulting from the development of an Irish Sea interaction network can clearly be seen in aspects of ceramic design. Likewise, in southern Scotland the emergence of Impressed Wares, possibly from c 3600/3500 BC but certainly by 3300 BC, shows a sharing of design ideas both with northern England and (in the south-west) with north-east Ireland. And links between the northern mainland, Orkney and the Western Isles at some time between c 3600 and 3300 BC are shown in the shared use of a specific type of pottery vessel known as the Unstan Bowl (fig b).

[Fig b to go here]


2.3.3 Social differentiation and strategies of competitive conspicuous consumption

A process of competitive aggrandisement in chamber tomb construction can be identified, for example in the emergence of massive horned cairns in Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney (Figure c) around 3600/3500 BC. These truly monumental long cairns - of which short versions also exist - were sometimes imposed on pre-existing passage tombs (as at the aforementioned monument of Camster Long, Caithness), and sometimes constructed from scratch (as at Point of Cott, Orkney). Given that they would have involved a considerable investment of effort to build, they can arguably be seen as statements of a group's - perhaps lineage's - power and authority.

Figure c: Massive horned cairn: façade of Camster Long, Caithness. Photo: Mick Sharp. From Davidson and Henshall 1991

Other evidence for the same kind of process can be seen in Orkney, where aggrandisement can be traced not only in stalled cairns (with the massive example at Midhowe 'trumping' smaller versions) but also in passage tomb construction, with the emergence of Maes Howe-type passage tombs during the last quarter of the 4th millennium representing a step-change from pre-existing Orcadian passage tombs (Schulting et al. 2010). The appearance of the latter is connected with the invention of Grooved Ware as a novel ceramic style, at some time between 3300/3200 and 3100 BC, and relates to the emergence of a markedly inegalitarian society whose elite drew some of their power from what Mary Helms has termed 'cosmological acquisition' (Helms 1993). In other words, members of an emerging elite undertook long-distance sea travel to the major passage tomb cemeteries of the Boyne Valley in eastern Ireland - a centre of power during the Middle Neolithic - and brought back ideas emulating the design of these tombs (including the use of cruciform chambers, of winter solstice solar orientation and of spiral designs on passage tomb stones: see Theme 3 and Schulting et al. 2010 for further details.)

Other hints at social differentiation elsewhere in Scotland come from the rare examples of jet and jet-like jewellery (i.e. 'monster beads') that probably belong to the second quarter of the fourth millennium, and the jet and jet-like belt sliders that probably date within the 3200-2900 BC bracket. (See Theme 5 for details.)

Further, and regionally-specific details of developments between c 3800 and c 3000 BC - including the opening of the flint mines at Den of Boddam, Aberdeenshire, towards the end of the 4th millennium - are presented in Theme 3, along with the regionally-specific research questions. Meanwhile, the main outstanding research questions relating to this long period are as follows:

  1. While the outline of the principal developments can be sketched, many questions remain as to their timing, tempo and trajectory. For example, did the 'Neolithic package' appear in Orkney from the north-east mainland, as seems quite likely, and did this happen as early as the late 38th or 37th century BC?
  2. What lay behind the expansion of farming communities to the Western and Northern Isles?
  3. Can the regionalisation be associated with any changes in subsistence strategy or in the design and construction of settlement structure? For example, isotope analysis of human remains from a communal Middle Neolithic cist grave at Sumburgh has indicated some consumption of marine resources, in contrast to the picture obtained from contemporary, earlier and later human remains elsewhere in Scotland (Melton and Montgomery 2009). Was this a peculiarity of Shetland? And in Orkney, was the documented exploitation of marine resources for non-dietary purposes? A further example: in lowland Scotland, many settlement sites dating to the second half of the 4th millennium are represented only by pits and spreads of material; is this because the architecture of houses changed, so as to leave fewer traces in the ground, or can it be explained through taphonomy - since many of these sites are in prime agricultural land that has been worked over for millennia? And can any traces be seen of the continuation of a purely 'Mesolithic' lifestyle over this period, or of 'acculturated hunter-fisher-gatherer' groups? (Perhaps yes, at West Voe, Shetland).