1.3 The Attainment of Expertise

Post-World War II Developments

Changes in personnel (Stevenson replacing Edwards as keeper of NMA, Piggott replacing Childe etc) do not appear to this writer to have exercised quite the same impact as the appearance of Childe in 1926.  The change is subtler and more prolonged.  It is true that Stuart and C M Peggy Piggott (Stuart Piggott 1910-1996) brought to Scotland an intimate knowledge of excavation techniques, much improved by (Pitt Rivers through St. George Gray to) Wheeler with Dorothy Liddell, the Curwens, Piggott himself and especially W.F. Grimes as important practitioners throughout the 1930s and the exigencies of the recording of “Defence Sites” in the war years.  The opening of altogether larger areas, greater skills in the treatment and analysis of subsoil types and their anomalies, and a vastly greater awareness of the importance of accumulated stratigraphy, as well as an enhanced awareness of the nature of research-design were all formulated for the first time in Wheeler’s Archaeology from the Earth published after much delay in 1954 – the outcome of the 1951 Rhind Lectures entitled “The Discipline of Field Archaeology”. As important was the contribution by Richard Atkinson, published in 1946 – Field Archaeology –which, in many ways, was more severely practical and suited to British experience than Wheeler’s compendium.  It is not insignificant that Piggott sought Atkinson as his assistant in Edinburgh in 1949.  The 1958 publication of W.F.(Peter)Grimes’ Excavation of Defence Sites, 1939-1945, with its revelation, by example, of an entirely new standard of recording and publication, was also a key to the development of the new approaches emergent in the 1960s.

The Piggott Synthesis

As important (and even more delayed in coming to press) was the magisterial survey of the British Neolithic (that gave full and balanced weight to the Scottish dimension) that appeared from Cambridge in 1954, Stuart Piggott’s Neolithic Culture of the British Isles (reprinted in 1972).

Aerial Prospection/Remote Sensing

The principle of recording ancient sites from the air, details of which are invisible to the ground observer had been well known since before the First World War and practised consistently for archaeological purposes since at least the 1924 season of photography undertaken by O.G.S. Crawford and Alexander Keiller in Wessex and published as Wessex from the Air (1928).  However Scotland was not initially seen as a propitious location for such prospection and transit costs rendered it a difficult subject for sorties from England.  In 1945 however the Cambridge University Committee for Aerial Photography was established and, under the direction of Dr (later Professor) J.K.St.Joseph, flew extensive sorties seeking, primarily, evidence for Roman military sites in southern Scotland but demonstrating the receptive nature of, particularly, lowland soils in Scotland to this form of remote sensing and, often, recording prehistoric sites.  These lessons were learnt and programmes of aerial photography were established that were eventually consolidated into the RCAHMS Aerial Photographic Survey programme begun in 1976.

The massive impact of the accretion of knowledge of sites of all periods, but not least the Neolithic, by means of this approach is difficult to overstate.  Most importantly, and particularly with the Neolithic in view, it rebalanced the modern view of the monument inventory revealing whole classes of site hitherto invisible (i.e. very largely speaking non-stone built) which often are the host to deposits, cumulative and undisturbed, able to offer stratified deposits of cultural material unlikely to have been disturbed.  These are circumstances difficult to encounter with confidence in voids natural, or man-made, in stone built monuments.  The number of such sites recorded since the 1960s, in the Neolithic alone, numbers in the hundreds.

Radiocarbon Chronology

Finally among the very many laboratory techniques that have emerged to enable the analysis of residues upon, or the innate content of, archaeologically recovered materials, among the earliest and certainly the most consistently important to date, is the radiocarbon dating method developed in Chicago in the late 1940s with the first dates in Scotland becoming available in the 1960s. More and more dates of greater and greater internal precision have appeared since and the statistical and mathematical sophistication in their treatment has increasingly refined their interpretation.

These innovations dependent upon availability of aeroplanes, fast film, the study of radioactive decay, and the advent of large-scale ‘rescue’ excavation were, among many other things, all products of war-time developments.  They have had the potential for the total re-shaping of the research environment in Neolithic archaeology, although, as will be explored below, this did not happen in Scotland with immediate effect due to relatively slow adoption.