The Iron Age has long been dominated by the archaeology of settlement and settlement design - the brochs, duns, wheelhouses, timber and stone-built roundhouse settlements, unenclosed platform settlements, crannogs, enclosed farmsteads and hillforts that are familiar and, often, so impressive. Uniquely, in the British context, such sites in northern and western Scotland have offered deep stratified sequences of development that have given the opportunity to observe developments, socially, culturally and architecturally over time in considerable detail. However, a broader vision of Iron Age society is coming into focus, including increasing funerary evidence, hitherto almost absent, that reveals more about the population itself.
It is, of course, the people of the Iron Age that lie at the root of study. Personal identities can be explored, as expressed through identifiers of ranking, role, gender and age. The structure of society as revealed through its material remains shows evidence of segregation, differentiation and regional patterning. The question of regional identities and idiosyncracies as well as wider links to communities elsewhere in Britain and in Europe, and their variation over time, is an important area of enquiry. It has long been argued that the people of Iron Age Scotland were far from isolated and this has been dramatically demonstrated by the discovery of a burial accompanied by an assembled chariot located at Newbridge, west of Edinburgh, where dating and form show links with the Continent, but the technological details show insular origins. It is increasingly apparent that materials, goods and ideas were being moved for a variety of reasons over very wide areas. Key research questions revolve around these contacts and the role and extent of mobile people and groups. The role of warfare and violence cannot be under-estimated in this process, with the need for greater precision and interrogation of the archaeological evidence in order to specify its modi operandum.
Important work has taken place in the elucidation of environmental change at this period. Further effort is needed to add detail, precision and clarity to the chronology of farming development, its nature, its place within the landscape, its productivity and its demographic outcomes. Ultimately, the nature of society remains the fundamental question. In tackling this, modern scholarhip must learn how to break free from simple models, often reflecting partial and patronising views of tribes and elites transmitted to us fragmentarily by classical writers, and develop richer, more rounded understandings of life in the Iron Age as it was lived by prehistoric peoples.
The Iron Age panel was set up to incorporate the study of the Roman impact on what is now Scotland and it is important to consider the relationship that Iron Age peoples of this zone had with Rome and the wider world of Empire. This interaction with a literate society for the first time, and what impact the Romans had on local communities, and in turn, what impact these peoples had on the rest of the Roman Empire, are all important issues for exploration. Traditionally, work has focused on aspects of military history. More recently there has been a more diverse appreciation of other aspects of enquiry including the organisation and nature of supply, the diversity of peoples among soldiers and civilians in the frontier zone, and a more subtle understanding of interactions with the local population. Roman Scotland is central to discussions relating to ethnicity and identity in the past and has a considerable voice to add to European and wider debates on frontier life. What happened when the Romans “left”? Did they all leave? What counted as ‘Roman’ at this time? How did the longer-term influence of the Roman world and its legacy influence the formation, nature and organisation of the Pictish and other emergent kingdoms? All of these issues form critical research areas to explore.
For all its outwardly domestic character, evidence for ritual and belief is a key feature of Iron Age study. Can the apparently straightforward and intuitively interpreted evidence for the domestic sphere as retrieved from ‘simple’ settlement sites, be satisfactorily compared with ‘special’ or unusual sites such as Mine Howe, Orkney or High Pasture Cave, Isle of Skye, with their evidence for activities such as feasting, sacrifice, deposition, hoarding, or metal-working? Natural, wet/boggy or isolated places may also feature as ritual foci, with artefacts and other items being deposited, providing a rich resource in terms of craftsmanship, raw materials and the production and consumption of goods.
The quality of evidence from the Scottish Iron Age represents considerable research strength. Drystone architecture provides detailed and still-standing information on the Iron Age built environment. Deep man-made soils contain proxy data that may indicate how people used the landscape, and how this changed over time. Wetland archaeology can provide the kind of immediacy of view of life in the past, through the unusueal preservation of organic materials, that is more generally associated with shipwrecks. The long history of research into the Iron Age has provided an important archive that merits study.
Understanding the nature of settlement, landscape and subsistence remains a key research area and traditional focus of the Scottish Iron Age. Combining work on artefacts, with buildings and environmental work will lead to a far more sharply defined view of the Iron Age in the future. Building on these strengths through incorporating the opportunities offered by human remains, wetland preservation, deeply stratified sites and environmental work are important future areas of Iron Age research.
Distribution map of sites mentioned in the text © RCAHMS. Site lists and this distribution map can be downloaded from here.