6.4.1 The first centuries of the Early Bronze Age - a 'golden age' for Argyll and Bute (and especially Kilmartin Glen), 2200/2150-1900 BC

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Figure 69: Copper alloy dagger blade from Cleigh. From Henshall 1968

As explained in detail elsewhere (principally Sheridan 2012a), this was the time when the elite of Argyll and Bute were able to profit from controlling the north-easterly flow of copper from Ireland (and possibly of bronze as well) as it passed up the Great Glen to the Migdale bronzeworking 'industry' of north-east Scotland. They may also have controlled the easterly flow of this metal towards northern England. Some insights into the nature of this movement are clear from graves around Inverness that have strong links with Ireland: the pair of graves (male and female?) at Seafield West (CANMORE ID 13393), comprising a logboat-shaped coffin (which may actually have functioned as a logboat, for travelling up the loch) containing a bronze dagger made using Irish copper, and a wooden 'cist' beside it containing an Irish Bowl Food Vessel (Cressey and Sheridan 2003); and a rich Beaker-associated grave from Culduthel (CANMORE ID 13519) , whose adult male occupant has been shown from isotopic analysis to have originated on the Antrim Plateau (Sheridan 2012b).

The prosperity that resulted from the inhabitants' control over the movement of metal was expressed in terms of conspicuous consumption on prestige items such as daggers (for men: Figure 69), fancy spacer-plate necklaces of Whitby jet, sometimes accompanied by bracelets or (at Melfort CANMORE ID 22872) bronze bangles (for women: Figure 70) and new-style Food Vessel pottery of Irish style (for both sexes: Figure 71), and on the construction of imposing funerary monuments. The material culture demonstrates clear connections with Ireland, with north-east Scotland and with northern England - the latter clear not only from the imported Whitby jet spacer-plate necklaces, which cluster in Argyll and Bute (and not just in Kilmartin Glen: Figure 70, but also from an unique footed Food Vessel found at Upper Largie (CANMORE ID 39486) (Figure 72), its upper part a classic Irish-style Bowl Food Vessel and its lower part characteristic of Yorkshire footed Food Vessels.

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Figure 70: Distribution of spacer-plate necklaces of jet and jet-like materials in Scotland and northern England, and examples from Mount Stuart, Bute (top), Monybachach (middle) and Melfort (bottom). Also one of a pair of bronze bangles found with the necklace components at Melfort. Map © Alison Sheridan; photos © NMS

The Irish ceramic link, clear not only from Bowl-shaped Food Vessels but also from Vase Food Vessels (Young 1951), may have involved the manufacture of pottery by skilled Irish potters, either in Ireland or as visitors to Argyll and Bute (and especially Kilmartin Glen): the quality of the manufacture of many of these vessels, most notably the Glebe Cairn (CANMORE ID 39537) Food Vessel (Figure 73), speaks of specialist expertise. The decision to use the novel Food Vessel style - which superseded the use of Beaker pottery in popularity, even though the use of the latter tradition persisted alongside the use of Food Vessels - was a clear example of the deliberate use of exotic novel design ideas to underline the status, wealth and power of the elite.

 

The ostentatious competitive conspicuous consumption was also, as noted above, expressed in the funerary monuments that the inhabitants constructed for the highest echelon of Early Bronze Age society. While Chalcolithic graves may have been covered by modest mounds, now very large stone cairns were erected to cover the graves of one or two individuals. The linear round cairn cemetery of Kilmartin Glen (Figure 74) - a dynastic cemetery, perhaps? - was constructed now, as were large round cairns elsewhere in Argyll and Bute; and it is highly likely that the henge at Ballymeanoch (CANMORE ID 39458) (Figure 75, at the eastern end of Kilmartin Glen, was also constructed during this period as a prestigious novelty; this monument is a westerly outlier of a type of monument found elsewhere in Scotland (including north-east Scotland) and England, and the decision to build it in Kilmartin Glen probably served to underline the well-connected, cosmopolitan character of the elite (Sheridan 2012a, 177). Not only were new monuments built: ancient Neolithic monuments were now radically remodelled to suit the new ideology of power.

The ancient Clyde-type chamber tomb of Nether Largie South (CANMORE ID 39460) had its original rectangular or trapezoidal long cairn reshaped into a round cairn (Figure 76). Temple Wood South (CANMORE ID 39504) stone circle was converted into a ring cairn - a monument type that may have been modelled on the Clava ring cairns at the north-east end of the Great Glen around Inverness (Bradley 1993) - with an imposing stone cist constructed in its centre for a local member of the elite (Figure 77). It is also highly likely that the Temple Wood North (CANMORE ID 39504) stone circle was dismantled at this time and its long stones were taken for reuse elsewhere: to create the cists, with unusually massive and/or long slabs, found inside the Temple Wood South ring cairn and inside Ballymeanoch henge (CANMORE ID 39458) (Figure 75 and Figure 77), and to form a grave marker at the grave subsequently covered by a cairn at Nether Largie North (Figure 78).

Furthermore, at Nether Largie North (CANMORE ID 39482), a slab of by-then ancient and probably sacred cup-and-ring rock had been prised from bedrock for use as the capstone of an important person's cist, its marks overlain by carvings of flat metal axeheads (Figure 79 ibid, 177). And at Badden (CANMORE ID 39384) and Carn Bàn (CANMORE ID 39587), slabs decorated with Late Neolithic, Grooved Ware lozenges were re-used in cists.

While inhumation was the predominant funerary practice during this period, cremation as a rite had also started to be used, as seen for example at Scalpsie (CANMORE ID 40232) on Bute (Sheridan 2013: here, cremated remains were buried in a cist, and were accompanied by an offering of food or drink in a Food Vessel.

That it was not simply the elite of Kilmartin Glen who were enjoying a period of prosperity is clear, for example, from the distribution of Whitby jet spacer plate necklaces (Sheridan 2013; Kranioti and Sheridan 2012), bronze daggers (Baker et al. 2003) and large cairns (RCAHMS 1988), all of which are found more widely. And despite the obvious expressions of status, the number of Early Bronze Age metal objects from Argyll and Bute is strikingly small (as seen, for example, in John Coles' distribution maps: Coles 1969).

Invaluable evidence relating to the everyday life of the inhabitants of Argyll and Bute is provided by the settlements at Kilellan (CANMORE ID 37496) and Ardnave (CANMORE ID 37488) on Islay (Gibson 1982; Ritchie 2005; Ritchie and Welfare 1983). These have produced very large assemblages of 'domestic' Food Vessel pottery (Figure 80) and evidence for a mixed agro-pastoral subsistence strategy. Pollen evidence, discussed in Section 4, supports the view that both cereal cultivation (principally of barley) and the management of domesticated animals was the general subsistence strategy. Some use of wild resources is also likely.

As for palaeoenvironmental and climatic developments, the marked climatic deterioration that has been claimed for other parts of Europe between 2200 BC and 1900 BC (as detailed in Section 4) clearly did not impact on activities in Argyll and Bute, despite claims for an 'Armada' of icebergs as far south as the Irish coast c 2200 BC; as Tipping has pointed out, any cooling and/or increase in precipitation may have been far less marked in Britain than on the Continent.

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Figure 71: Irish Bowl Food Vessel from Dunchraigaig. © NMS

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Figure 72: Upper Largie: top, plan of the grave (at the right of the image) that had contained the footed Food Vessel (bottom). Bottom right: view of the feet on the Food Vessel. Plan © AOC Archaeology; photographs © NMS

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Figure 73: Irish Bowl Food Vessel from Glebe Cairn. © NMS

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Figure 74: Kilmartin Glen linear Early Bronze Age cairn cemetery. Photo: David Lyons, from Kilmartin: an Introduction and Guide. © Kilmartin Museum

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Figure 75: Plan of Ballymeanoch henge and its cist. From RCAHMS 1988; Crown copyright © copyright

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Figure 76: Nether Largie South: Clyde cairn whose cairn was remodelled during the Early Bronze Age. Photo: David Lyons, from Kilmartin: an Introduction and Guide. © Kilmartin Museum

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Figure 77: Central cist in Temple Wood South stone circle. © Alison Sheridan

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Figure 78: Stone found used as a grave marker in Nether Largie North cairn; possibly taken from Temple Wood North. © Alison Sheridan/NMS

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Figure 79: Underside of capstone of Nether Largie North cist, showing ancient cup-marks and Early Bronze Age axeheads. From RCAHMS 1988; Crown copyright © copyright

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Figure 80: Food Vessel from Early Bronze Age settlement at Kilellan, Islay. From Ritchie 2005 © copyright

 

Key research questions for this period include the following:

  1. Where did the people who were buried in the ostentatious graves live? (Once again, it appears that Kilmartin Glen was used just as a place of burial and ceremony.)
  2. And was there a hierarchy of settlement, reflecting an inegalitarian society?
  3. Was there regional variability in subsistence activities during this time? How typical is the evidence from Kilellan (CANMORE ID 37496) and Ardnave (CANMORE ID 37488)?
  4. Was control over the flow of metal the only source of wealth and power in this part of Scotland at that time?
  5. Was the incoming metal just Irish copper, or were bronze items or ingots also coming in? And was there any local exploitation of copper?

Once again, field survey (including fieldwalking) to locate settlement evidence - and any evidence relating to metal prospecting - is required, and palaeoenvironmental investigation is needed to shed light on both vegetation cover and farming practices. The work undertaken by the Southern Kintyre Project (Cummings and Robinson 2015b) revealed some lithic scatters that are believed to be of Bronze Age date, but further fieldwork would be needed to obtain a more precise date for these, and to assess whether they are evidence for settlement sites.