Executive Summary

Why research Neolithic Scotland?

The appearance in Scotland of domesticated animals and plants, and of novel technology (pottery manufacture), material culture, monuments, traditions, practices and beliefs - the elements that define what we call the Neolithic - marks a major change from what had gone before, and profoundly affected what came afterwards. How these novelties appeared has been the topic of heated debate for the last 25 years (and for less heated speculation for over a century. Characterising this change, understanding what happened to Scotland's indigenous inhabitants and building a narrative for subsequent developments (which include the secondary spread of the Neolithic 'package', a process of regionalisation and then an interesting broad spread of beliefs and practices associated with Grooved Ware use around 3000-2900 BC), are vital tasks. To this end, this document seeks to take stock of what we can say and do know, to highlight the principal gaps in our knowledge, and to suggest ways in which these can be filled.

We are fortunate in that Scotland is very rich in Neolithic sites and artefacts, and there have been many recent discoveries through developer-funded and research excavation. This, plus an ever-growing body of high-quality radiocarbon dates, and the results of several exciting research projects (e.g. on human remains and on absorbed lipids in pottery), allows us to make sense of the mass of information now available to us: at the most basic of levels, we now have a clearer picture of what happened and when (if we cannot always explain how and why).

It is our belief that we can only understand Scotland's Neolithic by adopting a multi-scale approach, situating developments here within a broader picture of European developments from the fifth to the mid-third millennium BC and developing narratives at the (present-day) national, regional and local scales. That is what we set out to do in this document.

Panel Task and Remit

The Neolithic panel was tasked to undertake a critical review of the current state of knowledge, and identify areas requiring future research into the Scottish Neolithic. This was undertaken with a view to identifying the key research areas that will help build narratives that describe and explain what happened in Scotland from the first appearance of new lifeways, some time between 4300 BC and 4000 BC, until the appearance of Beaker pottery and other associated novelties during the 25th century BC. The panel also sought to maintain a balance between describing the Scottish overview of major developments at the period and building regional and local narratives for Scotland's disparate 'Neolithics'.

The result is this report, outlining by theme the different areas of research in which work is taking place and highlighting the research topics to which archaeologists aspire. The report is structured by the following themes: The Overall Picture; The Detailed Picture - Issues of Regional and Chronological Resolution; Lifeways and Lifestyles; Material Culture and Use of Resources; Identity, Society, Belief Systems; and Research and Methodological issues. The document is reinforced by material on-line that provides additional (and alternative) discussion and further information. The Neolithic ScARF (Scottish Archaeological Research Framework) is intended as a resource to be utilised, built upon and kept updated, by those it has helped inspire and inform as well as those who follow them.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the Panel report can be summarised as follows:

The Overall Picture: more needs to be understood about the process of acculturation of indigenous communities; about the Atlantic, Breton strand of Neolithisation; about the 'how and why' of the spread of Grooved Ware use and its associated practices and traditions; and about reactions to Continental Beaker novelties which appeared from the 25th century.

The Detailed Picture: Our understanding of developments in different parts of Scotland is very uneven, with Shetland and the north-west mainland being in particular need of targeted research. Also, here and elsewhere in Scotland, the chronology of developments needs to be clarified, especially as regards developments in the Hebrides.

Lifeways and Lifestyles: Research needs to be directed towards filling the substantial gaps in our understanding of: i) subsistence strategies; ii) landscape use (including issues of population size and distribution); iii) environmental change and its consequences - and in particular issues of sea level rise, peat formation and woodland regeneration; and iv) the nature and organisation of the places where people lived; and to track changes over time in all of these.

Material Culture and Use of Resources: In addition to fine-tuning our characterisation of material culture and resource use (and its changes over the course of the Neolithic), we need to apply a wider range of analytical approaches in order to discover more about manufacture and use.Some basic questions still need to be addressed (e.g. the chronology of felsite use in Shetland; what kind of pottery was in use, c 3000-2500, in areas where Grooved Ware was not used, etc.) and are outlined in the relevant section of the document. Our knowledge of organic artefacts is very limited, so research in waterlogged contexts is desirable.

Identity, Society, Belief Systems: Basic questions about the organisation of society need to be addressed: are we dealing with communities that started out as egalitarian, but (in some regions) became socially differentiated? Can we identify acculturated indigenous people? How much mobility, and what kind of mobility, was there at different times during the Neolithic? And our chronology of certain monument types and key sites (including the Ring of Brodgar, despite its recent excavation) requires to be clarified, especially since we now know that certain types of monument (including Clava cairns) were not built during the Neolithic. The way in which certain types of site (e.g. large palisaded enclosures) were used remains to be clarified.

Research and methodological issues: There is still much ignorance of the results of past and current research, so more effective means of dissemination are required. Basic inventory information (e.g. the Scottish Human Remains Database) needs to be compiled, and Canmore and museum database information needs to be updated and expanded - and, where not already available online, placed online, preferably with a Scottish Neolithic e-hub that directs the enquirer to all the available sources of information. The Historic Scotland on-line radiocarbon date inventory needs to be resurrected and kept up to date. Under-used resources, including the rich aerial photography archive in the NMRS, need to have their potential fully exploited. Multi-disciplinary, collaborative research (and the application of GIS modelling to spatial data in order to process the results) is vital if we are to escape from the current 'silo' approach and address key research questions from a range of perspectives; and awareness of relevant research outside Scotland is essential if we are to avoid reinventing the wheel. Our perspective needs to encompass multi-scale approaches, so that developments within Scotland can be understood at a local, regional and wider level. Most importantly, the right questions need to be framed, and the right research strategies need to be developed, in order to extract the maximum amount of information about the Scottish Neolithic.


Executive Summary

Why research Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Scotland?

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology sheds light on the first colonisation and subsequent early inhabitation of Scotland.  It is a growing and exciting field where increasing Scottish evidence has been given wider significance in the context of European prehistory. It extends over a long period, which saw great changes, including substantial environmental transformations, and the impact of, and societal response to, climate change. The period as a whole provides the foundation for the human occupation of Scotland and is crucial for understanding prehistoric society, both for Scotland and across North-West Europe.

Within the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods there are considerable opportunities for pioneering research. Individual projects can still have a substantial impact and there remain opportunities for pioneering discoveries including cemeteries, domestic and other structures, stratified sites, and for exploring the huge evidential potential of water-logged and underwater sites. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology also stimulates and draws upon exciting multi-disciplinary collaborations.

Panel Task and Remit

The panel remit was to review critically the current state of knowledge and consider promising areas of future research into the earliest prehistory of Scotland. This was undertaken with a view to improved understanding of all aspects of the colonization and inhabitation of the country by peoples practising a wholly hunter-fisher-gatherer way of life prior to the advent of farming. In so doing, it was recognised as particularly important that both environmental data (including vegetation, fauna, sea level, and landscape work) and cultural change during this period be evaluated.

The resultant report, outlines the different areas of research in which archaeologists interested in early prehistory work, and highlights the research topics to which they aspire. The report is structured by theme: history of investigation; reconstruction of the environment; the nature of the archaeological record; methodologies for recreating the past; and finally, the lifestyles of past people – the latter representing both a statement of current knowledge and the ultimate aim for archaeologists; the goal of all the former sections. The document is reinforced by material on-line which provides further detail and resources. The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic panel report of ScARF is intended as a resource to be utilised, built upon, and kept updated, hopefully by those it has helped inspire and inform as well as those who follow in their footsteps.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarized under four key headings:

Visibility: Due to the considerable length of time over which sites were formed, and the predominant mobility of the population, early prehistoric remains are to be found right across the landscape, although they often survive as ephemeral traces and in low densities. Therefore, all archaeological work should take into account the expectation of encountering early prehistoric remains. This applies equally to both commercial and research archaeology, and to amateur activity which often makes the initial discovery. This should not be seen as an obstacle, but as a benefit, and not finding such remains should be cause for question. There is no doubt that important evidence of these periods remains unrecognised in private, public, and commercial collections and there is a strong need for backlog evaluation, proper curation and analysis. The inadequate representation of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic information in existing national and local databases must be addressed.

Collaboration: Multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and cross-sector approaches   must be encouraged – site prospection, prediction, recognition, and contextualisation are key areas to this end. Reconstructing past environments and their chronological frameworks, and exploring submerged and buried landscapes offer existing examples of fruitful, cross-disciplinary work. Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology has an important place within Quaternary science and the potential for deeply buried remains means that geoarchaeology should have a prominent role.

Innovation: Research-led projects are currently making a substantial impact across all aspects of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology; a funding policy that acknowledges risk and promotes the innovation that these periods demand should be encouraged. The exploration of lesser known areas, work on different types of site, new approaches to artefacts, and the application of novel methodologies should all be promoted when engaging with the challenges of early prehistory.

Tackling the ‘big questions’: Archaeologists should engage with the big questions of earliest prehistory in Scotland, including the colonisation of new land, how lifestyles in past societies were organized, the effects of and the responses to environmental change, and the transitions to new modes of life. This should be done through a holistic view of the available data, encompassing all the complexities of interpretation and developing competing and testable models. Scottish data can be used to address many of the currently topical research topics in archaeology, and will provide a springboard to a better understanding of early prehistoric life in Scotland and beyond.