5.3 Society, structure and organisation

In the last 50 years, each decade has seen a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of prehistoric archaeological and environmental data in Scotland. Whether through the application of new scientific methods, the impact of developer-funded archaeology, the significant expansion in the archaeological profession or the rise of theoretical archaeology, there has definitely been no better time to propose interpretations of Bronze Age societies. The flood of publications presenting new sites, dates and analyses presented in (post-) modern academic language can easily give the impression that older interpretations of Bronze Age society are now largely irrelevant. It is therefore essential to re-examine the intellectual historiography of Bronze Age societies in Scotland to see whether this is the case of whether continuities remain.

In reading the literature from the 19th century beginnings to the present day, it is striking that there have always been scholars such as Robert Munro (1899), John Abercromby (1912) and V. Gordon Childe (1944) who seem naturally adventurous in their interpretation of Bronze Age social and political organisation. In contrast, there have always been scholars such as Daniel Wilson (1851), Joseph Anderson (1886), J. Graham Callander (1923), Stuart Piggott (1958) and John Coles (1959/60, 1963/64 and 1968/9) who seem naturally far more cautious. With few exceptions (e.g. Clarke et al. 1985; Sheridan 2008), more recent scholars have demonstrated relative caution when given the opportunity to provide overarching societal interpretations for Bronze Age Scotland (e.g. Ashmore 1996; Cowie and Shepherd 1997; Bradley 2007). They seem far more at ease when addressing the societal implications of specific phenomena such as metal (e.g. Cowie 1988; Needham 2004), monumentality (e.g. Bradley 2005; 2011), funerary rituals (e.g. Needham's 2011 Rhind lectures) and associated objects such as pottery (e.g. Sheridan 2008) and jet or faience ornamentation (e.g. Sheridan and Davis 2002; Sheridan and Shortland 2004; Shepherd 2011). These archaeological foundations for the interpretation of the Bronze Age societies would be familiar to 19th century scholars. Far less familiar would be the increasing interpretative role of roundhouse settlements (e.g. Pope in press) and environmental data (e.g. Tipping 2010) whose discovery and analysis only developed fully in the last 30-40 years.

There are recurring intellectual themes that emerge from 150 years of Bronze Age societies in Scotland being explored. The idea that continental European individuals or small groups from continental Europe bought new ideas, practices, technologies and objects to Scotland is partially re-invented by each generation of Bronze Age scholars. This has been played out in scholarship surrounding Beaker burials - whether as foreign groups causing social upheaval (e.g. Abercromby 1912, I, 98-101 and II, 80-92; Childe 1944, 42) or as more peaceful technologically sophisticated immigrants (e.g. Piggott 1958, 49-64; Clark 1976, 276-280). It is the latter which resonates in current debates (see Brodie 1994; Needham 2005; van der Linden 2007; Sheridan 2008), especially in the light of isotope analysis seeking to map the movement of individuals (see publications from the Beaker People Project and Beakers and Bodies projects).

If it is the continental pioneers who introduced Bronze Age novelties to Scotland, it is the native elites who derive or reflect their status by controlling them. In many interpretations of Bronze Age society until the last two decades there is a small group of men wielding power at the top. These are perceived as operating in hierarchies whereby their roles have variously been characterised as chiefs, priests, leaders or warrior-kings.  They are traditionally identified in Scotland by the presence of an ostentatious burial or of rare, exotic and technologically sophisticated material culture. This is an intellectual tradition that can be identified across European Bronze Age studies  (see Bruck and Fontijn forthcoming) and in Scotland probably derives mainly from written Roman accounts of the inhabitants of Britain. The more recent desire to emphasise the communal over the individual in societal interpretations has led to ostentatious burials now being re-interpreted as the spiritual elevation of the group rather than an individual (e.g. Needham 2011, Lecture 5) which finds echoes in the otherwise intellectual champion of Bronze Age chiefs, V. Gordon Childe in his Rhind lectures over 60 years earlier (Childe 1944, 49-50). Frequently cited activities for elites tend to revolve around trade and exchange, hunting (Case 2004; Mercer 2006) and warfare with both bringing economic or socio-political gain. By definition, elites are a minority who control, or are at least politically, socially or economically superior to the majority of the population.

The challenge of identifying the non-elite groupings within this population from material culture alone has meant that terms such as tribes, communities, groups, clans and extended families have been, and continue to be, used virtually inter-changeably and with little definition. Groupings might be divided into indigenous people or new immigrants but beyond this there is still no agreed unit for analysing Bronze Age social organisation. This is despite the genuine desire to engage with this unknown majority of the population and the increasingly high resolution being achieved in excavation and dating. The analysis of settlement evidence – whether addressing phases of construction or reconstruction, the organisation of space or ritual activities – has stimulated discussions of the social and ritual life of households (e.g. Parker-Pearson et al. 2004, 64-82; Pope in press). Similarly, the analysis of funerary remains has enabled the potential societal roles of social groups traditionally overlooked, such as women or children, to be re-evaluated (e.g. McLaren 2004; forthcoming).

Any discussion of the inter-relationships of proposed societal groupings in Bronze Age Scotland has tended to concentrate on: craft and trade, generally identified through material culture scholarship; ritual gatherings, usually interpreted through long-term engagement with monumental and funerary landscapes; and on warfare, as signified by the discovery and/or apparent use of bronze weaponry. Interpretations of trade or warfare are typically structured by geographical oppositions such as island: mainland or highland: lowland, usually with the aspiration of identifying core and peripheral areas of activity and interaction. The recent emphasis on landscape and environmental research has ensured that agriculture, without doubt the fundamental core of Bronze Age social life in Scotland and beyond, now plays an appropriately key role in contemporary socioeconomic debates. 

Warfare in the Scottish Bronze Age

It is a necessary and an appropriate adjustment that the study of warfare has regained a proper position in debates relating to Western Europe in the Bronze Age (see Keeley 1996; Schulting and Wysocki 2005). It is not so much that a weight of new evidence has brought this about, as an appreciation of the volume of old evidence linked to new and stimulating discoveries. The intellectual climate within which this debate has taken place has also changed very markedly since the 1980’s with shifting political and philosophical emphases that have prompted the readmission of the consideration of warfare to the study of prehistoric human society (Carman and Harding 1999).

The difficulties have, however, not only been those of perception and integration. Real problems exist, also, in the archaeological recognition and interpretation of warlike activity. Violence is, of course, universal, and is prevalent among all forms of life as well as among humans. ‘Conflict’, the OED suggests, is a collective expression ‘an encounter with arms’, ‘a prolonged struggle’, notions which suggest a restriction to human agency – although collective violence can occur among primates and other mammals. Violence, and consequent traumatic injury, can also, of course, occur in any inter-personal context. It can be part of ‘playing’ or ‘ceremonial’ and an accidental outcome of almost any activity. Conflict, as defined, can take a range of forms ranging from personal and group feud, raiding of an endemic but quite irregular character, through ambuscade to formal ‘duelling’. It can also be expressed by an infinite number of non-lethal demonstrations such as shouting, singing or sumptuary means.

Warfare has more formal connotations and is, to paraphrase Clausewitz, ‘the pursuit of policy by other means’. It requires societies that are sufficiently cohesive and hierarchical for policy to emerge, to be formulated and then directed and sufficiently organised to deploy selected numbers of men and women (usually, it must be said, men) under direct leadership to exert the will of the society over that of another, (see Mercer 1999). Mercer chose to emphasise the rôle of the three casu-s bellorum – ‘commercium’ (monopoly of and access to goods), ‘territorium’ (command of land and routes of access to it), and ‘conubium’ (dynastic succession and inter-marriages). He indicated the evident existence of the long-distance transfer of goods, the marking of territorial limits and boundaries, and the existence of dynastic and hierarchical elites within Neolithic and Bronze Age Southern England at least. All the stimuli for warfare would, therefore, appear to be present in the Early Neolithic and are certainly present throughout Britain in the Bronze Age.

An oversailing problem resides in the fact that, despite the enormous impact that it may have on societies, warfare is often extremely difficult to demonstrate in the archaeological record. The principal evidential sources in the prehistoric context are

  1. Skeletal evidence of trauma or circum- or inter-skeletal presence of armatures found in burials;
  2. Defence construction and, where available, traces of the violent destruction of defences;
  3. Concentrations of weaponry and other equipment either as the remnant debris at a battle site or as victory-celebratory depositions;
  4. Depiction of war-like activities;
  5. The occurrence of weapons of locally distinctive type in distant locations, suggestive of the movement of warriors or ‘diplomatic’ gifts.
  • While any one of these criteria may be sufficient to allow the inference of warfare in historical circumstances where literary reference to warfare is available – this may well not be the case in any prehistoric context, where an intersection of some or all of the above strands of evidence will be necessary before the inference of the existence of warfare can be drawn. To this effect the five evidential streams will be reviewed in the Scottish context.

    Skeletal evidence of trauma: This approach has been famously advanced recently by Rick Schulting and Michael Wysocki (2005) in an examination of some 350 Neolithic crania, largely from Long Barrows (very largely from S England and S Wales) with 8.9% (31) showing evidence of substantial cranial trauma. Of these latter some seven exhibited cranial traces of injuries that would have been fatal – the remainder (c.24) had injuries that ultimately healed although they may not have left their recipient unimpaired. Only one Scottish site was included in the study – Tulloch of Assery A and B, Caithness (Corcoran 1967) where cairn A produced evidence of cranial damage (pre or post mortem uncertain) and where a vertebra from cairn B had been pierced by a leaf arrowhead. This fatality rate (?2 among the total MNI from the three cairns of 12+) is comparable with Schulting and Wysocki’s figures, but, further north, in the large assemblages at Isbister, Judson Chesterman’s work on the assemblage that he estimated to be between 122/186 adults and 56/62 ‘teenagers’ (109 crania or parts thereof) he observed no cranial trauma and very little evidence of injury of any kind – a few rib and vertebral fractures being observed. The material was very fragmentary but Chesterman was looking for, and did observe, some material relevant to these issues. Similarly at Quanterness (Renfrew 1979; 157 MNI with 15 cranial fragments from Chamber F) in  Chesterman’s summary table ‘Synopsis of Pathology’ only crush injuries are observed. The same phenomenon is repeated in Mary Harman’s examination of the bone from Holm of Papa Westray (Ritchie 2009) where there was a MNI of 12 displaying, however, relatively few cranial fragments.

    Very few such massive assemblages are likely to accrue in modern times, certainly from the Bronze Age, and the general, although not universal, poverty of survival of bone in the base-deficient soils of the country will further add to the difficulties of trying to extend this type of study in the Bronze Age context. This merely emphasises the necessity and possible rewards of subjecting all retrieved human skeletal material of the period to such interrogation.

    It must however be borne in mind that the upshot of such evidence, in isolation, can only be that an individual was hit on the head (possibly not even by human agency) or shot by arrow (accidentally or by execution). This fact alone cannot allow warfare to be inferred. Only by ‘intersection’ with other data can that inference be made.

    Defence Construction: Scotland has no lack of this component. Yet an immediate consideration must be that defensive construction was (and is) very generally psychologically based – to impress, to deter, to reassure, to consolidate, to distract. Nevertheless its power to do any or all of these things only resides in the existence of warfare within the knowledge of those whose psychology is being played upon. To demonstrate local warfare, therefore, the paramount need is to observe that defences are attacked. How to observe such phenomena as escalade or slighting in a stone environment (how forced stone differs in appearance from tumbled, how burning affects stone (different rocks?) are appropriate subjects for experimental approaches. It is important to remember that the ditch created by the excavation of material for a rampart can only represent a terminus ante quem and may indeed eradicate earlier stages of defence, whereas the content of the rampart may include earlier defensive circuits, or fragments of them and will certainly seal a terminus post quem horizon. As well as digging ditches – excavators might double the width in digging upstanding ramparts (thereby almost certainly leading to greater structural understanding) and analyse their content.

    Scotland also has produced a range of hilltop fortified enclosures that have at a late stage in their use been fired in a manner that has brought about the vitrification of timber-laced walls. These sites, a number of which have produced radiocarbon and TL dates in the middle of the 1st millennium cal.BC, (and a number of which are much later) require greater understanding in their possible relation to Bronze Age as well as Iron Age Societies. High altitude enclosures such as those at Hownam Law, Eildon Hill (with its radiocarbon dated house platforms of LBA date) (Rideout et al. 1992), Traprain Law (Armit et al. 1999) which also displays substantial LBA occupation, may well all relate to this period. The Tap o’Noth has, of course, yielded Thermoluminescence dates associated with vitrification that fall in the late third millennium cal BC and Ben Griam Beg (Mercer 1991) is another of these very high altitude forts (620m OD) that Halliday has argued to be difficult to imagine occupied in the latter half of the 1st millennium cal BC. and more likely to pertain to the 2nd.

    In sum one must be alert to the likelihood of Bronze Age hilltop and enclosed fortification/defence and seek to demonstrate its function.

    Concentration of weaponry: After the initial presence of warfare in the British Neolithic Mercer ( 2006) has argued that there is no evidence to indicate the presence of warfare either in terms of weapon design, enclosure design or indeed in traces of onsite destruction. The burning of the timber palisade at Mount Pleasant, Dorset (Wainwright 1979) could have been accidental, or a ceremonial event. The death of a young man by arrowshot at Stonehenge could be the result of ritual or judicial killing. There is no sign of the ‘intersection’ of evidence referred to above that allows the inference of warfare. The ‘weaponry’ of the Early Bronze Age is wholely inadequate – other than the archery equipment that appears to be a very high status weapon – little suited to warfare where the bow is usually deployed en masse and the battle axes, again often with the appearance of high status, that could be lethally used but not with ease. It is suggested that developed and hierarchical hunting cults may be represented by these accoutrements and it was in the bands of spearmen (the spear appeared in Scotland during the final pahse of the EBA) drawn together to defend the high status hunter from retaliatory attack by cornered boar, stags and aurochsen, that the origin of the war band controlled by a local chieftain may have lain. By the opening of the MBA the metal inventory is displaying highly competent weapon combinations of rapiers, dirks and spears, and evidence of multiple killing with spears is available from Tormorton, Glos.

    By 1200 calBC an even more developed weapon combination of sword and spear was introduced and remained in a constant state of development until the demise of bronze as an edge-producing metal.

    All these issues are replicated in Scotland but are writ relatively small. The number of bronzes recovered here is relatively small. Furthermore large hoards are relatively rare and the river concentrations known from the Thames and to a lesser extent the Fen edge of Cambridgeshire and the River Shannon in Ireland are currently unknown in Scotland – even in such well-dredged rivers as the Clyde and the Tay. Such ‘wet-place’ finds have been interpreted as offerings of weapons captured in battle, or by some scholars as marking the actual site of conflict being at river crossings, with weapons being lost in the course of the melée.

    Depiction of war-like activities: That rivers were the scene of warlike activity is to be imagined from the ship model recovered from Roos Carr (Yorks E.R.) which showed four male figures with shields and probably originally with spears or swords standing upright in a canoe with an animal figurehead. The Balachulish figure, clearly part of a larger assemblage may well be a similar depiction at a rather larger scale and of a similar LBA date.

    This evidence can only be compared with the substantially intact bog burial of a sewn plank canoe with the entire armament of a war band found at Hjortspring in SW Denmark (Randsborg 1995) and dated to c.400 calBC.

    With such finds of weapons, single or multiple, or other water-logged material associated with human remains, it is absolutely vital that, where possible, excavation is undertaken as quickly as possible (to prevent unnecessary damage or decay through exposure) to expose as wide an area as possible around the find (be it only a single weapon) to determine the nature of the deposition and the likely circumstance or its origination. Such activity may lead on to the exciting potential of the work conducted in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany (Jantzen et al. 2011) where the combination of accumulated distributions, investigative excavations at casual find sites and the thorough examination of human bone finds over an entire valley length has produced the ‘intersection’ that permits the inference of warfare. This approach can be compared to the enquiry jointly concluded by Maj. Tony Clunn of BAOR, a metal detector enthusiast, in active cooperation with Dr Wolfgang Schlüter of the Hannover Denkmalpfläge whereby a combination of scientific metal-detector work, field survey, examination of museum collections, and, in this instance, relating to a Roman defeat of AD 9 – the limited account of classical sources saw the retrieval of an essentially prehistoric battlefield site – the scene of the Varus disaster near the Teutoberg, the site which can now be called the battle of the Kalkreise (an English account exists in Wells 2003; Schlüter and Weigels 1999). A centre of excellence exists here in Scotland in the tracing of early battlefield archaeology that could be central to this area of enquiry.

    The occurrence of weapons of local type in distant locations: The dispersal of young men whether as ‘soldiers of fortune’, as hostages, as guests/adoptees or in whatever guise, or of diplomatic gift giving to external power centres may well be registered in the archaeological record by the appearance of weaponry of slightly exotic type at some distance from source. This is easy to observe in the appearance of blatantly British spearhead and sword types in the Paris Basin and further afield – presumably the product of traffic of this type. More intricate evaluation of weapons with this specific objective in view might lead to an altogether more complex network of communication based upon micro-matching of weapons.

    Experimentation, testing and establishing the mechanical properties of replica bronze weapons will continue to yield valuable insights to those interested in their practical use and likely rôle. Prof John Coles began this process half a century ago in examining the efficacy of Bronze shields (Coles 1960), but more recently Susan Bridgford examining the edge damage patterning on LBA swords (1997) has produced some thoughtful comments relating to possibly institutionalized fighting/duelling techniques in use at the time and very recently Kate Anderson’s work showing the ubiquitous and varied employment of the spear in action at the period (2011). This series of experiments perhaps supports the view (Mercer 2009) that, as the hoards suggest, the spear was the principal weapon, finely graded through a whole series of types to reflect rank with those at the grandest end of the scale seeking high fashion in the intricate processes of typological change. Swords were the minority weapon of the leadership group equally subject to fashion-change and possibly principally reserved for ‘reserved combat’ (between ‘champions’ and ‘trophy detachment’.

    Much work remains to be accomplished to understand the rôle and nature of warfare in Britain at the time of the Book of David and the trials of Agamemnon.