neolithic

2.2 Beginnings

The appearance of the novelties outlined above needs to be seen within the broader context of the overall, long-term spread of farming across Europe from its origins in the Near East. Within this scenario, Scotland - and the rest of Britain and Ireland - lie at the end of, and at the geographical periphery of, this process. By the time the first signs of 'the Neolithic' appeared in Scotland, at some time between 4300 BC and 4000/3900 BC, communities over most of the north-west European mainland had been practising farming for over a millennium and this fact must inform any understanding of the capabilities and perspectives of Scotland's first farmers. Furthermore, we can only understand the Neolithisation of Scotland (and the rest of Britain and Ireland) by understanding the broader dynamics of social and economic change in northern France: in other words, 'the Neolithic' came with baggage of its own. And the 'shock of the new' should not be underestimated: the novelties outlined above represent a radically different set of practices, traditions and beliefs from those which had obtained over the previous four millennia in Scotland.

Strands of Neolithisation in Britain and Ireland; Nos 2 and 3 pertain to Scotland (From Sheridan 2010a)

The diversity in the material culture and structural evidence relating to Scotland's earliest 'Neolithic' indicates that research is not dealing with a single process of Neolithisation, but rather with two strands of a complex, multi-strand process that has been identified for Britain and Ireland, as summarised in the figure on the right (and see Sheridan 2010a for details). As will be argued below, these strands originated in different parts of northern France and were brought to Scotland by small groups of immigrant farmers.

It should be noted, however, that the model presented here represents one of at least four models that have been proposed to account for the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain and Ireland. The other three can be summarised as follows:

  1. Adoption of traits by indigenous Mesolithic communities - i.e. hunter-gatherer-fishers as the prime movers for this change. This view has been championed by Julian Thomas (e.g. Thomas 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008), with Clive Bonsall arguing that climate change played a role in this (Bonsall et al. 2002).
  2. Immigration of small farming groups from the far north of France to south-east England around 4100-4000 BC, and subsequent spread northwards and westwards, picking up momentum around 3800 BC (Whittle et al. 2011).
  3. Immigration of small farming groups from northern France to central Southern England, and then to Scotland, and expansion from these areas (Collard et al. 2010).

A detailed critique of these other models has been presented elsewhere (Sheridan 2010a; 2012) and need not be repeated here, other than to highlight the following principal objections:

  1. The 'Mesolithic communities as prime movers' model is predicated on a model of acculturation borrowed from southern Scandinavia, where fisher-hunter-gatherer communities came into contact with their farming neighbours - with whom they shared the same landmass - and selectively adopted (and adapted) traits of their lifestyle. In Britain and Ireland, by contrast, there is not a shred of evidence for the existence of interaction between Mesolithic communities and their farming 'neighbours' across the sea prior to the appearance of the Neolithic 'package' - and attempts to unpick this 'package' (Thomas 2003) have been robustly rebutted (e.g. by Rowley-Conwy 2004 and Schulting 2004). Furthermore, the evidence used to support the idea of selective acculturation - e.g. the fact that hunting continued after the appearance of farming (Cummings and Harris 2011), or that some Neolithic sites coincide spatially with Mesolithic sites - is weak: farming communities in northern France hunted wild animals as well as herding domesticates, and in cases where Neolithic material immediately overlies Mesolithic material - as at Glecknabae chamber tomb, or Warren Field, Crathes - radiocarbon dating has demonstrated that the activity is separated by millennia. And finally, the characterisation of the 'colonisation' model in tems of a 'massive, co-ordinated seaborne invasion' (Thomas 2008, 65) is actually a caricature, which misunderstands and misrepresents the scale and dynamics of the process.
  2. The Whittle et al. and Collard et al. models place too much reliance on radiocarbon dating and fail to account adequately for the observed variability in material culture and monuments across Britain and Ireland. Furthermore, Whittle et al.'s attempted negation of the Breton strand of Neolithisation (see below) betrays a misunderstanding of the sequence of pottery and monument building in Scotland, failing to grasp that the Achnacreebeag monument and its pottery lies at the very beginning of a long and complex sequence of developments, in both passage tomb building and in pottery.

Having carefully considered the matter for over a quarter of a century, it is the firm opinion of this theme's author that the 'multi-strand colonisation followed by acculturation' model offers the best fit with the evidence currently available; irrespective of whether the reader agrees, the text below will provide the evidential basis for understanding the nature of Scotland's earliest Neolithics.

The two strands of Neolithisation to affect Scotland can be characterised as follows (and see Sheridan 2010 a for further details):

2.2.1 The Atlantic, 'Breton' Neolithic

2.2.2. The 'Carinated Bowl' (CB) Neolithic

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1.4 The Attainment of Critical Mass

Since 1945 the progress of archaeological research in the Scottish Neolithic has been well summarised by Dr Ian Kinnes (PSAS 115 (1985), 15-57) and latterly by Dr Kenneth Brophy (PSAS 136 (2006), 7-46). and the reader is referred to these papers for detailed analysis of Neolithic research since the Second World War.

What were these potentially re-shaping developments?

Piggott’s study, still essential and foundatory to any understanding of the period, was rendered in one important regard obsolescent overnight.  His chronology was clearly wrong (and became progressively ‘more wrong’ as the issues surrounding calibration were fought out in the mid-1960s).  As a consequence there was no sense of a ‘grand legacy’ with the possible stultifying effect that might have ensued.

The rapid increase in palaeo-environmental information, notably pollen analysis, through the 1950s and 1960s brought about the general rejection of the simplistic and misleading ‘Foxian’ Highland/Lowland Zone determinist view (C.J. Fox The Personality of Britain, Cardiff, 1932).  This, together with a re-appraisal of the nature of early agriculture, saw a rapid change in dealing with the question of farming settlement in remote Atlantic locations.

Radiocarbon dating from the outset, but increasingly with calibration, physical dating demonstrated that the Neolithic was three to four times longer than originally thought – although with ‘the same amount of material culture’ to fill the much expanded time-span.  This changed attitudes to any sense of instantaneity of change, perception of continuity, and ‘completeness/integrity’ of data–set.

Absolute dating– has had the effect of “internationalising” the Scottish Neolithic as immediately and directly comparable chronology was available, so that absolutely meaningful and increasingly precise comparisons could be made from Orkney to S England, - or to the Pyramids for that matter (see the Historic Scotland erected walk-way to Skara Brae!).  New questions and narratives could thus emerge about directionality of influence, autonomy of design and cultural and social inter-relationships. It may even be possible to predict a resurgence of the historico-cultural school’s role in modelling the past.

Recovery of evidence of new site-types such as cursuses, henges (see Atkinson PSAS 84, (1949-50), 57-66 as an early example), henge-enclosures, long-barrows, ‘halls’, LMEs etc).   These all provide additional specific comparators over and above the generalised links provided by megalithic building and ceramic techniques to the remainder of the British Isles and indeed into Europe.  This has been a further force in the development of wider perspectives for Scottish Neolithic studies.

The Study of Innate and Residual contents of and upon artefacts offers limitless opportunities for international cross-referencing, relative and absolute dating, and also, alongside palaeo-environmental study, socio-economic investigation.

The larger scale of excavations – made possible by increased resources, the increased realisation of the sensitive control capacity of earth-moving machines, and the feed-back of the questions asked of landscape and environmental approaches themselves (see 2 and 6 above).

Diffusionist arguments. A number of the above considerations have applied considerable restraint to the consideration of the diffusion of the cultural record through artefactual typology. The advent of absolute dating has also diminished the perceived requirement for evidence for direct contact with locations where established chronology can be drawn upon has also resulted in arguments for migration and diffusion losing force, and the current of archaeological enquiry has been diverted in new directions.

From 1945 until c.1960 there is a relatively slow reassertion of the research profile that had existed prior to the War.  Childe, his affection for the far north undimmed, was to continue investigation in Orkney even from his new eminence at the Institute of Archaeology in London – continuing and completing his work at Rinyo and conducting for the Office of Works investigations prior to the conservation and restoration for public display of the chambered tombs at Quoyness and Maes Howe.  C.T.S. Calder also continued his work (after the publication of the Inventory for Orkney and Shetland in 1946) which brought to a profoundly important climax his work on prehistoric (notably Neolithic) settlement on Shetland as well as the distribution of chambered cairns there (PSAS 96 (1965), 37-86).

However the Piggotts were introducing a new style of excavation featuring complex project design to answer specific questions and consideration of diachronic development (at Cairnpapple PSAS 82 (1947-48), 68-123), while Audrey Henshall was initiating her creation of the tool-kit for the comparative analysis of the chambered tombs of Scotland – following in the footsteps of Christison, Coles, Anderson and Romilly Allen, but setting an elevated standard all of her own.

These forces were combined in the prosecution of a series of excavations of Clyde Cairns by Stuart Piggott and Terence Powell at Cairnholy, Galloway (PSAS 83 (1948-49), 103-61); Audrey Henshall and Margaret Stewart (formerly Crichton Mitchell) at Clach na Tiompan, Perthshire (PSAS 88 (1954-56), 112-24); Euan Mackie at Monamore, Arran (PSAS 97 (1963-64), 1-35); J.X.W.P. Corcoran at Mid Gleniron, Galloway (1969a; 1969b);  and Jack Scott at Brackley, Kintyre (PSAS 89 (1955-56), 22-54) and at Beacharra, Kintyre (PPS 30 (1964), 134-58).  Add to this Corcoran’s work at Loch Calder, Caithness (PSAS 98 (1966-67), 1-75), Henshall’s and Wallace’s  work at Embo, Sutherland (PSAS 96 (1962-63), 9-36,  and Coles’ and Simpson’s work at Pitnacree, Perth (PPS 31 (1965), 34-57) and we will observe an enthusiasm for neolithic funerary monuments that equals the flurry of the 1920s and 30s, in the 1950s and 60s but in a far more proficient and technically accomplished way than the very best of earlier work.  It was, however, “the same as before but better” and indeed continued as a dominant theme well into the 1970s.

The vision began to broaden with the move, inevitable and inexorable, within Orkney to the questions of a broader nature prompted by the variety and sheer quantity of relatively well documented evidence within a defined landscape.  The modern phase of work was pioneered by Grahame and Anna Ritchie’s work at Stenness and the Knap of Howar, David Clarke’s work at Skara Brae, John Hedges’ operation at Isbister and John Hunter’s in Sanday.  Renfrew’s campaigns of excavations at Quanterness and the Ring of Brodgar offered a seed bed for ideas and research that has created the ‘pull’ to draw further generations of scholars into opening a truly bewildering variety of sites, many producing astounding quantities of data.  An enlightened approach by Historic Scotland has selectively supported elements of this work enabling the introduction of excellent research design to the deployment of the highest standards.  The approaches pioneered by the Piggotts in Scotland of project design (they wouldn’t have called it that!) and large-scale exploration have been exploited widely.  In a sense, Orkney introduced the fourth phase of Scottish Neolithic research – the stage of ‘Critical Mass’.  Resources have become available that allow the input of effort and technique that promote a proportionate response to the challenge of the obtainable knowledge that waits untapped.

Yet, in Orkney, these extraordinary developments have brought with them problems of their own making.

The sheer volume of work has led to massive back-logs (in some cases “preparation-periods”) some as many as twenty or even thirty years long.  It is, however, a cautionary thought that more excavation is proceeding now than ever before, and the consequent data and conclusions not even prepared for general assimilation before equivalent or closely related sites are being excavated in succession. That cannot, of course, support the ideal of ‘project design’ as the foundation of good excavation and, therefore research practice, ( described by Professor Martin Carver recently in his 2010 Rhind Lectures).  Perhaps the time has come to call at least a selective moratorium on further purely research work in Orkney until this mountain of undigested data is diminished – bearing in mind that the capacity to diminish it, and any further account, may itself, in the future, decline with the public funds that, generally, are its chief means of support.

Gordon Barclay has not been alone in questioning the legitimacy of sometimes allowing the ‘tail’ of Wessex (England) or Orkney (Scotland) to ‘wag the dog’.  It has been accepted that developments in Orkney may, perhaps, have unduly influenced research project design elsewhere in Scotland from a stand-point that is, presumably, scarcely ‘typical’.  The major breakthrough towards a resolution of this conundrum came with the whole ethos of ‘rescue archaeology’, and NPPG5, compelling archaeologists (usually commercial archaeologists) to dig in areas favoured by developers rather than by archaeologists themselves.  It is these interventions that have, in many instances, led to pattern-breaking discoveries rather than the pattern-determined ones chosen by the archaeologists themselves.


Neolithic sites (starred) discovered as a result of developer-funded archaeology, 1990–2003; paler dots show all other archaeological sites thus discovered in Scotland over this period. From Phillips & Bradley 2004

Since 1976 hundreds of potential neolithic sites have been discovered that, usually in combination with pragmatic ‘rescue’ stimuli, and enabled by the “Critical Mass” issues, themselves engendered by the NPPG5, ‘Developer Pays’ initiative by Government and skilful exercise of legal and quasi-legal authority by Local Authority archaeologists and, of course, by Historic Scotland Inspectors, have resulted in dramatic rates of discovery.  These are, perhaps, best illustrated by the work of Philips and Bradley (PSAS 134 (2004), 17-51) and the splendid series of maps prepared by then, most notably their Illus 4 for the neolithic.

By this means since the mid 1970s the complexion of the Scottish Neolithic has changed to reveal cursuses, hengiforms, bank barrows, timber-built halls and enclosures, post-defined major enclosures and modest rectilinear ‘house’ structures. With the exception of the continued absence of causewayed enclosures this expanded inventory has a distinctly 'English' feel about it. Traces of Neolithic cultivation have been located but (as might be expected) are very rare.  The far greater (wider – more sites; deeper – more dates per site) availability of radiocarbon dating has also enabled far more directly valid comparison of related phenomena between Scotland and Southern England or Ireland where formerly precision in chronological parity was elusive.  Thus the complex relationships and associations of Grooved Ware from Orkney to Cornwall have been, if not simplified, placed on a more equitable footing.

It is, thus curious that it is at this juncture that between Kinnes (1985), Barclay (2001) and Brophy there has emerged a prolonged debate about marginality, core-periphery relations, parochialism in design and interpretation and unevenness of treatment at the point when “the playing field” would appear at last to have the wind blowing equally from both ends.

Partly due to enlightened policies on the part of Historic Scotland, partly due to historic processes alluded to above with especial (but not sole) relevance to Orkney and mainly because exceptional archaeological conditions prevail in terms of preservation, Scotland has attracted the resources and input of numbers of English and Welsh Universities (Exeter, Cardiff, Reading, Birmingham, Sheffield, York, Manchester, Durham and Newcastle come to mind) which is an unreciprocated gain to Scottish archaeology in general. The tradition of focused research (project) design has been assisted by ‘foreign’ intervention where researches either brought ideas from familiar but non-Scottish sources – Lyne, Peebles. (Burgess 1976 ‘Meldon Bridge…..Burgess and Miket 1976 BAR) – echoed in later work at Forteviot, Perths. These developments were taken up and expanded by excavators such as Barclay, Barber, McCullagh  and Mercer tackling very large scale projects attempting to analyse entire monument complexes and landscapes echoed in later treatment of Forteviot’s multi-period complexity by Brophy, Noble and Driscoll.

Despite this, however, the major impact on Scottish neolithic is the growth of commercial archaeology in response to the planning improvements noted above.  The growth of archaeological fieldwork reported annually in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, as reported by Jones and McKeague (DES 2007, 218) is presumably as good a measure as we can hope for of increased effort – although we may wish to reflect upon whether there are more, smaller projects and fewer larger ones.  The emergent picture is striking.  From 1947-1990 (43 years) the number of projects reported per annum rose from 16 to c.200.  After 1990 the figures rose from 200 to over 1000 in seventeen years.  Development control inspired 300-900 of these entries over this period.

Scotland is lucky indeed to have succeeded in supporting DES consistently for sixty-three years.  Again Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission’s entirely enlightened policies have, alongside the dedication of Archaeology Scotland, ensured that it should.  This publication alone stands between the discipline in Scotland and its loss from sight of the majority of work it conducts.  Historic Scotland, LA archaeologists and all commercial archaeologists working in Scotland have adopted the procedure of placing archive reports with the central repository of the RCAHMS.  Thus it was that Prof. Bradley found Scotland’s  archive most easily used as an archaeological resource (pers. comm.).  Nothing, however could be worse than a false sense of security built upon such vulnerable foundations.  It is a matter of vital importance to establish how authoritative and relatively complete accounts can be furnished of all archaeological interventions in Scotland on an internationally available basis and that knowledge of their existence is easy to trace.  Only then can Scotland seek to play effectively in a new accessible atmosphere.  The existence of Discovery and Excavation Scotland is an extraordinarily powerful asset for the Neolithic as for every other aspect of Scottish archaeology.  Nevertheless the growth of grey literature sources, the growing back-log of any sort of publication is, in the face of the volume of work proceeding since 1990 a major hazard to effective project design and synthesis.  Scottish archaeology urgently needs to develop a more effective way of enabling scholars to gain easy access to their requirements and to a clear picture of the precise content of the source indicated, with clear instructions as to how the source may then be accessed.  But this is a problem of success, not failure!

The current weakness in university-based Artefact Studies has been substantially avoided by Scottish Neolithic enquiry in recent years, with much of the ground-breaking research being carried out by researchers not based in universities. Caroline Wickham-Jones’ work on lithic sources (PSAS 109 (1977–8), 7–21); Stephen Green’s Britain-wide survey of arrowheads (Brit. Arch. Reps. 15, 1980; Trevor Cowie and Ann MacSween’s work on Neolithic pottery (Cowie T.G. PSAS 123 (1993), 13–41; Cowie and MacSween A. in Cleal R. and MacSween A. eds. 48–57) and other major contributions all emphasise this adherence to the study of the objects made by the people under study. Among the contributions made to the study of Neooithic Scotland’s material culture by Alison Sheridan is her involvement, as Co-Ordinator for Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, in the recent (2006–2010) international research project into axeheads of Alpine rock, Projet JADE (Sheridan et al. 2011; Pétrequin et al. 2012).

Perhaps Scotland now needs to take a leaf from Ireland’s book and follow Professor Gabriel Cooney in his major research project on the sources of the island’s ground stone axes, the Irish Stone Axe Project (Cooney & Mandal 1999; Cooney et al. 2011). Here Scotland does lag, despite some false starts, behind developments elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, despite useful contributions from the 1950s to the 1990s by Roy Ritchie (e.g. P.R. Ritchie 1968) and despite excavations at Creag na Caillich (Edmonds et al. 1992) .

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