1.1 The Development of an Idea


The articulated study of the New Stone Age in Scotland began in a sun burst of enlightenment generated by Daniel Wilson with the publication of his seminal work Prehistoric Annals of Scotland in 1851.  Wilson was a Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (henceforth SoAS) at this juncture, a body preoccupied with the burden of the accommodation and curation of its collection of some 7000 objects, and he it was who, with David Laing, bibliophile and Treasurer of the Society, negotiated the transfer of the collection to the Crown in this same year – although the fruit of these new arrangements was not to be seen for some seven or eight years after this date.  Wilson’s interest had led him to follow closely the ideas of Christian Jurgensen Thomsen (1788-1865) who, as Secretary of the Danish Royal Commission charged with forming a National Museum of Antiquities in Copenhagen from 1816, ultimately was made first curator of the Museum and published a guide book ,  Het Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed,  that ordered the content of the museum according to the three ages of Stone, Bronze and Iron, in 1836.  This volume was translated into English by Lord Ellesmere as A Guide to Northern Antiquities (1848). Thomsen (who was ultimately to be made corresponding fellow of the SoAS at its Anniversary Meeting of 1851) was assisted by Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae (1821-85) who, in due course, succeeded Thomsen in his post and, in addition, became The King’s Antiquary and Professor of Archaeology in the University of Copenhagen, and he eventually was made an Hon. Fellow of SoAS in 1874.  He was already a noted barrow excavator and made a truly remarkable contribution by cross-linking Thomsen’s relatively simple materials-based system to differential archaeological contexts across Denmark thereby establishing, for the first time, an extended archaeological system that recognised that an age of polished stone was represented only in certain types of sepulchral monuments and associated with certain classes of ceramic artefacts.  He published this work in 1843, Danmarks Oldtid oplyst ved Oldsager og Gravhoje (linking the antiquities with the burial monuments), a book that was translated by William Thoms, Secretary of the Camden Society, and issued in Britain as The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark in 1849.

Wilson had met Worsaae during his visit to Edinburgh in 1846 when a copy of his book was presented to the SoAS Library.  With this example he prepared and published his Synopsis of the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Edinburgh 1849) and this led directly to his completion of the work cited above that he states had been his intention since his return to Scotland from London and his election to the SoAS in 1846. Thus Wilson’s book brought Scotland (and secondarily Britain’s and Ireland’s) archaeology to the forefront of European progress in this sphere.  Thus his initial chapters contain ‘Stone Age’ artefacts – polished axes, perforated axes and discoid knives but also menhirs, cromlechs, stone circles and megaliths.

But Wilson also, (in conjunction with David Laing, and, later, Laing with the support of Arthur Henry Rhind (1833-1863 and elected fellow of SoAS in 1853), also sought to address a number of inadequacies in the current arrangements for the retrieval of material for the museum.  The Law of Treasure Trove lacked any of the precision contained in equivalent enactments in Scandinavia. Good relations with the Queen’s Lord Treasurer and Remembrancer, a Fellow of SoAS, eventually brought these issues to a solution including appropriate compensation for the finder.  Other initiatives included correspondence with the authorities to allow the routine inclusion of antiquities information on Ordnance (‘military’) maps again successful and a move that was to lead eventually to the foundation of the Archaeology Division of the Ordnance Survey under OGS Crawford – a development of equally huge significance to researches in British archaeology as a whole.  Finally circulars corresponding with school masters and local landowners drawing attention to the potential for, and responsibilities of, finds recovery were at least initiated and had a locally varied but important impact.

The Accumulation of Resources

The revival of SoAS by these dynamic individuals also led to the resolution, after the 70 moribund years since the enthusiasm of foundation in 1780, to publish biennial Proceedings  that would appear annually from 1878 onwards – in itself a principal aid to archaeological and (and historical) research in Scotland.

The ‘National Museum’ came into being in 1859, and from 1860 was attracting more than 70,000 paying visitors per annum.  The impact of the efforts of Wilson, Laing and Rhind in the 1850s are illustrated by figures given fifty years later (Mitchell 1902, 11). Here Arthur Mitchell indicates, in the area of Neolithic artefacts alone, that:

Table 1: Neolithic artefacts held by the National Museum in 1902, after Mitchell 1902.

1 stone ball held in the collection in 1851 increased to 134 acquired by 1901
0 Skaill knives in 1851 32 acquired by 1901
61 flint arrowheads 3460 by 1901
49 stone axes and hammers 629 by 1901
18 'urns of all kinds' 358 by 1901

While the era of infrastructural construction and agricultural intensification must account for some of this, awareness and eager anticipation of a reward must also have played a major role.  It is probably significant to note that over the same period as well as the Museum increasing from 1560 catalogued objects in 1851 to 70,654 by 1901, the Library, another major energiser of research, expanded from 226 volumes in 1851 to 10,875 in 1901.  These are crude measures, but must surely be (and shall be seen clearly are) a measure of research intensity and yield.

By 1860 Wilson had disappeared from the scene.  Having failed to attract by his extraordinary accomplishments a Chair in a Scottish University, he emigrated to Canada to take up the Chair of English and History at Toronto University.  This, however, was not the sole reason for his disillusion as Wilson also felt acutely the lack of support from “the political establishment” in Scotland for the study of the past – plus ça change.

The first Research Framework

Nevertheless by 1860 Archaeology had attracted a new champion – Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870), probably the greatest friend of womankind, who developed chloroform as an anaesthetic and proved, and perhaps more importantly fought for (it was seen as harmful to health, morals and religion) its application in obstetrics – he was, effectively, the founder of the study of obstetrics and gynaecology in the UK and also a primary pioneer of anaesthesia – although to his discredit, an opponent of Listerian antiseptics.  His statue stands in Princes Street Gardens and his most appropriate monument used to be the Simpson Maternity Hospital.  He was also an enthusiastic and devoted Antiquary who addressed the Society in 1860 in inauguration of its new (Government funded) premises (Simpson 1862, 5-51). His delivery was the first Research Framework in Scottish Archaeology – and idiosyncratic, top/down, incoherent and impressionistic as it is, it is an ambitious ‘shopping-list’ by the light of its time.

There are about forty (it is impossible to be more precise) suggestions on Sir James’ list.  Many are Ossianic/Dalriadic.  Some are Toponymic/Philological.  Some are quite specific, some very general.  However the New Stone Age attracts his attention and he seeks to know more of the chambered barrows and cairns at Clava, Yarrows and Brogar and who lies buried there.  He also recommends enquiry into the significance of cup and ring marks and Megalithic Circles and Monoliths.  He exhorts the Fellowship to contribute to the accurate drawing and description of all classes of antiquity – a theme that is to dominate Scottish prehistoric and historic studies for a century and more – leading ultimately to the initial foundation of the Royal Commission ideal in Scotland in 1908.

By 1863 Rhind, who had been elected an Honorary Fellow of SoAS in 1857, died and his will, as well as diverting monies (£5,500) originally intended for the University to the Society to establish a lectureship, also allocated £400

“to be expended in practical archaeological excavations in the NE portion of Scotland…. And I point more particularly, but not exclusively, to the upland districts of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross”. 

Thus was enabled the investigation of one component of Simpson’s “shopping-list”.  By 1866 Joseph Anderson was reporting on the exploration of cairns in the Yarrows area of Caithness, work that continued until a final report in PSAS 1870-72.

Here was a most auspicious commencement to research.  A formulated research proposal stimulated the accrual of resources, which led to a planned campaign of excavation in order to isolate and understand, as we shall see, a specific monument type – the horned cairn.  The procedure is very close to Worsaae (see Anderson’s copy of Worsaae’s  Museum Guide dated 1862 in which the Danish text is translated into English by Anderson) and vastly ahead of any equivalent archaeological work in Britain and Ireland.  (Thomas Bateman’s Ten Years’ Diggings was published in 1861).  Sadly, it will emerge that this momentum was not to be maintained.

The Neolithic Defined

In 1865 there appeared, perhaps, the next seminal work in English after Wilson’s “sunburst”.  Half adopting Wilson’s invented term (much to the latter’s chagrin) Sir John Lubbock (later to be created Lord Avebury and to play a vital role in the ultimate passage through the House of Lords of the first Ancient Monuments Act of 1881) published his important study of archaeology and ethnography Pre-historic times as illustrated by ancient Remains and the Manners and customs of Modern Savages (1865 and successive editions until 1913).The book is important, from this immediate standpoint, as it is the setting for Lubbock’s own terminological innovation; “The later or polished Stone Age: a period characterised by beautiful weapons and instruments made of flint and other kinds of stone; in which, however, we find no trace of the knowledge of any metal, excepting gold, which seems to have been sometimes used for ornaments.  This we may call the “Neolithic” period.” Sir John was eventually elected Hon Fellow SoAS in 1873.

By 1874 Joseph Anderson had been appointed as salaried curator of the National Museum of Antiquities, a development that must have severely restricted any future capacity to carry out excavation.  Indeed his time was limited for he was appointed Rhind Lecturer for four successive years (1879-82) – lectures that provided the foundation for his important contribution to Neolithic research in Scotland.  With logic seldom emulated, and only logical in dealing with periods with no understood internal chronology, Anderson began his account from the most recent time proceeding backwards chronologically.  His account of the ‘The Age of Stone’ therefore occurs in the second part (p 229 onward) of the last volume of the four that cover the entirety of Scottish archaeology as it was seen at the time.

His avoidance of the word ‘neolithic’ is indicative, in that he, clearly, felt little point in differentiating that which was, in the Scottish context at that time, unnecessary.  We must note that it was clearly seen as necessary by John Evans in 1872 when, working principally in Southern Britain, but perusing material from Scotland to France, he did feel the need to adopt the term in his Ancient Stone Implements and, furthermore, to invent another, ‘Palaeolithic’ to describe tools associated with ‘the Drift’ – even if he recognised the singularity of Upper Palaeolithic industries.

Anderson's account of the 'Neolithic' in Scotland is firmly Worsaaean. He opens Lecture IV (Scotland in Pagan Times - Bronze and Stone Ages 1886, 229) by noting the different, collective, highly ordered nature of 'Stone Age' sepulchre and points to his own research in 1865-66 mentioned above which saw excavations of the chambers of a series of cairns, two long cairns at Yarrows and that at Camster, short-horned cairns at Ormiegill and Garrywhin as well as a series of round cairns at Camster and at Warehouse and the example at Bruan all in the County of Caithness. Cairns excavated at Skelpick and Rhinavie in Strathnaver (Munro 1884, 228-33) are described and the character of these northern long cairns compared to examples elsewhere in Britain - notably in Gloucestershire as well as Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset with the congruity of material culture in terms of flint knives and leaf arrowheads also noted. Lecture V proceeds to expand upon this, using the observed research of others - Dr R. Angus Smith at Achnacree, Argyll (Smith 1872, 396) and the work of Canon W. Greenwell at Largie, Kilmartin also in Argyll (Greenwell 1866, 336-351). Anderson goes on to examine the work of Farrer at Maes Howe (where interest is almost completely monopolised by the Norse inscriptions!), the work of Thomas in 1851 (Archaeologia 34, 127) at the Holm of Papa Westray and the excavation conducted by Farrer and Petrie (Farrer 1868, 398) and the exiguous description of the entry of Quanterness by George Low as transmitted by the Rev Barry (1805).

Much of this is unsatisfactory but brought to a climax by Anderson's account of R.S. Clouston's work at Unstan, near Stenness (Clouston 1885, 341-351) and an analysis of the associated ceramic assemblage assigned to the period by the association with leaf arrowheads. Anderson recognised the similarity embodied in the design of all of these Orcadian tombs and the relationships, intimate or distant with parallel monuments in Caithness and Argyll.

Finally he considers the rather different situation in the cairn cemeteries of Nairn encountering some difficulty over the associated stone circles which, when not apparently associated with a cairn, available artefactual associations recognised at that time suggested a Bronze Age date - a difficulty that thanks to the efforts of Richard Bradley can now be overidden with confidence.

Finally Anderson moves from this courageous associational analysis of immobile and mobile artefacts to a descriptive chapter on the mainly unassociated, randomly located, diagnostic stone tools and weapons - perforated and polished hammers, axes and maceheads and unperforated polished axes and adzes of stone and of flint, leaf and barbed arrowheads, discoid knives and flake-knives and scrapers which, by dint of ingenious experiment, Anderson was able to try to relate to particular functions. He is acknowledged by John Evans as having read and commented upon the Scottish component of his 'Ancient Stone Implements of Great Britain' published in 1872, and Anderson uses that source critically to enlighten his own account.

Within the publication of Anderson's account the expansion of Neolithic research seems to have received new stimulus after a period of relative stasis in the 1870s. Two scholars enter the field who are to make an important contribution - David Christison (1830-1912) and Frederick R. Coles (c.1860 - c.1925) - whose work in producing the 'drawings and description' of enclosures, stone circles and other monuments, which Simpson had demanded, are a leitmotif of the coming 30 years.

An International Profile?

Another important development at this time was a quite perceptible inclination for the interest in Scottish archaeology (prescribed by Prof Simpson as the search for a Scottish prehistory just as there is a Scottish history) to move towards a more international perspective. An important figure in this regard is the Rhind lecturer for 1888, Dr Robert Munro, who had published Ancient Scottish Lake-Dwellings or Crannogs, 1882 (Edinburgh) after engaging for some years in investigation of such sites in SW Scotland. He was engaged to lecture on Lake Dwellings in Europe - an excursus on the Balkan, North Italian, Swiss, S German, SW French Lake dwellings, the Dutch Terpen as well as English, Welsh and Irish sites. Munro was eventually to endow an important lectureship in the University of Edinburgh - modelled on the Rhind antecedent - lectures to explore the spheres of both Archaeology and Anthropology. He published a successor to Anderson's survey (Prehistoric Scotland and its Place in European Civilisation, 1899, Edinburgh) which was an important advance of that broader view of prehistoric study.

That development is, however, to be quite abruptly curtailed shortly before the turn of the century. In 1896 Oscar Montelius (Professor, National Museum of Sweden, Stockholm) and Sophus Müller (Director of the National Museum, Copenhagen) were elected as Honorary Fellows thus re-affirming that umbilical research link to the Baltic established by Wilson. Furthermore the focus of SoAS energy moves away from prehistory with the limelight shed upon the important Early Christian Monuments project, being pursued by Anderson and Romilly Allen and the long series of resource-hungry Roman period excavations largely around the course of the Antonine Wall, but commencing at Burnswark in 1898 and continuing until Cappuck, Roxburgh in 1912. It is also interesting and puzzling that, apparently at a date around 1900 the steady rise in number of the fellowship of SoAS ceases and the attendance figures at the National Museum as recorded and published show a quite sudden reversal of their steady increase [linked to the move in 1891 from Princes Street to the Findlay Building in Queen Street (Stevenson 1981, 173)] until, from 1907, they are no longer published.

The steady and valuable recording of stone circles continues by F.R.Coles, a landscape painter as well as archaeologist living in Kirkcudbrightshire prior to his taking up post as curator of the Museum. There is, however, relatively little other indication of interest among Fellows in 'the Neolithic' other, perhaps, than the intervention of another important individual who is to shape the way forward.

Baron Abercromby of Aboukir and Tullibody (1841-1924) was a soldier in the Rifle Brigade who had developed a very considerable gift for foreign languages (he spoke Italian, French, Spanish, German and Russian and had some knowledge of Finnish and Old Irish Gaelic. He was elected to SoAS in 1879, and became President in succession to Sir Herbert Maxwell in 1913. From 1904-07 he published three papers in PSAS (Abercromby 1904, 323-410 - Chronology of Beakers; Abercromby 1905, 326-44 - Ornament of Beakers; Abercromby 1907, 185-274 - Relative chronology of Cinerary Urns. (which were eventually expanded and given final form in his two volume A Study of the Bronze Age Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland (1912) For this work Abercromby travelled extensively, commissioned photographs on a massive scale and set an entirely new standard for prehistoric studies in Europe. His achievement matches that of his contemporary soldier, Augustus Lane-Fox, later Pitt-Rivers, in the field. The somewhat insular (with exceptions indicated), faltering performance of the Society with its two decade-long focus away from prehistoric study may well have been sufficient to persuade Abercromby that rather than see any further sums made available to the Society consumed in such pursuits he would turn to the University (in yet another link in the long chain of conflict of interest between the two organisations - beginning in 1782), to expend his bequest in a manner more closely allied to his interests - prehistoric in focus, European in extent and internationalist in attitude.

Thus it was that, by 1916, the Abercromby bequest in favour of the University of Edinburgh for the foundation of a Chair to be named after its benefactor was made, to become reality after Abercromby's death in October 1924.

By this time the catastrophe of the First World War had been enacted (although it was by no means 'over'). The SoAS had managed to continue from 1914-24 its excavation at Traprain Law (although suspended in 1916-18). F.R.Cole's work on Stone Circles was over - his desire to continue the work possibly eroded by the death of his son, a brilliant young composer and protégé of Gustav Holst, at the Third Battle of Ypres. Joseph Anderson had died in 1917, David Christison had died just before the War.

J.G. Callender ultimately succeeded Curle (who became Keeper of the Royal Scottish Museum) as Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities and A.J.H. Edwards, returned from service with the RAMC, to become his assistant. The latter commenced a series of excavations in the far north (Chambered Tomb at Ham, Caithness) very much in the Andersonian tradition, if not method; Callender (see Graham 1981, 221) was to produce useful studies of artefacts located in the collection including a seminal, if rather conservative, study of Scottish Neolithic pottery (Callander 1929, 29-98) which, however, did not draw in any comparison with wider British or Continental material, indeed Graham recollected that Callender held anything to come from south of the border in low regard.