5.6 Explaining variations

It is now widely recognised that no simple equation can be drawn between monumental structures and social status; there were many roles for and meanings of houses. Although culturally specific, it is of interest that Crone (2000) interpreted the 8m diameter Early Historic house at Buiston crannog as the home of a wealthy farmer, supported by the evidence from early Irish documents. While wary of extending evidence into a pre-Roman Iron Age context, the site illustrates the potential dangers of linking status to size in a simplistic manner. Care is also needed with regard to how dimensions of timber roundhouses have been identified from surviving remains in plough-truncated lowland contexts, because there has been a tendency to underestimate diameters by failing to take into account non-earthfast elements of the structure, such as turf walls (e.g. Harding 2009, 273).

It is widely considered that occupants of monumental houses were displaying identity, prestige and independence (Hingley 1992, 14-17; Armit 1997c, 27), although this remains an assumption based on current models of Iron Age society. Egalitarian vs. elite models for explaining substantial houses are discussed by Hingley (1992, 40-1) as having relevance at different times and different places. In some areas and at some times ‘substantial houses’ seem to represent the only archaeologically detectable settlement form, as with the Atlantic roundhouses of North Uist and Barra are much discussed (Armit 1997a & b, 2002; Sharples and Parker Pearson 1997). A similar argument has been made for crannogs of the central highlands (Cavers 2006, 399) on the basis that there is nothing to indicate high-status, with artefacts and ecofacts suggesting a distribution of large disaggregated roundhouses supporting the interpretation that local society did not reflect social relationships through architecture (although see above about problems of identifying the character of buildings on crannogs). Such models assume that the currently known buildings represent the bulk of the Iron Age settlement pattern; the possible existence of ‘invisible’ buildings, e.g. turf structures with no foundations, is a major challenge here.

Some have sought to link specific aspects of architecture as evidence of difference, often expressed as status differences, for example:

  1. Entrance orientations: the work by Parker Pearson et al. (1996), where differences between broch entrance orientations were linked to status distinctions between the occupants. Much of this has been challenged by Pope (2007), and Romankiewicz (2011, 54-57) although the topic was revisited by MacKie (2010, 104-5 and fig 4) who did find patterning in his sample.
  2. Grand entrances / porches: as elements of display, but Harding (2009) has suggested there were fewer projecting porches than some think, because building sizes have been underestimated by not accounting for non-earthfast wall lines.
  3. Quality of construction: comparing apparently poorly constructed Atlantic roundhouses (e.g at Crosskirk, Caithness; Fairhurst 1984; Ralston 1996, 139) and visibly well built ones (e.g par excellence at Mousa, Shetland) – was this quality recognised at the time of construction? Did this matter in terms of the ‘status’ of the building, and was ‘quality’ more associated with foreseen duration of use or the nature of indentured labour involved in the construction? Could poorly constructed examples such as Crosskirk be ‘imitations’ of high hollow-walled structures? (based upon comment made by E MacKie in response to the ScARF Iron Age workshop).
  4. Commissioned construction: were there professional broch-builders (e.g. MacKie 2010, 96-7) that might indicate the wealth and status of those that commissioned construction? Simple structures at least were probably built by local communities (Armit 2003 , 77-78), while Romankiewicz (2011, 200-2) argues for a locally- or regionally-based construction of even the more complex structures.

There are some cases where recurrent differences in the character of artefact assemblages recovered from different types of structure appear to reflect real social differentiation, though the topic has been under-studied. This is most evident when looking at the distribution of exotica, particularly Roman artefacts occurring on non-Roman settlement sites (Macinnes 1984a, Hunter 2001), but trends can also be detected in the distribution of non-Roman artefacts (Heald & Jackson 2001, Hunter et al. 2009). However, the taphonomy and circumstances of deposition also need to be taken into account – there may be a wider range of material in some types of structure because material was deliberately deposited as part of recurrent foundation or closure acts (e.g. Hurly Hawkin; Taylor 1982, Hunter 1997, 115-6 & 122).

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