7.1 Introduction

It is, perhaps, fair to say that much research goes on in isolation from other specialist research, with no sense of there being a coherent strategy for investigating the Archaeology of the Scottish Neolithic. While there would be little support for centralised control over research activities, nevertheless the development of a research framework - i.e. the raison d'être of the ScARF project - is a useful way of seeing where individual projects can fit into a larger whole. In particular, there is a need for integrated, collaborative research that takes cognisance of what has been achieved elsewhere (e.g. in terms of effective methods and strategies) and is able to situate the research within different levels of understanding, the international, national and the local setting.

Current and recent research into Neolithic Scotland has taken a wide range of forms, as the foregoing text makes clear and as is evident from the following examples of topics and approaches:


  1. Isotopic and osteological analysis of human and faunal remains.
  2. Radiocarbon dating programmes and Bayesian modelling of dates.
  3. Palaeoenvironmental (including palaeoclimatic) analysis.
  4. Underwater and aerial survey (including Lidar).
  5. Analysis of absorbed lipids in pottery.
  6. Targeted fieldwork to explore specific types of site, or as part of a broader study of an area through time ( in South Uist, Caithness, RCAHMS survey on Donside).
  7. Raw material characterisation through petrology, chemical analysis and mineralogical analysis; material-specific mapping and inventorising (as in the case of Arran pitchstone and Alpine axeheads).
  8. Issues-based research programmes (e.g. the Nationalmuseet's Farming on the Edge project, comparing the Neolithic of Shetland with that of southern Scandinavia).


  1. Study of the Orkney Vole and its origins.
  2. Experimental construction and destruction of a megalithic monument.
  3. Investigation of Caithness stone alignments.
  4. Investigation of Cursus monuments.
  5. Reviewing assemblages from chambered tombs.

This research is being/has been undertaken by individuals and teams within and outside Scotland; on different scales; and in different capacities - some being university-based, some undertaken by museum curators, some by freelance individuals and voluntary groups.

Along with the results of previous research, it is helping to shape and transform our understanding of Neolithic Scotland. But there are various issues which mean that the broad potential of this work is not currently being fully realised.

These issues are explored briefly below; many are common to all the periods of ScARF's remit. In essence, they boil down to the following two main issues:

  1. Accessibility and quality of existing information (ie dissemination and awareness issues)
  2. Overall approach, including scope of the questions posed and organisation of research


5.2.6 Stone used as a building material and for interior fittings

Interior of a 'house' at Skara Brae ©Historic Scotland

Stone was used to construct monuments over large parts of Neolithic Scotland, and in the Northern Isles, where wood was scarce, it was used extensively in the construction of houses and their internal fittings - which is why Skara Brae has survived as northern Europe's best preserved settlement. (In the Western Isles, where wood was equally scarce, stone does not feature in domestic architecture as prominently, but this is probably because greater use was made of turf there, and also the stone may not have been as easy to work as the tabular Orkney flagstone.)

The Lesser Wall of Brodgar revealed to its full surviving height ©ORCA

The skill of the Neolithic stoneworkers is obvious from the Ness of Brodgar, which has produced some of the most accomplished examples of drystone wall construction in the whole of prehistoric Europe. The aesthetic and ideological significance of stone is clear from examples such as the arrangement of flags to form a design similar to that seen on Unstan bowl collars at Unstan chamber tomb (and elsewhere in Orkney): verily the tomb was used as a 'vessel for the ancestors' (cf. Sharples & Sheridan 1992).

Reconstruction of Unstan chamber tomb ©Mary Kemp Clarke

Until recently, however, relatively little attention was paid in Scotland to the sourcing of structural stone, to its working, or to the reasons behind the use of specific types of stone. However, Colin Richards' work on seeking the source of the stone used to create the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, and the Calanais monuments on Lewis, has directed attention to questions of stone quarrying and movement, while work by Alexandra Shepherd (2000) on the decoration of structural stone and internal fittings at Skara Brae has led the way in exploring how stone could be used to express identity.

Spiral decorated slab from Eday Manse ©NMS

This work continues in the current research by Antonia Thomas, who is reviewing all decorated stone in Neolithic Orkney and in particular the adornment of stone - not just by incising designs but also by painting, at Ness of Brodgar. Other adornment of stone takes the form of the designs - some relatively simple, others complex - found on Maes Howe-type passage tombs in Orkney .

Pierowall stone from Davidson and Henshall 1989

Furthermore, John Barber's experimental reconstruction and collapsing of a chamber tomb has explored issues of the architectural and engineering aspects of building in stone (following his earlier work on the construction of the Point of Cott (Barber 1997) and on the construction of chamber tombs in general (Barber 1992), and it has also shown what happens when a structure collapses. This has provided invaluable insights into the movement of chamber tomb deposits as a result of structural collapse.

Decorated stone from Ness of Brodgar ©NMS

Other aspects of stone use have, however, received relatively little attention, and in the light of recent research by others such as Richard Bradley, David Trevarthen, and Emmanuel Mens on monuments in Scotland and elsewhere, the following research questions could usefully be addressed

  1. To what extent was colour, texture or other properties of stone a factor in the selection of particular stones for use, and their specific positioning, in monument construction? The use of quartz, for example, may well have had particular significance, especially given its later use in some recumbent stone circles, and given the practice of ritually smashing quartz. The importance of colour selection has been highlighted by Richard Bradley's work on the Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age Clava cairns (Bradley 2000).
  2. Can the châine opératoire of monument construction be reconstructed, using the principles of 'virtual refitting' as used to such striking effect by Emmanuel Mens in his examination of the construction of Carnac in Brittany? If so, how were outcrops exploited, and was there any significance in the choice of which face of the rock (i.e. quarried, vs weathered) was used in a particular position in a monument?
  3. Continuing the research of Colin Richards, how far was stone moved in order to create specific monuments? Is there any patterning in its use by monument type? Was the stone brought from various locations as 'tribute' from differing social groups?
  4. Can particular traditions in the architectural use of stone be identified (other than the fine use of Orkney flagstone in Orkney)?