6.2 Setting or context of buildings: settlement form, layout and location

Generally there are no marked variations in the size or complexity of buildings to suggest social differentiation either within or between settlements, nor even between different types of site such as open settlements, enclosed settlements and hillforts (e.g. Harding 2004, 180-3 and Lelong 2008, 250 on southern Scotland), although there are some exceptions (Harding 2004, 180-3 on Edgerston, Scottish Borders). There are instances where enclosure was used to sub-divide spaces within settlements, which have been interpreted as evidence for social distinctions - for example  Edin‘s Hall broch, Berwickshire (Dunwell 1999 although see MacKie 2007, 1324 for discussion that this structure is not a broch) and Enclosure 1 at Port Seton East, East Lothian (Haselgrove & McCullagh 2000). However, it seems that for the vast majority of demonstrably Iron Age settlement there is no visible or apparent use of enclosure to define hierarchies of space within settlements. The planned or organised layout of buildings indicates some kind of control of movement or communication within the settlement (Harding 2009, 54), but again, detectable evidence of planning is quite rare. Examples, however, do include a number of enclosed settlements - e.g. Hayhope Knowe (Piggot 1949), while the 'broch villages' of Orkney and Caithness, which are often argued to embody social distinction. These settlements have been interpreted as representing elite residences with their dependents (or kinship groups) clustered around the central structure (Foster 1989; Dockrill et al. 2006; Armit 2003, 97-8; 2006, 254); they are frequently interpreted as the material expressions of dominance and subservience and the centralization of power (Armit 2002). If accepted, this sort of arrangement appears exceptional in Iron Age Scotland (and indeed more widely), but relies on an interpretation of the towers and surrounding houses being contemporary. This is far from certain and other researchers contend that the villages were built after the towers had been substantially demolished (MacKie 1995; 1998, 22-3). Any such hierarchical arrangement would thus post-date the phase of broch construction. Evidence from early excavations is not especially reliable, and more recent excavations provide a firmer guide: at Howe, the second-phase broch was surrounded by a planned settlement (Ballin Smith 1994; MacKie 1998, 23-4).

Aerial image of Gurness, Orkney, © RCAHMS

Site sequence is key here, but often poorly understood - especially as the use of buildings could vary over their lives, and sufficient dating evidence has rarely been obtained to disentangle this (see theme 5.1). The work at Kintore, where large-scale excavations and an extensive dating programme allowed a view of long-term settlement development shows what needs to be done (Cook & Dunbar 2008). Here the Scottish evidence sits a long way behind work in southern Britain, where (for instance) large-scale work on the Thames gravels over 20 years ago illustrated such patterns of changing settlement (e.g. Lambrick 2009 for a recent summary).

Location as a marker of diffference

The location or setting of a building or settlement has also been interpreted as evidence of status or social difference, but this does depend on an understanding of contemporary concepts of landscape. The most common example is a situation on prominent locations, notably hilltops, as in hillforts but also occasional isolated houses (e.g. Culhawk Hill ring-ditch house, Rees 1998).  Most sit within agricultural landscapes, and can be seen as overlooking or embedded in these resources, but others seem to be located for visibility over larger areas or in highly isolated positions (such as some promontory forts), separated from good agricultural land. Understanding of the possible meanings behind site positioning requires not only evidence for the use of the specific settlement, but its relation to neighbours and the nature and meaning of the landscape in which it sits. GIS-based studies offer ways to understand the setting, but need to be interrogated along with information on landscape character and models of landscape meaning.

A similar question of the cultural value of landscape arises with many Atlantic roundhouses. The repeated reuse and longevity of such sites created a sense of place, forging and reinforcing a group’s identity. Some connect this to status (Harding 2004, 292-3; 2009, 288), but Dockrill 2002 has invoked manured infields as an explanation for the phenomenon in Shetland, this rich agricultural resource encouraging groups to stay close to it and maintain it. It connects also to issues of inheritance (Armit 2005a; see 5.4). 

Positioning of sites in relation to features of the earlier landscape has not seen extensive treatment, but Hingley (1996) has noted clear examples in the Atlantic zone of the active reuse of earlier monuments for Iron Age houses, suggesting the manipulation of memory and concepts of ancestry. This is an area meriting more research.

Access to / control of scarce resources

Access to agricultural resources was key for most sites, but some show evidence of differential or more centralised control. An example is the earthwork system associated with Castle O‘er hillfort, Dumfries and Galloway, suggested, by virtue of gate systems and design, the control of livestock (Mercer, forthcoming). The site was therefore interpreted as a locally pre-eminent place within a settlement hierarchy (RCAHMS 1997). Access to and control of intensively managed agricultural land and/or the production of agricultural surplus have also been linked to status, for example in the case of Shetland brochs (Dockrill 2002; see above). Souterrains have been interpreted as storage chambers that are expressions variously of individual wealth, communal storage and redistribution, amongst various other possibilities (Armit 1999, Miket 2002). There are variations in capacity, construction materials, monumentality and context that might relate to differences between communities, but fundamental issues relating to an understanding of the potentially variable functions of souterrains have yet to be satisfactorily explained.

Some buildings or settlements are located close to mineral resources, and the juxtaposition is unlikely to be coincidental - e.g. at  Edin‘s Hall, Scottish Borders (copper mines; Dunwell 1999) and Garleton Hills, East Lothian (haematite; Haselgrove 2009).

  • The nature of broch villages remains unclear, as the evidence for contemporaneity of broch and village is not always strong, although at some phases the two were in concurrent use – when did this happen, and what does it represent in terms of social forms?
  • There is more generally a need for tighter control over site sequences in order to create the building blocks for understanding settlement evolution.
  • Why did people choose to inhabit places such as hilltops, promontories jutting into the ocean and artificial islands in lochs? There is a need not only to study the setting of sites but also to try to reach a better understanding of how the surrounding landscapes were conceived, to assess unusual site placements.
  • The relationship to the inherited landscape and the deliberate reuse of earlier sites are both key topics for further work.
  • There are obvious variations in size, capacity and construction of souterrains, but how does this relate to social variation, and how does this vary in time and space? At present research is still largely clouded by little positive evidence as to what these monuments were used for in their different locations.
  • What is the relationship between settlements and local natural resources? How was access negotiated between different groups?