Executive Summary

Why research Iron Age Scotland?

The Scottish Iron Age provides rich data of international quality to link into broader, European-wide research questions, such as that from wetlands and the well-preserved and deeply-stratified settlement sites of the Atlantic zone, from crannog sites and from burnt-down buildings. The nature of domestic architecture, the movement of people and resources, the spread of ideas and the impact of Rome are examples of topics that can be explored using Scottish evidence. The period is therefore important for understanding later prehistoric society, both in Scotland and across Europe.

There is a long tradition of research on which to build, stretching back to antiquarian work, which represents a considerable archival resource. There are also opportunities through highly favourable preservation conditions, as noted above. The Scottish Iron Age can produce rich, dense data of international quality, and there is great potential to exploit it more fully.

Many topics remain to be explored, from the details of regional chronologies and settlement sequences that have long been a key factor of research, to more innovative approaches to social structures, concepts of landscape and society, craft processes and the use of material objects to shape people’s lives. The research directions suggested below should provide avenues to explore more fully the richness and diversity of life in Iron Age Scotland.

Panel Task and Remit

The Iron Age panel was asked to critically review the current state of knowledge, and consider promising areas of future research into the Scottish Iron Age. This is intended to help with the building of testable, defensible and robust narratives that describe and explain societies from the end of the Bronze Age to the formation of post-Roman kingdoms and the arrival of Christianity (c.800BC – AD500). This will facilitate the work of those interested in the Scottish Iron Age and help set a trajectory for future research. Although the remit of the current project is Scottish, it is important that this research is undertaken within the wider context of developments in the rest of Britain, Ireland and on the Continent.

This report, the result of the panel’s deliberations, is structured by theme: History of research; Land as arena; Land as resource; Building in the Round; Settlements, communities and enclosed places; Relations between people; and Scotland in a bigger world. The themes reflect the desire to uncover the people of the Scottish Iron Age in their local, regional and wider European context. The document, which outlines the different areas of research work and highlights promising research topics, is reinforced by material in an on-line Wiki format which provides further detail and resources. The Iron Age Scottish Archaeological Research Framework is intended as a resource to be utilised, built upon, and kept updated, by all those interested in this period of Scotland’s past now and into the future.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarised under five key headings:

Building blocks: The ultimate aim should be to build rich, detailed and testable narratives situated within a European context, and addressing phenomena from the longue durée to the short-term over international to local scales. Chronological control is essential to this and effective dating strategies are required to enable generation-level analysis. The ‘serendipity factor’ of archaeological work must be enhanced by recognising and getting the most out of information-rich sites as they appear.

  1. There is a pressing need to revisit the archives of excavated sites to extract more information from existing resources, notably through dating programmes targeted at regional sequences – the Western Isles Atlantic roundhouse sequence is an obvious target.
  2. Many areas still lack anything beyond the baldest of settlement sequences, with little understanding of the relations between key site types. There is a need to get at least basic sequences from many more areas, either from sustained regional programmes or targeted sampling exercises.
  3. Much of the methodologically innovative work and new insights have come from long-running research excavations. Such large-scale research projects are an important element in developing new approaches to the Iron Age.

Daily life and practice: There remains great potential to improve the understanding of people’s lives in the Iron Age through fresh approaches to, and integration of, existing and newly-excavated data.

  1. House use. Rigorous analysis and innovative approaches, including experimental archaeology, should be employed to get the most out of the understanding of daily life through the strengths of the Scottish record, such as deposits within buildings, organic preservation and waterlogging.
  2. Material culture. Artefact studies have the potential to be far more integral to understandings of Iron Age societies, both from the rich assemblages of the Atlantic area and less-rich lowland finds. Key areas of concern are basic studies of material groups (including the function of everyday items such as stone and bone tools, and the nature of craft processes – iron, copper alloy, bone/antler and shale offer particularly good evidence). Other key topics are: the role of ‘art’ and other forms of decoration and comparative approaches to assemblages to obtain synthetic views of the uses of material culture.
  3. Field to feast. Subsistence practices are a core area of research essential to understanding past society, but different strands of evidence need to be more fully integrated, with a ‘field to feast’ approach, from production to consumption. The working of agricultural systems is poorly understood, from agricultural processes to cooking practices and cuisine: integrated work between different specialisms would assist greatly. There is a need for conceptual as well as practical perspectives – e.g. how were wild resources conceived?
  4. Ritual practice. There has been valuable work in identifying depositional practices, such as deposition of animals or querns, which are thought to relate to house-based ritual practices, but there is great potential for further pattern-spotting, synthesis and interpretation.

Landscapes and regions:

  1. Concepts of ‘region’ or ‘province’, and how they changed over time, need to be critically explored, because they are contentious, poorly defined and highly variable. What did Iron Age people see as their geographical horizons, and how did this change?
  2. Attempts to understand the Iron Age landscape require improved, integrated survey methodologies, as existing approaches are inevitably partial.
  3. Aspects of the landscape’s physical form and cover should be investigated more fully, in terms of vegetation (known only in outline over most of the country) and sea level change in key areas such as the firths of Moray and Forth.
  4. Landscapes beyond settlement merit further work, e.g. the use of the landscape for deposition of objects or people, and what this tells us of contemporary perceptions and beliefs.
  5. Concepts of inherited landscapes (how Iron Age communities saw and used this long-lived land) and socal resilience to issues such as climate change should be explored more fully.

Reconstructing Iron Age societies. The changing structure of society over space and time in this period remains poorly understood. Researchers should interrogate the data for better and more explicitly-expressed understandings of social structures and relations between people.

The wider context: Researchers need to engage with the big questions of change on a European level (and beyond). Relationships with neighbouring areas (e.g. England, Ireland) and analogies from other areas (e.g. Scandinavia and the Low Countries) can help inform Scottish studies. Key big topics are:

  1. The nature and effect of the introduction of iron.
  2. The social processes lying behind evidence for movement and contact.
  3. Parallels and differences in social processes and developments.
  4. The changing nature of houses and households over this period, including the role of ‘substantial houses’, from crannogs to brochs, the development and role of complex architecture, and the shift away from roundhouses.
  5. The chronology, nature and meaning of hillforts and other enclosed settlements.
  6. Relationships with the Roman world.


Kirk Hill palisaded enclosure and fort, Scottish Borders, © RCAHMS


“The Scottish Iron Age can produce rich, dense data of international quality, and there is great potential to exploit it more fully”.

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