5.4.3 Houses or shrines?

Places such as bogs and recumbent stone circles may have been considered liminal parts of the landscape, at least in certain contexts, but ritual activities were not restricted to these areas. In other parts of Britain and Europe, Bronze Age roundhouses and the settlements in which they were located formed a focus for particular types of ritual practice (e.g. Brück 1999b; Gerritsen 1999). Acts of votive deposition were carried out at significant points in the lifecycle of the household (for example foundation or abandonment), while animal burials and deposits of grain and quernstones suggest a concern to maintain the fertility of land and livestock. Deposits of human bone, metalwork and other items marked critical points in settlement space, such as boundaries and entrances. Together, such offerings ensured the well-being of the household, so that the annual agricultural cycle may have become metaphorically linked with both places of spatial transformation and the lifecycle of the settlement and its inhabitants. In Scotland, sites such as Cladh Hallan on South Uist (see also the ScARF Case Study: Cladh Hallan) provide similar evidence.

Although some have suggested that finds such as these indicate we are looking not at houses but at shrines (e.g. Becket and MacGregor 2008), it is important to remember that most pre-modern societies are unlikely to have drawn the same categorical distinction between ritual and secular activities as is done today (Brück 1999a; Bradley 2005a). Anthropological research indicates that ritual practice forms an intrinsic element of daily life in many contemporary societies (e.g. Waterson 1990); household shrines are widely found across east and southeast Asia, for example in Japan, while special ceremonies accompany the construction of houses in many parts of Indonesia. If this was the case in the Bronze Age, it suggests that ritual activities were always not restricted to the elite but were likely to have involved all members of the community, at least on certain occasions.

The similarity between domestic and ceremonial architecture (for example timber circles and post-built roundhouses, or ring cairns and ring banks) has been noted by Bradley (2005a) and this requires further investigation. There are differences in astronomical orientation between roundhouses (which tend to face east or southeast – towards the rising sun) and some monuments (such as recumbent stone circles) which are thought to reference lunar rather than solar cycles. Overall, though, both categories of site display a concern with the movement of heavenly bodies and associated concepts of death, fertility and rebirth. In southern Britain, the circular ceremonial monuments of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age appear to have been replaced by circular domestic architecture in the Middle Bronze Age. In Scotland, the longer chronology for monuments such as stone circles indicates that these may often have been contemporary with roundhouses, suggesting a very different link between ritual and domestic architecture.

Indeed, it seems likely that other aspects of daily life in the Bronze Age, including what modern thinking would normally categorise as productive or technological activities, may also have been accompanied by ritual acts. The swords, spearheads and other objects deposited in Duddingston Loch, Edinburgh, had been deliberately broken, bent and burnt (Coles 1959/60). Such acts of ritualised destruction did not merely symbolically signify death, however. Contemporary technologies such as metalworking and potting subjected artefacts to fire and fragmentation both in the early stages of the productive process (for example, the smelting and casting of copper alloys) and in later recycling (for instance the use of grog temper in pottery). As such, the deliberate destruction of artefacts acted not only as a means of transformation but was considered essential to the regeneration of life in the face of death (Brück 2006). This means that the sorts of concerns indicated by evidence for Bronze Age belief systems (diurnal and seasonal cycles of death and rebirth) were reflected both in depositional activities and in transformative technologies (such as metalworking and cooking); it therefore seems likely that ritual acts may have been an intrinsic element of productive activities. This is hardly surprising, as there is evidence from other parts of Britain that the making of metal was regarded as a magical process and its practitioners (like the Amesbury Archer) regarded as special individuals (Fitzpatrick 2003). The working of other materials also hints that the boundary between craft and magic was seen as permeable. The curation of jet beads from older necklaces and the deposition of items such as fossils in mortuary contexts hint that certain materials – jet, amber, faience, gold, natural geological freaks – were probably attributed magical powers and used as amulets (e.g. Sheridan and Davis 2002). Again, this suggests that the boundary between the sacred and the profane was not as rigid as it is in the modern, Western world.

Key research questions include:

  1. Are the ritual practices evident in the houses at Cladh Hallan the exception or the norm? This site, unlike those excavated in other areas, was exceptionally well-preserved, with floor levels surviving intact.
  2. Are there regional differences in the prevalence or character of rituals of foundation, abandonment, etc.?
  3. How do these practices change over time?
  4. How do they relate to the increasing ‘monumentalisation’ of the domestic domain over the period?
  5. What was the relationship between roundhouses and pre-existing and/or contemporary circular monuments?
  6. What was the role of the craftsman in Bronze Age society?
  7. How did economic, ritual and political power intersect?


See also the ScARF Case Studies: Cladh Hallan / Ballachullish / Sculptor's Cave