1.3 The Attainment of Expertise

Post-World War II Developments

Changes in personnel (Stevenson replacing Edwards as keeper of NMA, Piggott replacing Childe etc) do not appear to this writer to have exercised quite the same impact as the appearance of Childe in 1926.  The change is subtler and more prolonged.  It is true that Stuart and C M Peggy Piggott (Stuart Piggott 1910-1996) brought to Scotland an intimate knowledge of excavation techniques, much improved by (Pitt Rivers through St. George Gray to) Wheeler with Dorothy Liddell, the Curwens, Piggott himself and especially W.F. Grimes as important practitioners throughout the 1930s and the exigencies of the recording of “Defence Sites” in the war years.  The opening of altogether larger areas, greater skills in the treatment and analysis of subsoil types and their anomalies, and a vastly greater awareness of the importance of accumulated stratigraphy, as well as an enhanced awareness of the nature of research-design were all formulated for the first time in Wheeler’s Archaeology from the Earth published after much delay in 1954 – the outcome of the 1951 Rhind Lectures entitled “The Discipline of Field Archaeology”. As important was the contribution by Richard Atkinson, published in 1946 – Field Archaeology –which, in many ways, was more severely practical and suited to British experience than Wheeler’s compendium.  It is not insignificant that Piggott sought Atkinson as his assistant in Edinburgh in 1949.  The 1958 publication of W.F.(Peter)Grimes’ Excavation of Defence Sites, 1939-1945, with its revelation, by example, of an entirely new standard of recording and publication, was also a key to the development of the new approaches emergent in the 1960s.

The Piggott Synthesis

As important (and even more delayed in coming to press) was the magisterial survey of the British Neolithic (that gave full and balanced weight to the Scottish dimension) that appeared from Cambridge in 1954, Stuart Piggott’s Neolithic Culture of the British Isles (reprinted in 1972).

Aerial Prospection/Remote Sensing

The principle of recording ancient sites from the air, details of which are invisible to the ground observer had been well known since before the First World War and practised consistently for archaeological purposes since at least the 1924 season of photography undertaken by O.G.S. Crawford and Alexander Keiller in Wessex and published as Wessex from the Air (1928).  However Scotland was not initially seen as a propitious location for such prospection and transit costs rendered it a difficult subject for sorties from England.  In 1945 however the Cambridge University Committee for Aerial Photography was established and, under the direction of Dr (later Professor) J.K.St.Joseph, flew extensive sorties seeking, primarily, evidence for Roman military sites in southern Scotland but demonstrating the receptive nature of, particularly, lowland soils in Scotland to this form of remote sensing and, often, recording prehistoric sites.  These lessons were learnt and programmes of aerial photography were established that were eventually consolidated into the RCAHMS Aerial Photographic Survey programme begun in 1976.

The massive impact of the accretion of knowledge of sites of all periods, but not least the Neolithic, by means of this approach is difficult to overstate.  Most importantly, and particularly with the Neolithic in view, it rebalanced the modern view of the monument inventory revealing whole classes of site hitherto invisible (i.e. very largely speaking non-stone built) which often are the host to deposits, cumulative and undisturbed, able to offer stratified deposits of cultural material unlikely to have been disturbed.  These are circumstances difficult to encounter with confidence in voids natural, or man-made, in stone built monuments.  The number of such sites recorded since the 1960s, in the Neolithic alone, numbers in the hundreds.

Radiocarbon Chronology

Finally among the very many laboratory techniques that have emerged to enable the analysis of residues upon, or the innate content of, archaeologically recovered materials, among the earliest and certainly the most consistently important to date, is the radiocarbon dating method developed in Chicago in the late 1940s with the first dates in Scotland becoming available in the 1960s. More and more dates of greater and greater internal precision have appeared since and the statistical and mathematical sophistication in their treatment has increasingly refined their interpretation.

These innovations dependent upon availability of aeroplanes, fast film, the study of radioactive decay, and the advent of large-scale ‘rescue’ excavation were, among many other things, all products of war-time developments.  They have had the potential for the total re-shaping of the research environment in Neolithic archaeology, although, as will be explored below, this did not happen in Scotland with immediate effect due to relatively slow adoption.


1.2 The advent of Childe – the Idea Rebuilt

At this point begins, very suddenly, the second phase of Neolithic research in Scotland.  Vere Gordon Childe is appointed to the newly established Abercromby Chair in the winter of 1926-27 – a man of single-minded and seemingly boundless energy who had already reshaped contemporary thought about early farming prehistory.  In 1925 he had published The Dawn of European Civilisation in which was evolved, quite suddenly, an entirely new vision of archaeological material – encompassing in both the widest geographical sense and in the totality of its view of the local context.  The ‘archaeological culture’, was much more than the sum of its parts.  Hitherto with a few hesitant further steps within the Worsaaen approach, most archaeologists had looked only at the parts.  Now the archaeological imagination was liberated, but offered a disciplinary framework , a model, within which it could operate efficiently, usefully and consistently.

The Accumulation of Data

Childe had virtually no extended experience of excavation but was almost immediately invited by the Office of Works to conduct excavation in advance of consolidation of the site at Skara Brae, Orkney.  He was also elected a Fellow of SoAS in 1927, immediately on his arrival, and was a member of Council by 1930 – he was, in other words, well-integrated into Scottish Archaeology (although his unorthodox persona inevitably alienated some of the more conservative element).  What was the effect of this integration?

    1. Orkney replaces the Northern Mainland as a ‘laboratory’ for Scottish Archaeology.  ‘Anderson Land’ becomes ‘Childe/ultimately Renfrew Land’.  This imbalance still to some extent embarrasses the discipline, just as the former did.
    2. Skara Brae was ultimately well dealt with in narrative, but not in detail.  Consequently as an internationally important site it has generated its own harvest of off-shoot projects of which (including Rinyo) none have been thus far adequately published.  Childe went on digging important sites on Orkney at the peak of his reputation.
    3. ‘The Neolithic agenda’ is subsumed by Childe and for some years his reports of Skara Brae PSAS 63 (1928-29), PSAS 64 (1929-30), PSAS 65 (1930-31), 22-77 (Callender J.G. Relics from Skara Brae). Childe also excavated Kindrochat Chambered Tomb,  PSAS 65 (1929-30), 78-114) and Chambered Tombs at Kilfillan, Argyll (PSAS 66 (1931-32).  He also conducted work at Old Keig Recumbent Stone Circle, Abers. (PSAS 68, 1933 -34) when his research students Margaret Mitchell and Howard Kilbride-Jones also played a part carrying out work in Neolithic sites  (Mitchell at Nether Largie Chambered Tomb (PSAS 64 (1929-30) and Kilbride-Jones – Recumbent stone circles at Loanhead of Daviot and Cullerlie (PSAS 69 (1934-35) 168-223).  Margaret Mitchell also was to publish her Doctoral thesis in PSAS 68 (1933-34), 132-89, on A New Analysis of Beaker pottery.

Sir W. Lindsay Scott was a close friend of Childe from the latter’s days in London as librarian of the Royal Anthropological Institute.  After service in the Great War he became a civil servant living in London. With Childe's encouragement he excavated the Chambered Cairn at Ruath an Dunain, Isle of Skye (PSAS 68 (1933-34), 194-223, that at Clettraval, N.Uist (PSAS 69 (1934-35), 480-536) and that at Unival, N Uist (conducted in 1935 and 1939 and fully published in PSAS 82 (1947-48), 1-49).  In 1937 he undertook the excavation of the island occupation site at Eilean an Tighe, N Uist (PSAS 85 (1950-51), 1-37).

Childe’s excavation at Skara Brae had brought him close Orcadian associates, among them Walter Grant who went on to excavate a number of Orcadian chambered cairns (Westness, Rousay (PSAS 68 (1933-34), 71-73), and Taversoe Tuick (PSAS 73 (1938-39), 6-31).  His initial work at Rinyo led to Childe taking over the work in 1938.  J.G. Callender, Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities and C.S.T. Calder, Investigator in RCAHMS, were also active at this time in Neolithic matters.  Callender, one may suspect in direct response to Childe’s influence, pursued his Neolithic interests excavating three of the long stalled cairns of Orkney (Knowe of Yarso (PSAS 69 (1934-35), 325-51) (Knowe of Rousay PSAS 70(1935-36), 407-19) and (Blackhammer PSAS 71 (1936-37), 297-308).

Altogether this was a magnificent display of the outcome of archaeological energy in the twelve years between 1927 and the advent of the Second World War.  It furnished a massive accession to the data available for interpretation and broadened, quite intentionally on Childe’s part, the geographical evenness with which the country was covered.  The development of research in Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and the Western Isles was to balance previous emphasis on Caithness and Orkney and where work continued in Orkney emphasis shifted towards settlement archaeology and broadened approaches to funerary sites.   

The Childe Synthesis

A great deal of this influx of data was available to Childe for synthesis into The Prehistory of Scotland (1935) – a stunning achievement for its time – unrivalled elsewhere in Europe and a more than worthy successor to Anderson’s innovative volume.  The Prehistory of Scotland, however, stands prominently as the inspiration, whether by reaction or support, for all subsequent work on the period.  In the course of two chapters the Neolithic in Scotland is given its current ‘shape’ in terms of its material culture and its classification – with the exception, perhaps, of Grooved Ware which Childe was only to understand correctly by 1938.  This is not to suggest that there is any single component of which our understanding has not changed since 1935, one we may especially choose to eschew some of its ‘migrationist’ content, but the origins of our current state of knowledge are all visible there.  It was a profoundly revolutionary decade for the evolution of the Scottish Neolithic in a way that it was not for any other period.

The Second World War, of course, brought a quite sudden break to this extraordinary period of development.  Childe spent the war writing a number of ‘generalist’ archaeological titles “What happens in History” " (1942) and "Progress and Archaeology"(1945) among them, but also produced Prehistoric Scotland (1940) a revision of the 1935 synthesis; carrying out the assessment and rapid survey of sites threatened by war-work with Angus Graham, and after the death of Edwards in 1943, the general direction of the National Museum prior to R.B.K. Stevenson’s return from war service.  In 1940 he did further service for Scottish prehistory by publishing in 1940 Prehistoric Communities of the British Isles a synthesis of British prehistory within which Scottish developments at all periods were accorded appropriate attention and incorporated within the over-arching narrative. (cf. Prehistoric England by J.G.D Clark, published in the same year)  This precedent imposed additional responsibilities upon Scottish researchers which had, perhaps, not received appropriate emphasis previously; and simultaneously ventilated, illuminated and stimulated research at every level and in all parts of the United Kingdom.

With the end of the War came changes of personnel across archaeology in Scotland and the valedictory survey by Childe, Scotland before the Scots,(1946), in which some of the ‘migrationist’ excesses of Prehistoric Communities were softened in order to lend weight to a more formally Marx/Engels related view of socio-economic stages of development – a treatment that Childe himself felt was more appropriate than his 1935 approach, and which certainly has, in some quarters, complied more readily with the thinking of the decades since 1946.

However, as Scotland’s archaeology came out of its Anderson shelter in 1946 (to use Stuart Piggott’s expression) there remained enormous challenges to face.  The archaeology of the Neolithic, as understood, was still almost entirely the archaeology of upstanding monuments.  There was no chronology that could be said to be clearly indicative of succession in the Neolithic and indeed the duration of the period was wholly misunderstood.  Excavation standards were, even with respect to the temporal limitations, below the standards of much that was being accomplished elsewhere in Britain.  And thus begins the third phase of research into the Scottish Neolithic.