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Executive Summary

The Importance of Science in Scottish Archaeology

Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in the development and application of archaeological science and builds on a long and distinctive tradition of both scientific and archaeological innovation. A variety of peoples have met, interacted and lived in Scotland over many thousands of years and archaeological science is fundamental to understanding their life stories: from establishing when and where they lived, to the objects they produced, and the material remains of the individuals themselves. The Scottish environment itself offers a unique blend of characteristics within a relatively small geographical area that preserve a range of information on past peoples and landscapes. The body of evidence is large enough to be encompassing, though small enough to be comprehensible. Understanding the past is also wholly relevant to the present day, contributing to current understandings of how peoples and individuals interact with one another and with the world around them, as well as enriching current  life through understanding and presenting this rich heritage in contemporary terms to modern people.

In Science, Scotland excels in a number of fields and can draw upon a range of resources and skills distributed across the country. Archaeologically, Scotland offers a diverse set of contexts in which to apply and improve techniques of analysis in order to understand past lives. Partnerships between these diverse (and often overlapping) communities provides the opportunity to combine both, exploring the past through landscapes, site, artefacts and people, both in the field and in the laboratory.

Panel Task and Remit

The task that faced the ScARF Science in Scottish Archaeology Panel was to provide a critical review of the application of scientific techniques within archaeological research and to identify improvements for future research. To this end, the panel undertook to summarise the current state of knowledge, divided into five study themes: Chronology, Human and animal sciences, Understanding materials, People and the environment, and Detecting and imaging heritage assets. The panel report is aimed at both archaeologists and natural scientists, hopefully making both communities better aware of the data, techniques and resources that the other can provide, and promoting the benefits of collaboration.

Future Research

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

  1. High quality, high impact research: the importance of archaeological science is reflected in work that explores issues connected to important contemporary topics, including: the demography of, the nature of movement of, and contact between peoples; societal resilience; living on the Atlantic edge of Europe; and coping with environmental and climatic change. A series of large-scale and integrated archaeological science projects are required to stimulate research into these important topics. To engage fully with these questions data of sufficient richness is required that is accessible, both within Scotland and internationally. The RCAHMS’ database Canmore provides a model for digital dissemination that should be built on.
  2. Integration: Archaeological science should be involved early in the process of archaeological investigation and as a matter of routine. Resultant data needs to be securely stored, made accessible and the research results widely disseminated. Sources of advice and its communication must be developed and promoted to support work in the commercial, academic, research, governmental and 3rd sectors.
  3. Knowledge exchange and transfer: knowledge, data and skills need to be routinely transferred and embedded across the archaeological sector. This will enable the archaeological science community to better work together, establishing routes of communication and improving infrastructure. Improvements should be made to communication between different groups including peers, press and the wider public. Mechanisms exist to enable the wider community to engage with, and to feed into, the development of the archaeological and scientific database and to engage with current debates. Projects involving the wider community in data generation should be encouraged and opportunities for public engagement should be pursued through, for example, National Science Week and Scottish Archaeology Month.
  4. Networks and forums: A network of specialists should be promoted to aid collaboration, provide access to the best advice, and raise awareness of current work. This would be complemented by creating a series inter-disciplinary working groups, to discuss and articulate archaeological science issues. An online service to match people (i.e. specialist or student) to material (whether e.g. environmental sample, artefactual assemblage, or skeletal assemblage) is also recommended.  An annual meeting should also be held at which researchers would be able to promote current and future work, and draw attention to materials available for analysis, and to specialists/students looking to work on particular assemblages or projects. Such meetings could be rolled into a suitable public outreach event.

Executive Summary

Why research Medieval Scotland?

Scotland’s medieval archaeology is extremely rich. Through its improved understanding, study and conservation fascinating and critical aspects of the past can be explored, such as the development of towns, the arrival and integration of new peoples, how people farmed the land, and the development of political and religious systems. These multi-dimensional stories are played out at various levels: local, regional, national and international (principally but not solely European). Some of the issues and challenges faced by people then are equally familiar today, some will seem strange and exotic, and they fuse together in an intricate story that is the root from which modern Scotland has grown.

In order to investigate these topics, there are a range of strategies to call upon, from survey and excavation, to artefact and environmental analysis and documentary history. Combining these approaches reveal the richness of the past, and the complexity and breadth of life in medieval Scotland.

Panel Task and Remit

The Medieval Panel was tasked to critically review the current state of knowledge regarding Medieval Scotland, and to consider how that knowledge could be added to, re-evaluated and accessed. The key aim was to develop a template for maintaining a relevant, responsive and inclusive research framework.  The Medieval period is treated as a whole, rather than divided into unrelated Early and Late episodes. This allows the exploration of topics over a millennium and more, allowing themes from the origins of the post-Roman kingdoms and the arrival of Christianity to the Union of the Crowns and the impact of the Reformation (approximately 600 – 1600 AD), to be traced.

The result is this report, outlining the different areas of research into Medieval life and highlighting the research topics to be aspired to. The report is structured by theme: From Northern Britain to the idea of Scotland - Tribes, Kingdoms, States?; Lifestyles and living spaces; Mentalities - Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Spirituality; Empowerment; and Parameters. Each theme comprises a critical review of current understanding and sets out a short section of future areas of research. The document is reinforced by material on-line which provides further detail and resources. The Medieval Scottish Archaeological Research Framework is intended as a resource to be utilised by all, and built upon and kept updated both by those it may help to inspire and inform, and, it is hoped, by those who are brought to identify any of the errors and omissions that it may reveal.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarised under five key headings. Underpinning all five areas is the recognition that human narratives remain crucial for ensuring the widest access to our shared past. There is no wish to see political and economic narratives abandoned but the need is recognised for there to be an expansion to more social narratives to fully explore the potential of the diverse evidence base. The questions that can be asked are here framed in a national context but they need to be supported and improved a) by the development of regional research frameworks, and b) by an enhanced study of Scotland’s international context through time.

  1. From North Britain to the Idea of Scotland: Understanding why, where and how ‘Scotland’ emerges provides a focal point of research. Investigating state formation requires work from a variety of sources, exploring the relationships between centres of consumption - royal, ecclesiastical and urban - and their hinterlands. Working from site-specific work to regional analysis, researchers can explore how what would become ‘Scotland’ came to be and whence sprang its inspiration.
  1. Lifestyles and Living Spaces: Holistic approaches to exploring medieval settlement should be promoted, combining landscape studies with artefactual, environmental, and documentary work. Understanding the role of individual sites within wider local, regional and national settlement systems should be promoted, and chronological frameworks developed to chart the changing nature of Medieval settlement.
  1. Mentalities: The holistic understanding of medieval belief (particularly, but not exclusively, in its early medieval or early historic phase) needs to broaden its contextual understanding with reference to prehistoric or inherited belief systems and frames of reference. Collaborative approaches should draw on international parallels and analogues in pursuit of defining and contrasting local or regional belief systems through integrated studies of portable material culture, monumentality and landscape.
  1. Empowerment: Revisiting museum collections and renewing the study of newly retrieved artefacts is vital to a broader understanding of the dynamics of writing within society. Text needs to be seen less as a metaphor and more as a technological and social innovation in material culture which will help the understanding of it as an experienced, imaginatively rich reality of life. In archaeological terms, the study of the relatively neglected cultural areas of sensory perception, memory, learning and play needs to be promoted to enrich the understanding of past social behaviours.
  1. Parameters: Multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and cross-sector approaches should be encouraged in order to release the research potential of all sectors of archaeology. Creative solutions should be sought to the challenges of transmitting the importance of archaeological work and conserving the resource for current and future research.