8.4 Significant social changes

The Scottish Iron Age saw a number of important social changes, some unfolding gradually, while others appear more abruptly. Most are paralleled in neighbouring areas and would benefit from synthetic study.

The period is bracketed by the transition from the Bronze Age and the emergence of the early Medieval kingdoms and Christianity, and the nature of these shifts merits further attention. With the Bronze Age comes the question of the introduction and spread of iron and iron-working technology, which remains very unclear in Scotland, and the question of what was the social impact of the apparently great decline in Continental contacts in the early Iron Age.

The transition to what is seen as the medieval period, and the gradual advent of Christianity, are other key research topics. Central to this is the question of the nature of this transition. In Atlantic Scotland, the tendency has been to argue for a long Iron Age in recent years, spanning the first millennium AD (e.g. Armit 1990b; Harding 2004, 3), while scholars working in lowland Scotland still tend to split the period around AD 400 (see theme 2). Is this regional difference valid, and what changes are represented at this time?

Between these transitions, a number of changes can be traced. One appears to be a rise in sedentism (or reduction in mobility) compared to the Bronze Age, represented in more evidence of houses being occupied for longer. What implications does this have for agricultural and social systems?

Another is evidence for increasing social complexity, or the marking of differences between individuals and groups in many aspects of life towards the end of the pre-Roman Iron Age. This is seen in the rise of personal material culture, the increasing incidence of individual burial, and phenomena such as the Lowland brochs. This seems to be true in other parts of Britain as well (e.g. Hill 1997); does the evidence support it as a phenomenon across Scotland, and how should it be interpreted? Studies so far have been very generalised.

The phenomenon of the substantial house, in both timber and stone, and its persistence in some areas into the Roman Iron Age (in contrast to other areas of Iron Age Britain) is a notable feature of the Scottish record.

The thorny question of the reasons for the use and abandonment of hillforts, and the variations in their size, scale and apparent functions, must represent some significant social trends, but details remain opaque. One specific issue which might be noted is the unusually big hillforts of southern Scotland (Traprain Law, Eildon and Burnswark; and Yeavering Bell in Northumberland). Do they share similar histories, as some hints suggest? Do they represent the development of larger polities in these zones, in the late Bronze Age and/or the Roman Iron Age?

The proximity and presence Rome brought a range of marked changes in local societies, and it is often argued that the longer term legacy of this shaped the subsequent development of society from the late 2nd century AD onwards (see above and ScARF Roman Panel Report).

These topics all represent key future areas for sustained research; each could support a major research programme.