3.6  Transportation and Movement

The consequences of human mobility in the Bronze Age archaeological record of Scotland are widespread. They can be traced by mapping the distributions of imported phenomena including: exotic raw materials such as jet (Sheridan and Davis 2002) from their source at Whitby, East Yorkshire; distinctive object types such as bronze swords (e.g. Colquhoun and Burgess 1988) or Food Vessels (e.g. Sheridan 2004; Brindley 2007) and technologies such as tin-bronze alloying (Needham 2004) and complex  bronze sheet metalworking (Gerloff 2010); and specific funerary practices such as Beaker graves (e.g. van der Linden 2006; Sheridan 2007). The increase in strontium isotope analysis with projects such as Beakers and Bodies and the Beaker People Project is beginning to allow the identification of individuals who moved into and subsequently died in a region different from that of their birth and early development. Identifying where they came from is still a matter of scientific debate (Pollard 2011). The evidence for Bronze Age settlement, funerary and agricultural activity throughout the vast majority of mainland Scotland as well as on the largest of the 790 islands (although only 62 exceed 3 square miles) including the Shetlands, Orkneys and Outer Hebrides implies that widespread land and maritime movement by people and animals had to have been occurring. Recent surveys of the maritime connections across the Irish Sea (Waddell 1992) and the North Sea (Van der Noort 2011) demonstrate substantial movement on Scotland’s exceptionally long coastline of 9,911 km. The marked similarities in many aspects of the Bronze Age archaeology of adjacent regions would have required regular movement whether over water as with northeast Ireland and southwest Scotland (Waddell 1992) or over land or water such as southeast Scotland and northeast England.

The problem in interpreting Bronze Age mobility is that there is so little surviving evidence for how it occurred. This strongly influences questions regarding the difficulty, scale and meaning. For instance, key questions that can only tentatively be addressed include:

  1. Was mobility a rare, specialist and ritual endeavour or a common, widely practiced and everyday activity?
  2. Were wheeled vehicles used only in ritual contexts or did Bronze Age farmers use wagons on a regular basis?
  3. When were horses first ridden and what role did they play in warfare?
  4. Was movement dominated by maritime and riverine activity as is frequently argued or were there major land routes?
  5. How mobile where Bronze Age communities? Were most people staying put whilst a minority travelled widely?

It is assumed that maritime and riverine movement would have been fundamental in Scotland yet there currently are no surviving sewn plank boats as in England and Wales (Van der Noort 2006) and, less surprisingly, no surviving hide boats (McGrail 2004, 63-4). The recent discovery of the c. 10m long oak Carpow log boat from the river Tay dated to 1130-970 BC has prompted its comprehensive analysis and publication (Strachan 2010), in contrast to many of the 150 logboats from Scotland whose dating clusters in the mid 1st millennium BC- end 1st millennium AD (see Mowat 1996). There is an earlier logboat fragment from Scotland – an oak fragment from Catherinefield, Dumfries and Galloway which dates to c. 2000 BC (see Mowat 1996, 18-20) but these two sites presumably represent a fraction of the Bronze Age logboats which were made and used. In addition to the logboats, there are also several known potentially prehistoric paddles and oars although none in Scotland appear to have been directly dated (see Strachan 2010, Chapter 8). The potential association of paddles with crannogs at Loch Kinord and Oakbank Crannog, Loch Tay represents the closest discovery confirmed dating – albeit to the very end of the Bronze Age at best (Mowat 1996, 97-101). There have only been a few attempts at assessing the performance of logboats. With a maximum of one paddler and 133kg of cargo or four light adults, a top speed of 2.5 knots could be achieved in the Carpow logboat (Strachan 2010, 120). It does not seem likely that these vessels could have regularly crossed the Irish or North seas, let alone made the notoriously difficult crossing to St Kilda which apparently first occurred during the Bronze Age (Fleming and Edmonds 1999) although proper experimental voyages would be required.

The evidence for land transport is equally fragmentary. The surviving tripartite wooden wheel made from ash found in a bog at Blair Drummond, Perthshire has been dated to 1255-815 BC (Piggott 1957; Sheridan 1996) and represents the only surviving wooden evidence for wagons or chariots. There are no surviving Bronze Age trackways in Scotland which would have accommodated wheeled vehicles. The dating of the domestication of the horse for riding rather than straightforward consumption is still under debate. The discovery of bronze horse- and chariot- gear in Late Bronze Age hoards such as at Glentanar, Aberdeenshire (Pearce 1971) and Horsehope, Peebleshire (Piggott 1955) together with the far more extensive evidence in continental Europe during the late 2nd-early 1st millennium BC indicates that chariots or wagons were being drawn by horses (see Pare 1992, 18-42) and presumably horses were being ridden in some capacity.

Carpow log boat under examination ©Trevor Cowie

There gap between the transport technology and the evidence for mobility of people, animals and goods is substantial. Rather than wheeled vehicles, land transport could be dominated by human carriers who would probably have been able to manage c. 20km a day with 20-35 kg or possibly by ox-drawn wagons which might cover 24-28 km an hour with heavier loads but would obviously require easier terrain (Piggott 1983, 89f; Uckelmann forthcoming).  When compared to continental Europe, it is striking how few objects relating to horses, wagons or chariots are found in Scotland, or indeed, the British Isles (cf. Balkwill 1973; Hüttell 1981; Piggott 1983; Uckelmann forthcoming).