2.6 Archaeological strategies

For a variety of reasons the rural region around the Tay/Earn confluence, so important for the political narrative of medieval Scotland has generally not received much archaeological attention. This is beginning to change now with the long awaited writing up of the material uncovered at Perth over the last three decades and more, and with the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project, and it would be useful to direct such work to answering specific questions.

The RCAHMS survey of the Bennachie area shows that Scotland is unquestionably a world leader in the survey of archaeological landscapes (2007). This and other recent volumes provide brilliant platforms for new research. The exemplary quality of this work argues for any work initiated by other agencies to be carried out if not in partnership with RCAHMS at least with their advice. The RCAHMS survey agenda and this framework seek to reinforce each other. The Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) in Perthshire is actively demonstrating the sort of fruitful co-operation envisaged here (with an RCAHMS team surveying Castle Law, Forgandenny, for example).

Previous work, including that of the late Leslie and Elizabeth Alcock (1987, 1992) at various royal sites (e.g. Forteviot; Dundurn; Dunollie; Dunnottar; Urquhart Castle) and that of Lane and Campbell (2000) at Dunnadd have provided valuable insight into the nature and occupation of these places. These investigations were generally minimalist in scale. The resources required and on-site limitations at other potential sites (particularly for urban or ecclesiastical locations) have been seen as a potential challenge for archaeological work. Martin Carver’s (2008) work at Portmahomack, and more recently the ongoing work at Scone by Oliver O’Grady and Peter Yeoman, (The Moothill and Abbey of Scone Survey Project – hereafter MASS) have demonstrated that this need not be the case. Not least, the SERF project has dramatically expanded current knowledge of Royal Forteviot, including the extension of its biography as a centre for ceremony and ritual back into earlier prehistory, which suggests that its later importance was due in large part to an early medieval perception that the place had an important, ancestral past.

Such projects can be built upon investigations into the basis of power in this region. Is there evidence of precocious land management strategies as revealed in settlement hierarchies and morphologies in the English East midlands such as at Raunds and Goltho? Do the hinterlands of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Abernethy present a fundamentally different pattern of settlement to other areas of comparable environmental potential?  Is there a moment of change, of nascent manorialisation, as appears to be the case in tenth-century Southumbria and Burgundy and if so is this linked to different patterns of consumption and production?

Equally, researchers should also look to the Tay itself as the umbilical cord of the kingdom. It is tempting to see early Perth (Hall, Hall & Cook 2006) as the Sigtuna to Scone’s Uppsala and perhaps to explain its absence from the textual record by reference to the Middle Saxon emporia (Hamwic, after all, is only known textually from one annal in a Frankish chronicle). The wic was essentially a dependent settlement perhaps largely inhabited by aliens, landless men or men whose lands and main residences lay elsewhere. The emporia of Middle Saxon England and Viking-Age Scandinavia seem to have functioned as not always elective ‘enterprise zones’ for merchants, allowing the role of redistributive chiefdom to be monopolised by one member of the local elite who was thus catapulted into medieval kingship. Such concerted mercantile enterprises, however, required quite complex resource allocation and this in turn led to, or perhaps sprang from, tenurial revolution in the hinterland. Thus the key to an examination of state formation lies in understanding the transformation of rural settlement hierarchies and morphologies. Historic Land-use Assessment (HLA; Herring 2009; RCAHMS 2006, HLAmap), utilising GIS to assess and map the origins of the modern landscape, including the relict remains of past landscapes wherever these are extensive enough to map, offers one route into these topics. The results feed two useful areas: resource management (it shows where little is, or can be, known) and research (it shows which types of land correlate with which type of site).

See also the ScARF Case Studies: The Idea of Scotland and The Pictish Shell Midden at the Sands of Forvie

Leave a Reply