Scotland has a rich history of archaeological science, building on a strong tradition of research in both archaeology and the natural sciences. A range of scientific techniques are routinely employed within archaeological work, from radiocarbon dating to palynology. Scotland also has a long history of reconnaissance for sites through survey on the ground, in the air, and increasingly, underwater. Artefacts analysis, another traditional strength in Scotland, is now being supplemented by new non-destructive technologies. Research conducted in fields such as genetics has the potential to provide a new window into the past through the remains of people and animals. Technologies are increasingly mobile, allowing the laboratory to be brought to the field, while new techniques can profitably be applied to the archaeological archive, whether through physical investigation or through the statistical analysis of existing data.

The Scottish environment itself offers a unique blend of characteristics within a relatively small geographical area, including peat formation, wetlands, indented coastlines and a range of low to high energy environments that preserve a variety of information on past peoples and landscapes. The evidence is big enough to be substantial, though small enough to be achievable, with the retreat of the ice sheets providing a well-defined starting point for the presence of human societies. The diverse and distinctive set of environmental archives provides a wealth of data on how people lived in the Atlantic zone.

Techniques and approaches are continually developing, and it is essential that capacity and expertise are built up in tandem. Engaging scientists with archaeological questions, while highlighting the potential of archaeological data to drive research is an important consideration. This can be developed through research projects tackling fundamental questions regarding human society in the past, as well as by making collaboration an integral and routine part of archaeological practice, involving archaeological scientists early in project planning.

Archaeological science research in Scotland has broader implications relevant to contemporary issues and for science in archaeology all periods are interesting and of value, from deep time until the recent past. Analysis of the remains of humans and animals, for example, provides data of relevance to the history of disease and other demographic questions. Research into past human responses to environmental change is also of great relevance to understanding processes in the present, as studies of past societies provide ‘completed experiments.’ A key challenge is to be able to untangle the range of causes for change in past society, some driven by climate and the environment, others driven by cultural choices and historical events. How societies developed and why some appear more durable than others are questions that a combination of archaeological and scientific techniques can begin to answer.

These issues are all explored through a number of different themes, and following an introduction to each, there is a survey of Scottish applications, a statement on current scientific facilities available in Scotland and reflection on emerging opportunities. Building on sound archaeological and scientific principles in these areas allows a greater understanding, and therefore appreciation, of the past, helping to unleash its knowledge and heritage value through research, preservation, promotion and engagement.