5.2 Identity

The practice of individual interment has traditionally been hailed as an innovation associated with the first appearance of metal and other novelties around the 25th century BC, and taken to indicate a new emphasis on individual, as opposed to communal, identity. Although the contrast between this and previous Neolithic practices is not as stark as had previously been portrayed – since individual interment of cremated (and, very rarely, unburnt) remains is known from the Middle and Late Neolithic in Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, nevertheless funerary practices seem to have been an arena for the sometimes ostentatious display of identity during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age. Communal identity was also celebrated in death, however, as most pit and cist graves have been found in cemetery arrangements. Notable exceptions are the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age individuals whose remains have been found at the centre of some recumbent stone circles, Clava cairns and small henges (such as Broomend of Crichie) in north-east Scotland: it seems that these individuals were memorialised by the erection of these monuments, as research by Richard Bradley has revealed, and they may indicate a kind of Big Man-type society in this part of Scotland towards the end of the third millennium. Similarly, the individuals buried under the large cairns in Kilmartin Glen (c 22nd century BC) had been accorded special status as important individuals.

The aspects of identity which were underlined in Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age funerary practices are gender (with males and females being laid on different sides and facing different ways in most Beaker graves, as Alexandra Shepherd’s research has demonstrated) and age and status, with the most richly-furnished graves generally being those of older individuals. The exceptions are a small number of Early Bronze Age child graves with special grave goods, from Doune (where one child was buried with a miniature battle axehead, and another with a miniature macehead (McLaren 2004) and West Water Reservoir (where a young child was buried wearing a cannel coal and lead necklace). Richly-furnished female graves do not appear until bronze started to be used, and from this time (i.e. 22nd century, until roughly the 20th/19th century) there is a series of ostentatious funerary monuments, for both men and women; this is likely to relate to the opportunities for acquiring wealth and power from the circulation of bronze and its raw materials. These rich graves include a series of male interments featuring daggers while females were accompanied by Whitby jet necklaces; some are under imposing cairns, while some are located inside pre-existing sacred monuments. The Beaker and Food Vessel-associated cists at Cairnpapple combine the two elements, and also probably incorporate stones from a dismantled stone circle that had stood there previously - but see Mercer 1981b.

The increasing popularity of cremation as a funerary rite, especially from the 20th century BC, may be linked to beliefs about releasing a life force from mortal remains, and/or joining individual identity with that of the ancestors and gods: it is undoubtedly linked to wider cosmological beliefs. It remained the dominant practice until after the introduction of iron, with the remains usually being deposited in cemeteries, either in urns or in organic containers, and often with the remains of more than one individual being interred together. The re-use of Early Bronze Age monuments for such interments within the period 1400–800 BC is well attested. The use of kerb cairns – a specific monument type, memorably likened to a Charlotte Russe dessert – for the interment of cremated remains has been dated to between 1400 and 1000 BC, with some sites being located near standing stones or stone alignments (as at Ballymeanoch, Argyll and Bute).

Beaker, archery equipment, strike-a-light and amber bead found in a cist burial at Culduthel, Inverness, Inverness-shire. The archery equipment consists of a stone wrist guard with copper rivets with gold caps, a bone belt-ring and eight barbed and tanged flint arrowheads. ©NMS

Clues as to how individual identity was expressed during life are provided by the jewellery, dress accessories and other objects buried with, and on, the dead, as well as by other material (e.g. bronze weaponry). It appears that portrayal of men as archers (be it as hunters, warriors or – more likely – both) was an important concern during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age, and one that can be traced directly to Continental Beaker ideals of male martiality. Increasingly elaborate archery equipment (e.g. wristguards), and also non-archery weapons (i.e. stone maceheads and battle axeheads, but also arguably copper and bronze axeheads) shows that martiality was an arena for the expression of status. That this continued to be a preoccupation throughout the Bronze Age is suggested by the metal weaponry – axeheads, stabbing and slashing weapons (daggers, then dirks, then rapiers, then swords, together with ostentatious Late Bronze Age shields), halberds and spears. With axeheads and spearheads, competitive conspicuous consumption is suggested by the existence of exaggerated or complicated examples (e.g. decorated axeheads, tinned axeheads and oversized axeheads and spearheads). It seems likely that ritualised, heroic combat between individuals took place at different points during the period and was a key way to underline prowess and status; also important, during the Late Bronze Age, was possession of a vehicle, presumably pony-driven, as suggested by finds of harness adornments. As for male costume, the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age V-perforated buttons of jet and cannel coal indicate the existence of jackets (usually with a set of six buttons), and also of heavier outer garments (?cloaks), together with occasional hints of possible leggings (fastened by buttons). Buttons also seem to have been used to fasten pouches containing fire-making equipment. Pins are rare during the Early Bronze Age, but ostentatious sunflower-headed pins feature during the Later Bronze Age. Gold and bronze hair ornaments are known from the Early Bronze Age, and a hoard from Culduthel included jewellery and dress accessories suggesting that their owner was aware of fashions in Bavaria.

Necklace from burial at Killy Kiaran, Argyll. Made from Whitby jet and cannel coal, the necklace was imported from Yorkshire between 2050 and 1800 BC. The original number of beads was probably 114, with 6 space plates and a fastener. Small cannel coal found in the burial may be the remains of a matching bracelet, © NMS.

As for female identity, jet jewellery (again including buttons, but more rarely than with men) was a key indicator of status from the Early Bronze Age, with elaborate spacer plate necklaces made in Whitby constituting skeuomorphs of Irish gold lunulae. Sometimes these necklaces were worn with bracelets, as a parure; sometimes they were kept for generations before being buried. Fine metal bangles, some with embossed designs in the shape of fusiform beads, were also worn during the Early Bronze Age. Faience was used during the first half of the second millennium; like jet and amber, this was probably used as amuletic jewellery – supernatural power dressing – as much as for indicating wealth and status. The fashion for using faience – and the know-how to make it – may well have been acquired from southern England; as from the 20th century, inland and coastal Wessex seems to have supplanted northern Britain and Ireland as the epicentre of fashion. An exceptionally clear example of this is offered by the objects found with cremated remains in a cist at the Knowes of Trotty, Orkney, where parts of an old amber spacer plate necklace, plus amber ornaments, were found with Scottish-made foil covers for conical ornaments; the amber my well have come through Wessex, and the gold emulates the fine sheet goldwork of Wessex graves. This person may well have travelled to Wessex – a journey of around 900 km. The amber and gold ornaments may have adorned a special, ‘regal’-like garment, analogous to the Mold Cape in north Wales. Although some Middle and Late Bronze Age jewellery may have been worn by women, it is much harder to identify high-status females after around 1700 BC, since expressions of power and status during the Middle and Later Bronze Age seem to be dominated by martial and feasting equipment and by evidence for votive deposition, all of which have traditionally been assumed to be associated with males.

From the foregoing it is clear that society during the Bronze Age was socially differentiated, from the beginning of the period until its end, although the ways of expressing this varied over time and space. The fact that women of high status were signalled from around the 22nd century raises the question of whether they acquired this status at that time, as a result of generally increased levels of wealth; this seems likely. The aforementioned rich child graves suggest that status was probably ascribed, rather than (or as well as) achieved. The underpinnings of this social differentiation are likely to have involved control over the flow of metals, at least to some extent; this is especially the case for Kilmartin Glen, where the elite may have controlled the importation of Irish copper and its subsequent movement north-eastwards up the Great Glen. Other sources of wealth and power would have been agriculture-based (as reflected in the density of rich Early Bronze Age graves in the fertile lowlands of eastern and south-east Scotland), while during the early first millennium (and possibly the late second), the participation of the Scottish elite in an international network of competitive conspicuous consumption – the so-called Atlantic Bronze Age – is attested by hoards of metalwork, weapons and feasting equipment. Is this inflationary system, the possession, accumulation and conspicuous consumption of bronze operated as the motor driving the behaviour of elites all along the Atlantic façade. When this system collapsed around 800 BC – possibly through being over-stretched – the opportunity arose for the traditional power structures to be replaced.

Other evidence relating to the nature of society is relatively sparse (although see below regarding belief systems and their expression), although the ‘hillfort’ sites of the Late Bronze Age in southern Scotland are likely to have been expressions of elite power, and not just defended ?settlements. There is no evidence to suggest systems of power that extended over very large territories at any point during the Chalcolithic or Bronze Age – in other words, there is nothing to suggest the kind of tribal system reflected in the major hillforts of Iron Age southern England.

Major research questions that remain to be addressed concerning identity and society include:

  1. Can any more be said about the nature of social organisation, and any variation over space and time? In particular, can particular systems of descent and inheritance be identified?
  2. How does the treatment of the body at death and grave goods relate to status in life? What can the treatment of the dead tell us about identity?
  3. Is there any clear evidence for expressions of status differentiation among Middle and Late Bronze Age women?
  4. How did the distribution of the elite relate to centres of metalworking? (It appears that, with the exception of the individuals monumentalised in the Clava cairns, recumbent stone circles and henges, the Migdale-Marnoch metalworking area is relatively poor in high-status graves.)
  5. To what extent was power and wealth based on the control of metal circulation? How was the belief system integrated within systems of power?
  6. How can concepts of individuality and how they change over time and self, best be explored?


Archaeological evidence alone cannot tell what language was spoken in Scotland during the Bronze Age.  Some archaeologists have suggested that Celtic language developed in Britain before the Bronze Age, while an origin for Celtic in Western Europe has recently been proposed in contrast to the traditional view that Celtic spread to Britain from central Europe in the mid-first millennium BC.  On the traditional basis, only a few existing Scottish place-names interpreted as pre-Celtic and non-Indo-European would have been current during the Bronze Age.