7.5 Interactions between groups

There was considerable interaction in various ways between groups of people in the Iron Age. It is increasingly clear that materials, goods, people and ideas were moving for a variety of motives, including warfare, violence and the exchange of resources and goods, people and animals. The evidence for this movement, as well as the means and motives behind it and the subsequent impacts, are important research themes.

The influence on people of Scotland’s dramatic landscapes, shaped by mountains, geology and hydrography cannot be over-emphasised, from individual water catchments to the broadest maritime divisions. The seaways would have been vital in this rugged and deeply indented landscape  to movement and interaction. Wider links to the South, Ireland and the Continent should must be fully explored in assessing any apparently exotic influence detected in the Scottish record; though it is notable that the evidence is far less than  in the preceding Bronze Age In discussing interactions between groups, there is the underlying problem of what actually constitutes a group. In this section the focus will be on larger scale connections, i.e. not between communities but between larger-scale geographical groupings sharing particular social norms. The existence of regional patterning in different classes of evidence at various times and places (albeit with different categories rarely giving the same picture) indicates the existence of larger “communities of interest”.

Pony cap and horns from Torrs, Kirkcudbrightshire. The decorative style shows strong links to Continental art styles, but technical details indicate it was made in Britain or Ireland, © NMS

In simplistic terms, the main evidence of cultural interactions comes from:

  1. the spreading of material (settlement or artefact types) typical of one area into another, such as the lowland extension to the distribution of brochs or the southerly distribution of massive metal armlets,
  2. technical traits, e.g. vitrification, chevaux de frises, technological innovations or ring-ditch house construction.

This was grist to the culture-history mill, with such evidence being used to construct narratives of diffusion and invasion (e.g. Childe 1946). As such views were, perhaps prematurely, discredited, alternative explanations such as prestige goods exchange came into vogue (e.g. Macinnes 1984). Consequently there has been a notable trend towards regional self-containment in recent scholarship, with a focus on the region (however defined) as a unit, and little attention to its external contacts. Isotopic evidence from other areas for at least some people being mobile (e.g. the Ferry Fryston chariot burial, where movement within Yorkshire is suggested; Boyle et al. 2007, 154)  is beginning to change perceptions (though there remains no evidence for large-scale migrations), and to this may be added a range of evidence which indicates connectivity over a range of scales and levels.

What kinds of interaction should be imagined? Various forms of socially-embedded exchange have been mooted. Some involve minimal movement of people but potentially wide-ranging movement of objects, such as gift exchange, tribute or emulation. Others involve small numbers of moving people, in social ties such as marriage or fosterage. There is also the possibility of less socially-constrained movement, with potentially mobile people such as warriors, some craft-workers, musicians, or religious specialists. The evidence for choosing one mode over the other is rarely clear-cut, and is often defined as much by current interpretative trends as clear patterns in the data. However, the nature of the material (e.g. everyday or prestige; personal / gender-specific; item or idea) can offer hints. Finds such as the Newbridge chariot burial exemplify some of the complexities: a form of burial typical of the Continent, and pointing to knowledge of rites there, but a vehicle judged to be clearly of insular origin on the basis of its technological details (Carter et al. 2010).

Contacts in various directions can be seen to take place over various scales of distance, from small (tens of kilometres) within a region, to hundreds of kilometres across seaways. Here the role of maritime connections is clearly critical, again at a range of scales, from inter-island communications to voyages to Ireland and the Continent. A number of broad trends may be noted. In general, the Scottish evidence fits the wider British picture of a relatively isolated early Iron Age, particularly in comparison to the LBA, with increasing evidence of contacts from as early as the 5th/4th century BC, and most such evidence being LIA (1st century BC - 1st century AD). These distant connections are of importance, whatever their nature, in showing that at least some people or groups in Iron Age Scotland had affinities to, and connections with, what was happening in the south of the island and the near Continent.

An under-studied aspect of interaction is warfare (c.f Sharples 1991; Keeley 1996; James 2007; Armit 2007b). The evidence for this is notoriously difficult to interpret, especially in the absence of a substantial skeletal record, but a general case can be argued for inter-community warfare being a social factor throughout later prehistory. Its nature and extent must have changed over time, although the evidence is scare to come by. Warfare is portrayed as a status pursuit in the LBA and arguably during the LIA, with the appearance of ornate personal weaponry (hunter forthcoming c). For much of the rest of the Iron Age, the lack of such evidence could be argued to reflect a situation where warfare was prevalent but not socially dominant, or not focussed on individual combats (although the poor preservational properties of iron vis à vis bronze may also have affected the faltering of the record of warfare in the early and middle Iron Age). It is an area ripe for research and interpretations of the role of warfare in later prehistory require critique. The poor preservational properties of iron (vis à vis bronze) may have much to do with any apparent faltering of the record of warfare in the early and middle Iron Age.

More studies of the evidence for movement of materials, objects, ideas, and people are required in order to understand more about the motives for, and impact of, movement. Boundaries should also be considered, including possible East-West divisions or potentially boundaries based on water courses, e.g. the Forth or the Tay, or other physical features e.g. The Mounth.

What processes lie behind such evidence?

Connections with Ireland merit more work, given its proximity to the west of Scotland and the surprisingly small amounts of evidence for links after the LBA until the early centuries AD.