7.4 Social structure and models of society

Social modelling has been rather simplistic, traditionally, consisting of the imposition of “Celtic hierarchies” from Continental or literary evidence using Celtic philology, classical sources taken out of context, and later medieval insular sources to create a world of chiefs, warriors and druids (cf. James 1993, 52-3). In studying settlement patterns, it has been commonplace to identify particular buildings or settlement types as the residences of an elite (e.g. hillforts and brochs). ‘Elites’ is a term used by researchers working in different areas and at different periods, construed variously to include perceived rulers and the associated aristocracy / oligarchy who rely on display and conspicuous consumption to maintain their status, or wealthy subordinates who accumulate enhanced wealth by controlling the wider population. The term is an imprecise one, too often used loosely or assumed rather than demonstrated from the data. Archaeologists need to be careful that they compare like with like, and should articulate clearly how they use such terms. What kind of people are involved? What scales geographically did their influence operate over? Was it accepted or contested? Did it die with the person?

Yet social structure is a topic which can be approached archaeologically. Much evidence exists for studying the basic unit of the house and its occupants (see Theme 5) but integrating this within the organisation of the agricultural system (see Theme 4) is pivotal. Expanding this out to interpreting the settlement patterns requires the creating and testing of models and integration with theoretical perspectives . How did Iron Age societies work, how did this change, and how are these changes expressed archaeologically? It is assumed that societies were kinship-based, but this can easily become a meaningless generalisation – can it be suggested what is meant precisely by this?

Broad mechanisms of identity and political formation have been described for the Iron Age through a trajectory including: the increase in social differentiation between people, and development of hierarchies; ‘big men’, tribal leaders and kings; and the creation of larger group identities (tribal groups), culminating at the very end of the long Iron Age with the emergence of ‘peoples’ e.g. the Picts. Current understandings are based upon a series of assumptions, often constructed from implicit analogy. The extent to which these assumptions are justified, and whether current models of society are suitably robust, requires critical attention. Consideration must also be given to how such mechanisms of social relations shifted and adapted through time. How a comprehensive picture is built up that moves seamlessly between scales of analysis, from the individual, to the household, to wider networks and regions is therefore a central challenge.

The impact of sedentism, transhumance, and changing patterns of tenure throughout the Iron Age would have had a massive impact of society. Approaches that explore this relationship and span the traditional chronological boundaries should be promoted. The diversity of evidence across Scotland in space and time represents more than regional variation, but significant differences in societies and social structures in different areas; for instance, the evidence of metalwork hoarding practices and differential adoption of Roman finds have been interpreted in terms of social variations across the country (Hunter 1997, 2001). Such attempts to write bigger pictures have seen considerable debate – for instance, in the interpretation of brochs as elite residences or typical farms, or the role of rare hillforts in the north-east as hierarchical centres or communal gathering points (see theme 6.4). Such work is challenging, and contentious, but it is in the building of such broad-scale pictures and their testing against the excavated evidence that archaeology can play to one of its strengths: its view of long-term change.

What is the relationship between periods of agricultural intensification and social relations e.g. in the 3rd to 1st centuries BC (Tipping 1997)?

What are the social mechanisms beyond the basics of gender, age and rank that differentiate and shape societies e.g. kinship, marriage, fosterage, inheritance, tenure, tradition, tribute, taxation, justice, and exchange?

Does archaeological evidence for any of these basics exist and if so which, and are the more ephemeral concepts (fosterage, justice) likely to be visible archaeologically? How might they be expected to manifest themselves?

Is literary evidence or other inter-disciplinary study the key to understanding these categories or does this use of analogy force things into a generic ‘Celtic model’?

Can these synchronic social mechanisms be integrated through inter-disciplinary study?

Can archaeology contribute through evidence demonstrating how some of these social mechanisms might have appeared, disappeared and changed in use over time? Can the ‘long view’ of change be used more effectively? It is likely that a number of different social and political formations would have existed syn- and diachronically across Scotland throughout this huge swathe of time and indeed during particular sub-periods as Hunter (2001) has argued using access to Roman finds beyond the frontier as an indicator.


 We asked a group of 40 archaeologists regarding population levels at c. 200 BC to get some idea of how many people researchers envisage in Scotland at any particular time. We gave a figure of 500,000 and took a straw poll of whether people in the room thought that was ‘about right’, considerably less (450,000 or less) or considerably more (550,00 or more). About two thirds or so went for ‘about right’, with the remainder split between the other two options. How would you have answered?


What do you think population in the Iron Age was? Follow this link to answer!