Naming the parts: the basic framework for the past settlement of Scotland

Reconstruction, by artist Jan Dunbar, of an Early Neolithic farmstead in the east of Scotland.

Our understanding of the past inhabitation of Scotland is constantly changing as our archaeology becomes more sophisticated and new interpretations are developed. That is part of the fun of archaeology: there is always something new to think about and to work on. I thought it might be useful to set out a quick framework for the principal terminology relating to the main periods that are identified. Although there have been many attempts to move away from a typo-technological cultural framework like this, none has ever taken off so that the main terms: Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, etc are still in use.

The ‘Three Age’ system’, which divided the remains of past societies chronologically by raw material was developed in Denmark in the 19th century. Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age are names that still resonate today, though they have acquired additional meaning. Layers of socio-cultural significance were added in the early 20th century by archaeologists such as Gordon Childe and economic interpretations were subsequently developed by Grahame Clarke among others. The past is a complex place! It is still important, nevertheless, to have a basic understanding of the central framework. My own work is concerned principally with the ‘Stone Age’, which has, of course, been subject to much division and refinement. I also focus on Scotland and it is this that I shall cover here (and see here for more detail on both the National and Regional pictures).

The evidence indicates that ancient human communities have lived, on and off, in Britain for some 800,000 years, over which time there has, of course, been considerable environmental change as well as much change in the archaeological record. The very earliest communities were not ‘modern humans’, indeed, other species such as Neanderthals were well settled here. To date, the archaeological record for Scotland indicates a much shorter period of human settlement and one which only contains traces of modern humans: Homo Sapiens. This interpretation may well reflect the shortcomings of the way in which we study archaeology rather than the reality of the past. I’m guessing it is only a matter of time before we find older sites.

The evidence suggests that small Late Upper Palaeolithic groups arrived in Scotland in the thirteenth millennium BC, during the Late Glacial Interstadial, as conditions ameliorated after the last ice age. This was a warmer phase; the landscape would have been largely open but with some stands of low woodland dominated by birch and juniper. The human communities at the time share many characteristics with communities to be found further south in the British Isles, and on the continent, to which Britain was still connected through the landscape of Doggerland. The evidence indicates that they may have travelled long distances in the course of an annual round, and that they possessed detailed understanding of the landscape within which they lived and from which they derived all the resources necessary for survival. Large mammals such as reindeer are likely to have provided an important resource, and groups may have followed them and other species as they moved across the landscape. Population levels were very low and settlement may have been intermittent.

The Late Upper Palaeolithic lasted for some three thousand years during which time there was considerable climatic and environmental change. Communities had to be adaptable and resilient and there is evidence of this through changing technologies and behavioural practices, especially further south in the British Isles and on the Continent where archaeological evidence for this period is more abundant. In Scotland, the evidence to date focusses on characteristic stone tools, including particular types of tanged spear points, which allow us to compare different communities one with another. In general these groups are known to archaeologists as Hamburgian (with later subdivisions), though we have no idea how they would have named themselves. Around 10,900BC an abrupt return to cold conditions marked the period known as the Younger Dryas, at which point small local glaciers returned to some parts of Scotland. Current interpretations suggest that population numbers may have dropped dramatically at the time.

Around 9,700BC a period of rapid amelioration is recorded in the environmental record, and this marks the start of the Holocene, at which time conditions improved and vegetation increased, including the establishment of mixed woodland and forest. Population numbers grew and the marked changes to lifestyle allow archaeologists to classify the communities as Mesolithic. Life still revolved around a high degree of mobility and the acquisition of all the resources necessary for survival from the land, though this was a very different world to that of the Late Upper Palaeolithic. The evidence suggests that aquatic and marine species joined land mammals and birds as significant resources. Technological developments include the manufacture of small stone blades which could be shaped into microliths among other things, and a new range of bone and antler tools. Improvements in marine technology may have facilitated increased travel around the coast. Generally rising relative sea levels meant that this period saw the isolation of Britain as an island with the submergence of the final vestiges of Doggerland.

By 4000 BC changes to local lifestyles included the earliest archaeological evidence for farming in Scotland and this period is known generally as the Neolithic. Current interpretations indicate the arrival of immigrant communities bringing a dramatically different way of life from the continent (some great lectures on Neolithic Scotland here). Population levels grew and communities became more settled. In the east of Scotland the Early Neolithic occupation focussed on large timber halls which may have housed several families, though across the country a range of other buildings was also used. Changes to familiar everyday goods included the development of new types of stone tool that were less focussed on blade technologies, as well as the introduction of innovative materials such as pottery. Farming included the cultivation of a range of crops as well as the care of domestic animals such as cattle, sheep/goats, and pigs though wild resources were still used and some sites (permanent or transient), may reflect the use of different parts of the landscape for different lifestyles. Settlements were more permanent and increasing human impacts on the wooded landscape are visible. From around 3,200BC, further changes to the material culture evidence a social and cultural change known to archaeology as the Late Neolithic. The main settlements grew to comprise several households, in smaller buildings, and diverse monuments were developed for burial together with ceremonial sites such as stone circles.

The introduction of metal took place around 2,500 BC and, though it made little impact on everyday life at first, this period marks the end of the Stone Age and is known as the Bronze Age. Farmsteads and villages of round timber and turf houses became more common and there were different styles of pottery and other material goods. Metal goods were rare at first, but over time, the stone tools that had marked earlier periods became less common. Different types of burial and changes to the ceremonial sites suggest that there were marked changes to belief and ritual practice at the time as well as considerable social change.