6.2.3 Late Neolithic Argyll, c3000-c2450 BC

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Figure 55: The south-westerly spread of Grooved Ware and of the building of timber and stone circles. From Sheridan 2004a. © Alison Sheridan

Around and shortly after 3000 BC, however, there is clear evidence for new developments, relating to the operation of an extensive network of contacts, extending from Orkney in the north to Ireland in the south, over which novel ideas, traditions, beliefs and practices were travelling (Figure 55).

Essentially, this was connected to the undertaking of long-distance journeys from Orkney to the Boyne Valley by the ambitious emerging elite of Orkney: these individuals would have visited the renowned Boyne valley with its magnificent passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, and they brought back to Orkney design ideas that were expressed in the construction of Maeshowe-type passage tombs, and the practices of using megalithic art and of aligning Maeshowe on the midwinter solstice sun (Schulting et al. 2010).

These people in Orkney, who were engaged in a process of competitive conspicuous consumption, invented a new style of pottery - Grooved Ware - and also seem to have invented the henge with internal stone circle, as seen at the Stones of Stenness. They also used a range of carved stone objects as symbols of power.

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Figure 56: Temple Wood stone circle. Photo: David Lyons, from Kilmartin: an Introduction and Guide. © Kilmartin Museum

Between c 3100 BC and c 2900 BC we can trace a reciprocal movement of ideas and objects between Orkney and Ireland, with Grooved Ware, the practice of using stone (and timber) circles and the use of maceheads and - in miniature form - of carved stone balls travelling southwards from Orkney to Ireland (Sheridan 2004a; 2014b). Argyll and Bute were on this 'Atlantic façade' route, and the involvement of its inhabitants is shown in the construction of the timber and stone circles at Temple Wood (CANMORE ID 39504) in Kilmartin Glen (with their specific astronomical orientations: Figure 56and see Scott 2010); in the use of carved stone balls and maceheads (Figure 57); in the pecking of designs (Figure 58) resembling those seen on Irish and Orcadian passage tombs and in sites such as Skara Brae (CANMORE ID 1663) and the Ness of Brodgar (CANMORE ID 269123) (and on Orcadian Grooved Ware); and finally in the use of Grooved Ware itself, at Townhead (CANMORE ID 40377), Rothesay, Bute (Figure 59) and at Upper Largie (CANMORE ID 39486) - where an important assemblage of early Grooved Ware has just been excavated. This overall phenomenon is discussed at length in Sheridan 2004a; 2012a; 2014b; and Schulting et al. 2010, so will not be discussed further here.

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Figure 57: Carved stone balls from Castle Sween and Dunadd. © NMS 

One additional novelty that may well have appeared during the first half of the third millennium is the use of cup-and-ring rock art (Figure 60; Webb 2012). With its widespread comparanda in Britain, Ireland and Galicia, this offers additional evidence suggesting that the inhabitants of Argyll and Bute were interacting with a range of external contacts, far and wide. Excavations at Torbhlaren (CANMORE ID 39558) in Kilmichael Glen provided tentative support for a dating during the first half of the third millennium (Jones et al. 2011). Again, this phenomenon is explored further in Sheridan 2012a (and see Bradley 1993 for a broader discussion of rock art).

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Figure 58: Spiral motif on an orthostat in the Temple Wood South circle. From Scott 1989

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Figure 59: Grooved Ware pot from Townhead, Bute. From Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol 84. Reproduced courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

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Figure 60: Rock art at Ormaig. From Clarke et al., Symbols of Power at the Time of Stonehenge. Photo by Mike Brooks; © HES

The key research questions for this period would appear to be:

  1. What is the precise nature of the settlement pattern and subsistence strategy for the inhabitants of Argyll and Bute between c 3750 BC and c 2500 BC - especially during the relatively poorly-attested period 3500-3000 BC? Are we correct in assuming that population was increasing over this period? And is there any evidence for survival of indigenous Mesolithic communities after c 3750 BC?
  2. Where did the people who constructed the Nether Largie South (CANMORE ID 39460) Clyde Cairn and the other Neolithic monuments in Kilmartin Glen live? Currently there is no unequivocal evidence for Neolithic settlement in the Glen; was it solely a 'ceremonial landscape' at the time, or are there remains of habitation waiting to be found?
  3. What was the full range of funerary practices used during this period? And we need better dating of passage tombs and Clyde cairns (and related monuments).
  4. What was the specific trajectory of ceramic development (and development in other aspects of material culture) over this period in Argyll and Bute? The proposed ceramic sequence for western and south-west Scotland as presented in 2003 (Sheridan 2003) needs to be underpinned by more dates, for example.
  5. Is there further evidence for participation in the Orkney-Boyne nexus in the centuries around 3000 BC? Is there much more evidence for the use of Grooved Ware to be uncovered in Argyll and Bute? And where, apart from Townhead (CANMORE ID 40377) on Bute, are the settlements that date to this time? What did participation in this extensive network mean for the social organisation of the farmers in Argyll and Bute? Were they, too, engaging in some kind of competitive conspicuous consumption?
  6. How does cup-and-ring rock art fit into our overall understanding of the nature of society, beliefs, and external contacts in Argyll and Bute? Currently it tends to be studied in its own right, but it needs to be situated within Late Neolithic practices (and more dating evidence for its creation is needed).