The Neolithic of Shetland remains largely a mystery, since until recently, very little research or fieldwork had been carried out since Calder's, Henshall's and Roy Ritchie's surveys of the 1960s and 1970s. Critical review of the results of Whittle's excavations at Scord of Brouster (Sheridan 2012) has concluded that many of the structures are of post-Neolithic date. Recent advances have been made through Nigel Melton's excavations at West Voe, Sumburgh, which have uncovered Mesolithic and Early Neolithic middens; by his and Janet Montgomery's re-analysis of the human remains from the Sumburgh Cist; by Edwards et al.'s palaeoenvironmental work; by research into felsite exploitation by Torben Ballin, Gabriel Cooney and Will Megarry; by developer-funded excavation on the Hill of Crooksetter; and by the Nationalmuseet's Farming on the Edge project, which compares Shetland's Neolithic (and Neolithisation) with that of southern Scandinavia (Mahler 2011, 2012).
The story is one of the appearance of pottery - if not also of cereal cultivation and the use of domesticates - probably during the 37th (or possibly late 38th) century BC. This seems to have arrived from western Scotland - perhaps the Outer Hebrides - as part of a secondary expansion of 'the Neolithic', and there is reason to believe that it did not arrive via Orkney, but instead came directly. Simple passage tombs such as the example on the Hill of Ronas, the highest point on Shetland, were probably built by these first Neolithic settlers. The West Voe site may represent a very rare example of where Mesolithic inhabitants selectively adopted elements of a Neolithic lifestyle; the few sherds of undecorated pottery found here may well be relatable to the undecorated component of the Hebridean Neolithic pottery tradition.
The subsequent history is one of marked insularisation punctuated by episodes of contact with the outside world. Thanks to a radiocarbon date obtained for short-lived charcoal from Modesty by the Nationalmuseet's Farming on the Edge project, we can now say that exploitation of the felsite sources (to make both axeheads and ground knives) was underway by the third quarter of the fourth millennium. The use of this strikingly attractive stone is distinctive: in addition to making small, utilitarian axeheads, large axeheads were manufactured (and, it seems, kept almost exclusively within Shetland) even though there would have been no substantial trees (R. Ritchie 1968; 1992; Ballin 2011b). Shetland knives are also a regionally-specific artefact type, perhaps used for skinning as well as cutting. A regionally-specific pottery style, featuring undecorated bowls (some with grass used as a filler), had emerged during the second half of that millennium.
Shetlanders do not seem to have participated much in the competitive, hierarchical practices as seen in Late Neolithic Orkney and indeed the only candidate for a Grooved Ware pot in Shetland comes from a Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age context, and is a little suspect. However, Late Neolithic contact with Orkney is demonstrated by the shared use of maceheads (pestle-shaped and cushion-shaped); like Orkney, Shetland seems to have been a 'hot spot' for their use.
Outstanding research questions include:
- What is the sequence of funerary monument construction? A hypothetical sequence has been proposed by Sheridan (2012) but needs to be tested through fieldwork and dating
- What was the overall currency of the use of felsite, and how was exploitation organised?
- What was the Neolithic pattern of land use and subsistence practices?
- How was society organised, and how did this change over time? What were the social dynamics?
- Were any of the maceheads found in southern England (especially in the Thames valley ) made in Shetland?