2.5 Endings

Defining the end of the Neolithic has tended to be a matter for debate in the past, with discussion revolving around whether the appearance of metal, Beaker pottery use and other Continental novelties during the 25th century BC occasioned the end of a 'Neolithic' lifestyle, or whether pre-existing traditions persisted alongside the novelties. The term 'Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age' has been used by some as a convenient (if incorrect) way of describing the three centuries between the first appearance of metal and the beginning of bronze use during the 22nd century BC. As argued in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Panel report, the term 'Chalcolithic' is the most appropriate term to use to describe this period; but since the appearance of the 'Beaker package' clearly did not occasion an instant and widespread transformation of society in Scotland, it is useful to review briefly the principal developments during that period as they relate to pre-existing traditions and practices.

The novelties, which may well have been introduced by a small number of immigrants from the Continent (principally the Rhine delta and possibly also the Atlantic façade), before eventually being adopted and adapted by people in Scotland, comprise the following:

  1. the use of copper, and subsequently gold;
  2. the Beaker ceramic tradition, Continental in both design and manufacture;
  3. A funerary tradition featuring individual interment, initially in simple graves or in wooden cist-like structures, with gender-specific 'rules' regarding body position and status-specific rules concerning grave goods; an emphasis on portraying some men as high status warriors/hunters; and the provision of food/drink for the journey into an envisaged afterlife;
  4. Novel archery accessories: barbed and tanged arrowheads, belt rings and wristguards, if not also composite bows;
  5. Continental dress fashion: the use of buttons as a dress accessory;
  6. Arguably the use of a fire-making kit comprising a flint strike-a-light and iron pyrites/ore;
  7. Potentially the use of oval houses (as seen in the Western Isles).

The reasons for their appearance could have been partly the undertaking of heroic, long-distance journeys by elite men and their retinues, as part of a widespread social practice in Continental Europe; partly a search for metal, particularly copper; and partly the straightforward exploration of new areas. The very widespread distribution of early, Continental-stlye Beakers (including as far north as Shetland, in the case of a worn sherd of All Over Cord-decorated Beaker from Stanydale) is consistent with the 'long distance journeying' idea.

Reactions to this appearance of exotic Continental novelties seem to have varied. In north-east Scotland they included the eventual construction of a range of non-Continental style monuments to honour certain individuals, with Beaker pottery featuring in the rituals: Clava ring cairns and passage tombs, recumbent stone circles and two-entrance, oval henges (Bradley 2000; 2005; 2011). The Clava passage tombs may represent a revival of the earlier, Neolithic practice of passage tomb construction.

Elsewhere, Beaker use did not really 'take off' in Orkney, where the social dynamics of the preceding centuries continued, with the use of the Ness of Brodgar continuing until 2300 BC. As noted above, the Ring of Brodgar may have been built after 2500 BC. Pre-existing chamber tombs of various types were re-used; the infamous remains of the white-tailed sea eagles of the Isbister 'Tomb of the Eagles' were deposited between 2450 and 2000 BC (Pitts 2006), as were the remains of dogs, deposited in the Cuween passage tomb (Sheridan 2005a). Humans were also buried in chamber tombs at this time; whether any chamber tombs were actually constructed in Orkney after 2500 BC remains to be demonstrated.

White-tailed sea eagle. From Pitts 2006; Photo: Nature Picture Library

In Shetland, Beaker pottery seems to have been adopted as a novel ceramic style, but its use was in a local idiom (e.g. in the Ness of Gruting house, built according to Shetland architectural tradition) and its development followed an insular trajectory. The same can be said for Beaker use in the Hebrides. Furthermore, in the Western Isles, it is clear that the chamber tomb inside the Callanish stone circle was built after the appearance of Beaker pottery, since worn sherds of an international-style Beaker were securely stratified in its lower cairn material (Ashmore forthcoming).

Elsewhere in Scotland, the question of how long Grooved Ware continued to be used after Beaker pottery appeared has not been satisfactorily answered. The latest dated Scottish Grooved Ware comes from Littleour, Perth and Kinross (Barclay and Maxwell 1998), with organic residues in two vessels having been dated to the second half of the third millennium BC; but the wide spread of dates from this assemblage suggests that there may be an issue with the encrusted organic residue on the pots that provided the samples, and re-dating of this assemblage is recommended. (See below, 3.3.1. for further details.) Similarly, the question of whether any Grooved Ware shows influence from Beaker pottery (or indeed vice versa) needs to be bottomed out. Presence of twisted cord impression on some Grooved Ware may not be a convincing indicator of Beaker influence.

Likewise, it is unclear whether other kinds of non-Beaker pottery were in use when the 'Beaker package' appeared. There is tentative evidence from Mye Plantation, Dumfries and Galloway, where a pile from a putative pit-fall trap produced a date of 3913±39 BP (2560-2240 cal BC at 2σ, UB-3882 (Sheridan 2005b). In between two pits in the line of pits were found sherds of what appears to be a hybrid between Grooved Ware and Impressed Ware pottery (See Theme 5). Whether this was contemporary with the dated timber is, however, uncertain.

Therefore, there remain many unanswered questions, prominent among which are the following:

  1. For how long did a recognisably 'Neolithic' way of life (however defined) continue after the appearance of the Beaker package? And what went on in parts of Scotland that were scarcely (if at all) touched by the Beaker phenomenon?
  2. What were the other responses (apart from those listed above) to the appearance of the Beaker package? And what caused the demise of the Late Neolithic social system in Orkney, perhaps around 2300 BC?
  3. Was Grooved Ware the only pottery type in use in the period immediately preceding the appearance of Beakers? If not, then what was used?
  4. Basic information about the nature of settlement, land use and subsistence strategies needs to be gathered. The effect of the localised, intermittent episodes of forest regeneration as identified for the second half of the 3rd millennium by Richard Tipping (1994) need to be explored: was there a shift in settlement?