Securely contexted metalwork in burials – ‘one-off’ associations - led to the emergence of sequential typologies in the south of England where most excavation had taken place in the 19th century, and, indeed, where most links could be observed with idiosyncratic, distinctive objects produced in communities established in NW Europe and, to some uncertain extent in the Mediterranean Basin. Such links led to a subliminal demand for rapid communication in order that the established chronology of that region could be extended to Britain. This ‘diffusionist chronology’ was, in the middle decades of the 20th century, extended through Britain on the basis of typological linkage. This procedure was brought to its pinnacle of achievement with Gerloff’s study Early Bronze Age daggers in Great Britain and a reconsideration of the Wessex Culture (1975) with her deferential regard for Christopher Hawkes, a champion of the diffusionist school.
Even by this stage at the middle of the 1970s Bronze Age studies remained relatively unimpacted by radiocarbon dating (when other periods were becoming concerned about the ‘chronological fault-line’ of Renfrew (1969) largely because it was felt that the accepted chronology was so tight and affirmed that C14 could do little to improve it. This illusion was shattered on Stuart Piggott’s own ground when Wessex was shown (Renfrew 1968), on the chronological grounds of calibrated C14, to be ‘without Mycenae’. The relatively narrow chronological horizon of EBA/Beaker studies began to drift back in time and to widen to occupy the whole of the chronological span of the Neolithic as visualised by Piggott in 1954.
Thus was the narrative of the Bronze Age emancipated from the dominance of typo-chronology. But another important force was brought into play in the 1960s. The Stuttgart programme of metal analysis of bronze and copper objects (SAM) proceeding alongside the Prähistorische Bronzefund series overseen by Herman Müller-Karpe initiated in 1965 out of the University of Frankfurt-am-Main.
It was thus in the 1960s and 1970s that the British Bronze Age began to move steadily towards a multi-contextual approach, with intersecting multiple data streams leading towards a chronological and societal narrative – using typological, metallurgical, isotopic and archaeological means. By 1964 John Coles was able to refine his view of the Scottish EBA by a substantial programme or metal analysis that enabled differentiation within the well established framework of typology. The isolation of the Migdale industry (Britton 1963) was the first stage in the ongoing process of enrichment. Stuart Needham (2004) has brought that process to the ‘Sunburst’ that was further elucidated in his 2010 Rhind lectures.
Now the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age has expanded from 3-400 years to a millennium, work has begun to furnish that extended period with an appropriate sequential complexity. Sadly the archaeological resources have not changed unduly. Reliance is still largely upon the ‘closed’ context of the burial (although how ‘unclosed’ that can be is emerging), and hoards that, whatever the quality of the associations, are now routinely C14 dated by contextual association or, indeed, integral association (e.g. hafting materials) wherever possible. For this early period 2500 – 1500 cal BC, however, settlements are still a scarce component of the archaeological record. Yet the environmental record tells us that it is in the middle of this period, after 2000 but before 1500 cal BC that the major onset of landscape disturbance by farmers, usually greater, apparently, than the Neolithic landnam disturbances that preceded it, is encountered. Where did these farmers live? Are we compelled to look at nomadic solutions (Fleming 1971) or should we take a taphonomically qualified view that these early settlements have succumbed to later agriculture. And here Scotland may have answers to offer in the coastal machair deposits where accumulation may have prevented later eradication. It is interesting that settlements at Lintshie Gutter, Lanarkshire (Terry 1995) – an unenclosed platform settlement, set on a steep hillside in Clydesdale just above Crawford, produces dates between 2580 – 1530 cal BC that fill the chronological range in circumstances where later cultivation is most unlikely in a style of building carried forward into succeeding periods (see Green Knowe, Peebles - Jobey 1980). Pottery at Lintshie can easily be seen as a material successor to Grooved Ware fabrics (e.g. those located at Whitton Hill, Milfield Basin, Northumbs. dated c.2200 cal BC).
By 1400 cal BC step changes are taking place in the economy over extensive tracts of these islands. Social organisation appears to stabilise in settlement that become, often, of some considerable longevity e.g. at Tormore, Arran (Barber 1997) and at Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998), which saw occupation from 2000 -1200 cal BC.
By 1500 metal-working shows profound technical and resource changes against this background of evanescent settlement since the earliest years of the 3rd millennium. Bi- and multi-valve mould casting had been available for the manufacture of highly prestigious items (daggers, halberds, fine axes, and a few spears) before c. 1500. After that date, rapidly, this form of casting, and far more demanding versions of it, were carried out. Metal itself undergoes a series of alloy developments and for Scotland the focus of metalwork development appears to change away from a broadly Southern axis for the whole of Scotland in the full EBA to a predominantly western one dominated by Irish production. Axe and spear forms are very substantially derived from Ireland. England conversely switches to a NW European focus – an illustration of the dominance of sea ways in the development and control of metal and its sourcing.
The standard mixed arable/pastoral patterns of farming continue within a changing social structure explored by Fokkens (1997) which sees the emergence of local family or clan headmen, strongly independent, who it seems were armed for ‘gang warfare’ – dirks, rapiers, light spears – lethal, sudden and cruel and small scale. The abundant evidence from farm steadings composed of round houses up to 10m in diameter, often set in co-axial field systems or in less formal clearance arrangements, furnish a wealth of C14 dating for this period between 1500 and 900 calBC, even if the very rare occurrence of metalwork on these sites leaves the metal and settlement components of our view of the Middle Bronze Age uneasy in their chronological (and social) relationship. Burials at this period tend to be often collective cremations in pottery (or steatite vessels in the far north) urns seldom accompanied by artefacts.
From this base, however, alliances may lead, in the face of a climatic decline (and possibly other volcanic impacts), to the formation of hierarchies that in turn may lead to a centralisation of power. Eildon Hill North, Selkirkshire may illustrate what such a centre might have looked like (Owen 1992), and Hownam Law, Roxburgh and Yeavering Bell, Northumbs. may well represent others, expressing perfectly by their location, the climatic optimum of the later 2nd millennium that was rapidly followed by (pretty universal palaeoenvironment consensus for) a climatic decline between c.1000 cal BC and c.500.
Radical change again. Sudden cruel assassination in defence of family interest may have shifted to equally cruel but intensive violence on a more specialised basis. This development of what has sometimes been called an heroic society is portrayed to us through its weapons. The advent of the sword and its complex development into a fully competent, lethal weapon by the time of the transition to iron, the spear in its pike-like form, and shields as well as cups, cauldrons, buckets, fleshhooks, horns and dress paraphernalia associated with conspicuous, if not gracious, consumption. Wheeled vehicles (in the form of the Heathery Burn, Co. Durham wagon) and horse harness also occur in the record. This armed hierarchy can only have been supported upon the basis of a prospering economy and Scotland has not yet produced an impressive (or even an unimpressive) metal ore mining tradition. So farming must have maintained this advance into the future – whatever the difficulties of the environmental circumstances. More intensive exploitation of favourable areas and pretty horrifying demographic consequences, may have enabled a massive change, possibly under intimidation to the kind of economy that we see at the first understood stage of the “Iron Age”. The Late Bronze Age in the lowland zone will almost certainly be populated with settlement sites by excavation of monument types currently assumed to be Iron Age. This breakthrough was long ago established in the deep stratified circumstances encountered in the northern isles (e.g. at Jarlshof where one of the rare coincidences of metal working and settlement occur).
Chronology for this period of rapid development of prestigious warrior equipment has historically been based upon typology. C14 is, however, increasingly making a contribution with the dating of residual organic components of weapons (e.g. small fragments of wooden hafting left in spear sockets) or more importantly in a ‘new generation’ of sites revealed to us by rescue/developer funded excavation – teaching archaeologists to dig in places that they had not dug before. Valley bottom sites, burnt mound and associated structures and, in England circular Thwing - type forts and Flag Fen - type ‘crannogs’. These opportunities have yet to occur in Scotland but there is no reason why they shouldn’t.
Thus is our run down the tunnel from Neolithic cattle train we have a way to go before any precise understanding of the nature of the “tunnel process”, but progress is well under way.