7.2 Individuals and Groups

How were societies organised in Iron Age Scotland, and how did this change? How was an adult or a child defined, and what shaped their role in society – family, gender, skill? What constituted a family or a household? What can be said about people’s identities and how people and groups related to one another?

The data can readily provide information on aspects of the daily experience of individuals’ lives, though in a general rather than a specific way. The setting of lives (the house, the landscape) and many of the activities (farming, feeding, craft activities and so forth) are susceptible to analysis, although identifying what specific groups of individuals experienced (for instance, according to age or sex) is much more difficult. More attainable is a long view on how daily lives changed over time and space.

A fuller and fine-grained understanding of past lives requires more integration of information from different sources, including structural, artefactual, ecofactual and environmental evidence. (See discussion in theme 4, with the example of a ‘field to feast’ approach).

A key area for research is a better understanding of how major categories of material culture were used, as this is critical to understanding daily life. Notable examples of this are bone and coarse stone tools. There is a need for studies of these, using use-wear, analogy, experiment, and contextual evidence, allied to novel scientific techniques such as residue analysis of coarse stone tools. Pottery studies need to look more at culinary practice, and expand this beyond just ceramics to vessels in all materials.

The construction and projection of individual and group identities through material culture can be explored archaeologically, through features such as pot and pin styles. Material indicators of identity can be recognised, but how can they be analysed in a sophisticated and meaningful way? What were the meaningful commonalities and differences for people living in Iron Age Scotland?  Hunter’s (2007b) work on the different metalwork styles of the late centuries BC and early centuries AD shows how material culture studies are of central importance to the interpretation of identity, but much more could be done. For instance, in areas where there is no surviving decorative metalwork, is this absence a matter of depositional bias or a wider indication of different practices in different areas? What social segments had access to metalwork, or understood its decoration? What messages did a pin or a pot convey compared to an armlet or a sword? What patterns do other material categories indicate? There is much to be gained from interrogation and integration of the artefact data, seeking patterns in its occurrence and use. How did this change over time? A number of authors have identified increasing signs of individual adornment and expression (e.g. the increase in burial numbers; theme 7.6) towards the end of the Iron Age, and this has been correlated with changes in architectural styles (e.g. Sharples 2003) – but there is scope to consider this in more detail and subtlety, as well as seeking whether this is a general or regional phenomenon.

On a broader scale, can meaningful regional patterning be identified, and if so, what does this say about regional identities, or the existence of links with other groups?

Broad-brush variations in housescapes (see theme 5), from construction (including timber, turf and drystone), to nature (ephemeral, seasonal, or permanent) to ‘type’ (crannog, dun, broch, roundhouse), to architectural detail (enclosure, monumentalisation, vitrification) have been employed to construct Iron Age ‘regions’ (e.g. Piggott 1966). The robustness of these regional boundaries remains a point of debate, and the temptation to overlay territorial or tribal lines (from e.g. Ptolemy) on these ‘regions’ highlights a trend in using the regions as ‘actors’ or ‘politico-cultures’ in the wider Iron Age narrative (see theme 3). How do regional patterns of houses and settlements help to understand group identities? Can new composite and flexible understandings of Iron Age Scotland be built that allow for regional groupings shifting through the period? What archaeological evidence can be marshalled? Can the tendency to resort to simplified distribution maps (maps of recovery) with the best outcome being regionality be resisted?

Such studies need to look beyond site types and integrate information from assemblages or artefacts and ecofacts as well. The systematic comparison of assemblages between sites, or between regions, offers a valuable way forward here, especially if they can be compared by statistical means such as correspondence analysis rather than drawing on a few particular traits. Here the evidence from older and antiquarian excavations is a valuable resource, as it provides a spread of sites beyond what could be hoped to be excavated today.

There is a need for more integrated approaches to understanding daily lives in the past by drawing together different sources of evidence.

The function of key categories of evidence remains obscure.

The comparison of different categories of material culture should allow more insights into changing constructions of people’s identities and views of themselves over this period.