‘Landscape’ is the arena in which every local aspect of human settlement and life takes place. As such, land and water form the natural canvas and frame which on the one hand may shape human activities and responses, but equally may be adapted and changed by them. As a result it is easy to become overly deterministic in approaches to landscape, reflecting what has become a traditional school of landscape history, which simply aims to find out what happened in the past and where. This is the approach which reads its history through the form of features that break the natural contour, stringing them together in sequences, based upon vertical and horizontal stratigraphy that trace a series of events cumulatively leading to the present day. Here, in a nutshell, lie the principles behind Historic Landscape Assessment and Characterisation, which seek to identify these fossils of the past in the modern patterns of fields and plantations. Furthermore, it is an approach that might also be styled ‘scientific‘, lending itself to palaeo-environmental techniques for the examination of landscape change.
Over the last thirty years, however, post-processual perspectives have greatly influenced how landscape is perceived, and therefore studied, in archaeology (see Bender 1993; Tilley 1994; Ashmore and Knapp 1999). Through such perspectives ‘landscape‘ is not seen as a backdrop for activities of the past or an analytical resource; instead it is a more ambiguous concept where ‘landscape is an entity that exists by virtue of it being perceived, experienced and contextualised by people‘ (Ashmore and Knapp 1999). From this perspective the landscape is not separate from practices, and its understanding is gained through experiences. Research themes such as biographies, metaphors and phenomenology have their origins in these perspectives.
British Iron Age studies are increasingly incorporating these approaches as researchers consider the variety of social relations, experiences and negotiations between people, place and landscape (see Bevan 1999; Davis et al. 2008 for examples). This has been an important development for exploring Iron Age settlement – moving away from only site-based analyses to contextualise sites through a greater theorised approach to landscape and the environs. For Iron Age spaces concepts of ‘taskscapes‘ and ‘dwelling‘ (Ingold 2000), and archaeologies of inhabitation (e.g. Chadwick 2004), have provided new ways to consider the spaces between settlements and the meaning of living in the landscape.
To these can be added questions stemming from two fundamental themes: population and territory. What was the size of the overall population? How was it disposed regionally? How did it develop through the 1st millennium BC? And what were the territories that regional and local populations were occupying? These are largely unattainable ambitions, but they feed into every aspect of an understanding of the past. For example, do the settlements that are recorded represent the totality of the population, or smaller subsets? What is the nature of the household that occupies a broch, for example? Are these the towers of the elite or the typical farmhouse of every farmer? And indeed, how large is this household and how does it relate to its neighbours, and do those relationships in say Shetland, hold true for Orkney or the Western Isles? Are there missing sectors of these societies that are simply leaving no recognisable signatures in the surviving archaeology?
While these sorts of questions provide numerous avenues to progress Scottish Iron Age studies, it is important that it is recognised that many areas are still locked firmly in the early days of data collection. To take forts and their landscapes as an example, since the first systematic attempt to solve the chronological puzzle that they present in the Borders at Hownam Rings some 60 years ago (Piggott 1948), only the low land hillfort at Broxmouth, East Lothian has been almost entirely excavated, and that now thirty years ago. No unploughed example has ever been dug to this extent. Settlement studies necessarily must transpose what little is known for a tiny minority to the silent majority. For years yet to come any understanding of settlement patterns in the landscape will be extensively founded on uneven survey data in which the values and chronologies of the various constituents are barely explored and certainly not reliable.
The sections that follow are fairly traditional, hedged around with the limitations of the data. Nevertheless, it is important not to lose sight of questions relating to how the landscape shapes the lives of those living there and vice versa, how these relationships change across space, and how they may be manifested in the cultural residues of archaeological deposits. By investigating such questions using different methodologies it allows assumptions about life and death, that are embedded in more traditional approaches to the Scottish Iron Age to be challenged and tested.