4.2 The Inheritance of the prehistoric past

In Scotland, the early medieval/protohistoric period has a huge quantity and variety of monuments: standing stones, cist burials, burial mounds, hillforts and ritual centres set in curvilinear enclosures. These types of monuments are not prehistoric types, but they seem to make reference to prehistoric types. For that reason it is perhaps justified to assume that there is an intellectual link between the ideas embodied in each. Agency and expression can also be sought in the wider landscape.The central tenets of archaeological phenomenology and landscape archaeology aver, basically and simply, that people in the past were aware of their landscape and related to the feelings it gave them (Fleming  2005).  This leads to the reasonable assumption that what could be seen from a settlement or a monument – was an important part of the identity of that settlement or monument and its founders and occupants. What could be seen must remain uncertain due to the inevitable lack of any precise knowledge relating to the state of contemporary vegetation or other obstacles to intervisibility. Prehistoric monuments, whether visible or known to exist from first or second hand acquaintance, must have posed a formidable challenge to the medieval imagination. Certainly, toponymic evidence, and the traces of the ‘blessing’, ‘conversion’, vandalisation or iconoclasm of prehistoric sites during this period must bear powerful witness to the impact of such sites on the medieval consciousness.

The premise that protohistoric and medieval people were intensely aware of the landscape and its prehistoric content can therefore be accepted and pursued in two ways. The first approach takes the view that there was no continuity of thinking and that where monuments were ‘re-used’ or ‘adopted’ it was simply as convenient or prominent landscape features in order to validate folk memory or legitimate the origin of a new regime (Bradley 1987).

The second approach, founded upon a better understanding of aboriginal and traditional cultures recognises that oral tradition can preserve genealogico-cum-historical information over many centuries and may allow long-term survival of a tradition reflecting ancestral reality.  Consequently protohistoric and even medieval populations may have had a clearer view of their distant past than we currently allow and this is clearly a proposition that requires further investigation involving critical assessment of early texts and far more critical approaches to medieval ‘disturbance’ of prehistortic sites.

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