1.2 History of Bronze Age research in Scotland

This is a brief and selective summary of research in, and chronology of, the Bronze Age in Scotland, both as set out in purely Scottish studies and in those covering the whole of Britain that display significant Scottish content or implications. A simplified version of the latest relative and absolute chronology published for southern Britain is included below (see Table 1) as an indication of the chronological parameters. The extent to which this chronology is relevant to Scotland will be discussed at various points below.

Table 1: Summary chronology for the Southern British Bronze Age (After Needham et al. 2010 Table 1 and Needham 1996 Fig 3.)

Period Date range Pottery Metalwork assemblage
1. Copper 2450-2200 Early Beaker Moel Arthur
2. EBA 2200-1950 Climax Beaker/Food Vessel Brithdir> Mile Cross
3. EBA 1950-1750 Early Urn/Food Vessel Willerby Wold
4. EBA 1750-1550 Middle Urn Arreton Down
5. MBA 1550-1150 Late Urn/Deverel-Rimbury Acton Park>Taunton>Penard
6. LBA 1150-950 Post Deverel-Rimbury Wilburton
7. LBA 950-800 PDR Plain Ware Ewart Park
EIA 800-600 PDR Decorated Llyn Fawr
1.2.1. 19th and early 20th centuries

The Three-Age system was adopted more readily in Scotland than in other parts of Britain or in Ireland so the Bronze Age has been an integral part of discussions of Scottish archaeology since Sir Daniel Wilson’s account published in 1851 (The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, first edition). In this he explicitly acknowledges C J Thomsen’s (1788-1867) classification in 1816 of the prehistoric collections of the Royal Museum of Northern Antiquities in the Christiansborg Palace, into Stone, Bronze and Iron Periods as ‘now universally adopted in the nomenclature of archaeological science’.

Wilson was the author of the first catalogue of the Society’s museum, published in 1849 (Synopsis of the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland), in which material identified as pre-Roman was dated to the Stone or Bronze Periods (iron, he considered, replaced bronze only under the Romans) both classified as Celtic. In later editions pre-Roman objects were simply classified by material.  However, the presumed author of these later versions of the catalogue, Joseph Anderson (1832-1916), keeper of the museum from 1869 to 1913, used the ‘Age of Bronze’ in his Rhind Lectures, published in 1886, in which he gave ‘a general review of the existing materials for the Archaeology of Scotland’.  Anderson devoted three lectures to the Bronze Age, covering burials, with associated pottery metalwork and other grave-goods, stone circles and bronze objects, settlements being at that time unknown.

In The ancient bronze implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain and Ireland (1881), Sir John Evans (1823-1908) – an Honorary Fellow of the Society – generally treated Scottish finds in separate sections of his respective chapters on the main bronze types. Evans sometimes noted where Scottish forms differed from those elsewhere in Britain but did not otherwise consider separate typology or chronology for Scotland.

Evans never devoted much attention to chronology and his tripartite division of the material, though accurate in sequence, can now be seen as distinctly unequal in that he separated what is now defined as the Arreton assemblage (Needham’s Period 4; see Table 1) from the preceding phases of the Early Bronze Age on the one hand and the whole of the Middle and Late Bronze Age on the other.  It was left to the great Swedish scholar Oscar Montelius (1843-1921) to set out the chronology of the British Bronze Age in greater detail in an article published in Archaeologia in 1908. Montelius’s absolute chronology in particular – a Copper Age starting around 2500 BC and the end of the Late Bronze Age around 800 BC – was so far ahead of its time that his contribution was rejected by British scholars (Piggott described it as ‘curious’ fifty years later) and has now been largely forgotten. Like Evans, Montelius listed Scottish finds separately but his chronology covered the whole of Britain.

John Abercromby (1841-1924) (A study of the Bronze Age pottery of Great Britain and Ireland…1912) divided Bronze Age pottery into Beakers, Food Vessels and Cinerary Urns, the last comprising in Scotland Collared Urns, Pygmy Cups, Cordoned Urns, Encrusted Urns and Enlarged Food Vessels.  Urns occurred throughout his five periods, which lasted from 2000 to beyond 400 BC.  ‘With the best will in the world’ he found Montelius’s absolute chronology unacceptable.

In 1923 J G Callander (    -1938), Director of the Museum, read the Society a paper on Bronze Age hoards.  He acknowledged Montelius’s scheme but judged it unsuitable for Scotland (Graham, 1981, recalls the antagonism that Callander felt for anything foreign) because certain types were lacking here.  Callander divided hoards among four periods:  I, flat copper axes; II, flat bronze axes; III, flanged axes and palstaves; IV, socketed axes.  Beakers and Food Vessels were assigned to Period II, cinerary urns to Period III. Gold ornaments were assigned to the three later periods.

Following Alexander Curle’s hut‐circle excavations at Bonchester Hill (Scottish Borders) and Loch Asgaig and Kinbrace in Sutherland (Curle 1909‐10; 1910‐11), Curle and Cree used similar techniques in their excavations at Traprain Law. By 1922, Curle and Cree were responsible for discovering the first circular structure using area excavation. Unfortunately, the decision to dig to four pre‐established levels, meant that they failed to identify anything but the most obvious of features and, despite numerous hearths, areas of paving and at least two stone‐founded circular structures, no cut features were discovered

1.2.2. Mid 20th century

Cairnpapple under excavation by Professor Stuart Piggott and aerial view of the henge and cairn. Cairnpapple was the earliest Bronze Age excavation carried out to modern standards in Scotland (although it was approached as a henge), and is of central importance to the period in providing a stratified sequence, © RCAHMS

Gordon Childe (1892-1957) wrote the Preface to his textbook on the European Bronze Age in Edinburgh in 1930 and the focus for the study of the Scottish Bronze Age passed to Edinburgh University. Almost fifty years after Anderson’s Rhind lectures Childe published the next survey of Scottish prehistory in 1935.  He noted that Montelius had distinguished five periods, but was content with what had then become the conventional division into Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages based on typology of tools and weapons: flat axes and daggers; flanged axes, palstaves and rapiers; socketed axes and swords. However, Childe went on the compare and contrast Scottish bronze types with those from England.  While Early Bronze Age types were briskly equated with those south of the border, Middle Bronze Age types were common only in southern Scotland. Childe also noted the scarcity or absence from Scotland of various types characteristic of the Late Bronze Age in England and recognised the Irish origin of many contemporary gold ornaments.  Childe treated the Bronze Age chronologically, beginning with Beaker invaders, Food Vessels and other Early Bronze Age objects, then Early Bronze Age monuments and settlement. Cinerary Urns and accompanying material followed, with a separate section on Early Bronze Age burials in the Northern Isles.  The Late Bronze Age was represented by invaders using flat-rimmed pottery, building recumbent stone circles and living in settlements such as Jarlshof and Skara Brae, who reached Scotland when iron was already in use.

Late Bronze Age hoard found at Adabrock, Ness, Isle of Lewis. ©NMS Late Bronze Age hoard found at Adabrock, Ness, Isle of Lewis. In addition to axes and other tools, this hoard contains razors, beads of gold, amber and glass and fragments of a sheet-metal vessel of continental origin. ©NMS

A decade later Childe published another synthesis (the 1944 Rhind Lectures) concentrating on indigenous development more than external influences and dividing Scottish prehistory into six stages.  Beaker pottery defined Stage III, though it persisted into Stage IV, defined by Food Vessels and including the Migdale hoard. Cinerary Urns distinguished Stage V with Late Bronze Age metalwork (exemplified by the Adabrock hoard) said to be contemporary. Childe devoted three chapters of his main text to these stages under the titles ‘Early Bronze Age’, ‘Heroic Age’ and ‘Late Bronze Age’ respectively. Thus, the Early Bronze Age was populated by users of Beakers and associated material, Childe’s ‘heroes’ were chiefs buried in daggers graves and in conspicuous monuments such as Kilmartin Glebe Cairn, while subsequent material was attributed to the Late Bronze Age. In a short appendix on bronze typology, Childe in effect reverted to Evans’s scheme, reintroducing a second stage of the Early Bronze Age equivalent to the Arreton assemblage in addition to the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. He repeated that Middle Bronze Age types were practically unknown beyond southern Scotland and noted again that most of the sword types which could be used to subdivide the Late Bronze Age in England were unrepresented north of the border. In an appendix on absolute chronology, Childe argued that his Stage IV and Food Vessels persisted well into the currency of the Late Bronze Age elsewhere in Britain, so that the Late Bronze Age in northern Scotland at least would not have begun until the mid-first millennium BC.

Stuart Piggott did not produce such a detailed synthesis of Scottish prehistory, but he did make several contributions to the Bronze Age in Scotland while in Edinburgh: excavations at Cairnpapple, Clava and Croft Moraig, the Badden cist slab, the Horsehope hoard, and other grave-groups and hoards – notably Migdale. Some of this work was done in collaboration with colleagues or pupils, while his pupils (e.g. Audrey Henshall, Derek Simpson and especially John Coles) published substantial contributions themselves. Ian Shepherd’s catalogue of V-bored buttons appeared posthumously in 2009. Cairnpapple, Clava and Croft Moraig have all been subject to reinterpretation. To quote Roger Mercer (1998, 440) :

“His own revolutionary work upon the Neolithic and Iron Age of Scotland is perfectly matched by that of one of his postgraduate students, John Coles, who gave a modern foundation to Scottish Bronze Age Studies in which Piggott took great pride.”

At first consideration, Feachem (1961) saw platform settlements as intrusive and Iron Age; however by 1965 he was beginning to consider them as Late Bronze Age. Combining the work of Margaret Piggott and Kenneth Steer with his own excavations – at Glenachan Rig, Harehope, and Green Knowe in the Scottish Borders (Feachem 1958‐59; 1959‐60; 1961) – Feachem (1965) created the first roundhouse typology. This classification, despite being based on just a few type‐sites has actually stood the test of time reasonably well (Pope forthcoming). Feachem (1965) was clearly inspired by the work of Margaret Piggott regarding both excavation strategy – the deliberate targeting of structures – and house reconstruction.

1.2.3. Late 20th century

John Coles came to Edinburgh in 1957 to undertake research on Scottish Bronze Age metalwork and completed his PhD thesis in 1959. This has been described as ‘the first serious attempt at a systematic collation of data on Bronze Age metal artefacts [in Scotland]’.  The card-catalogue he assembled is available in the Archaeology Department of National Museums Scotland. Coles published the results of his research in a series of papers in the Proceedings, notably three on Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age metalwork (in reverse order: 1959-601963-64 & 1968-69; for a brief survey of the concept of the Scottish Bronze Age in relation to his work, see Ritchie 1999).  In these articles he listed the data; ‘placed them in a chronological framework … sought to define industrial traditions … and highlighted imports and influences from outside Scotland’. Coles catalogued objects by type and county, then gave full details of hoards.  His texts for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages discussed the typology and distribution of each type then went on to consider industrial phases, named after representative hoards or finds, while discussion of the Late Bronze Age sequence was more continuous.  For the Early Bronze Age there were also data on composition (also examined in a separate article in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 1969) and manufacture, though contemporary pottery had not yet be analysed thoroughly enough to shed much light on associated metalwork.  Coles wrote before there was much absolute dating evidence from Scotland. His main chronological table (reproduced here) shows the Bronze Age lasting from the eighteenth century to the sixth, though an end-note acknowledging the effects of radiocarbon calibration suggests a beginning in the twenty-first century cal BC. In her contribution to the Festschrift for Coles (Harding 1999) Alison Sheridan summarised finds and interpretations of Bronze Age material subsequent to his publications.

The metal analyses discussed by Coles were mainly from the Studien zu den Anfängen der Metallurgie project published in the 1960s and 70s. These have been supplemented by Northover (1998, Late Bronze Age Dijon; 1999, copper Bochum; plus unpublished analyses). In December 1960 at a conference in London, Christopher Hawkes gave a lecture setting out a scheme for the British Bronze Age (a two-stage Copper Age and three stages each of Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age, lasting from 1850 to 500 BC). Though samizdat versions have circulated ever since, the scheme itself has never been published.  Coles was present at the conference but did not adopt Hawkes’s scheme, which mentions hardly any Scottish sites or finds, though it came to form the basis of the current sequence for the British Bronze Age (summarised in Table 1) worked out by Burgess and followed by Needham.

Over nearly fifty years of publication Colin Burgess has been the dominant figure in the study of the British Bronze Age during the later twentieth century.  He contributed to the corpora of rapiers, swords and axes which all cover Scotland, like his textbook on the later Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age (The Age of Stonehenge 1980) but only once has Burgess surveyed the entire period throughout Britain, in the proceedings of a 1972 conference published in 1974.  An article published in the Archaeological Journal in 1969 sets out the later Bronze Age metalwork sequence for the British Isles with reference to the sequence for Brittany published shortly before, with the contents of chronological and regional groups for England and Wales in an appendix, though the Scottish sequence appears in the chronological table. Early and Middle Bronze Age industrial stages were set out in The Age of Stonehenge.

Coles included gold in his articles, but gold objects are often dealt with separately from bronze for practical reasons of access to the material.  Joan Taylor  – one of his students – covered Scotland in the geographical corpus which was the foundation of her study of Bronze Age goldwork of the British Isles, published in 1980 though compiled before 1973. George Eogan also included Scottish finds of the gold types he listed in The accomplished art (1994).  Neither study necessarily includes complete references to the Scottish finds listed.

Corpora of three types of Early Bronze Age pottery including Scotland appeared in 1970 (Beakers, D L Clarke), 1978 (Food Vessel Urns, T G Cowie) and 1984 (Collared Urns, I H Longworth also card index in British Museum), while an Edinburgh dissertation on Cinerary Urns (1958, J Barber) remains unpublished.

Work in Highland Scotland had begun to take shape and sites like Kilphedir in Sutherland (Fairhurst and Taylor 1971) extended the interest of roundhouse studies into the highland zone as George Jobey offered an alternative to Feachem’s sequence for northern timberbuilt roundhouses. Feachem’s (1965) suggestion that ring‐groove and ring‐ditch houses were not successive construction types was supported, but Jobey re‐asserted Steer’s (1955‐56) point that simple‐ring post‐built structures were Bronze Age in date. In his Burnswark Hill report, Jobey (1977‐78) attempted to re‐affirm the idea that post‐built houses pre‐dated those of wall‐slot construction. Jobey’s work at Green Knowe (Jobey 1980) and the Northumbrian settlement of Standrop Rigg (Jobey 1983), tackled the issues of platform settlement, ring‐bank construction, coppicing and agriculture, upland depopulation, and the damage to archaeology caused by afforestation. Jobey resisted the temptation to follow Piggott, Steer and Feachem in seeing development in north Britain as the result of southern immigrants. What we find in Jobey’s work is the origins of a reaction to culture‐historical approaches. Instead, enabled by his thorough reading of features and deposits and his appreciation of the problems of survival and excavation, Jobey began to move towards more detailed contextual interpretation at the level of the site. In the late 1970s, of particular note are the excavations of Bronze Age structures at Cùl a’Bhaile in Argyll as Colin Burgess’ (1980Age of Stonehenge brought together the Bronze Age settlement evidence for the first time. Some of the most influential work conducted in the 1990s was the excavation of wellpreserved unenclosed structures by John Barber (1997) at Kilpatrick and Tormore (Arran), as well as Lairg in Highland (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). In south‐west Scotland, the work of Jon Terry at Uppercleugh, Bodsberry Hill and Lintshie Gutter is now proving influential (Terry et al. 1993; Terry 19931995); the latter site providing some of our earliest C‐14 dates for roundhouse architecture. Patrick Ashmore summarized the Scottish Bronze Age in his comprehensive and authoritative book ‘Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland’ (1996); this remains the only work that covers the entirety of this subject.

1.2.4. 21st century

In a note to the 2001 reprint of The Age of Stonehenge Burgess admitted that the broader periods he used had not found acceptance, but his industrial stages (now called metalwork assemblages) have endured as the backbone of the relative chronology of the British Bronze Age.  The prevailing versions are set out in full only in chapter 6 of a volume on lead isotope analysis published in 1998, the work of Stuart Needham, for some thirty years Bronze Age curator in the British Museum. These metalwork assemblages reflect absolute chronology published in Needham’s contribution to the 1995 Verona conference (Acta Archaeologica 1996) where he divided the British Bronze Age into seven periods (plus the Early Iron Age which includes the last metalwork assemblage).  Further radiocarbon dates for Middle and Late Bronze Age metalwork were published by Needham and colleagues in the Archaeological Journal in 1997, but none of those dates was from Scotland (apart from one Early Bronze Age date from the Migdale hoard).  A summary version of Needham’s chronology for the Early and Middle Bronze Ages in southern Britain appeared in June 2010 and a simplified version including the Late Bronze Age is available as Table 2.

Illustration drawings of daggers and axe heads

Metalwork assemblage from Rohl and Needham 1998, 122. (Figure 23). These assemblages provide the basis for the sequence and chronology of the Scottish Bronze Age

Needham has also reviewed the first phase of bronze-working in Scotland – the Migdale-Marnoch tradition formulated by Dennis Britton in 1963 – in the proceedings of the Society’s Scotland in ancient Europe conference (published in 2004, which also included contributions on pre-Migdale metalwork (O’Connor), deposition of Early Bronze Age metalwork (Cowie), and faience (Sheridan and Shortland)) and provided the latest overview of the Beaker sequence (PPS 2005). Needham’s 2011 Rhind Lectures on the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age are available online.

Corpora of rapiers, swords and axes published in the Prähistorische Bronzefunde series and covering Scotland have already been mentioned. Scotland has been well-served by this series, in which published volumes also cover daggers, razors and sheet-metal vessels with volumes on Early/Middle Bronze Age spearheads and shields in preparation.  The corpora of rapiers and swords have both subsequently been updated. These metalwork finds are normally included in the Royal Commission’s online database, CANMORE. New finds, including those by metal detector, are normally reported to the National Museum under Treasure Trove procedure then recorded in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. This facilitates full publication of important finds and updating of corpora.

The possibilities of radiocarbon-dating cremated bone have been fully exploited in Scotland by Sheridan in a series of papers on Cinerary Urns (2003), Food Vessels (2004) and Beakers (2007b), whose value is amplified by similar work on Irish urns (Brindley The dating of Food Vessels and Urns in Ireland 2007), which has greatly improved the absolute chronology of the Early Bronze Age. Dating of daggers graves has also contributed to Early Bronze Age absolute chronology (Rameldry; Baker et al 2003); Lockerbie Academy Kirby 2011; Forteviot in course of study, all building on the corpus of Henshall (1968)). New radiocarbon dates for Bronze Age finds are published annually in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland; these have recently included many dates for Early Bronze Age burials as part of the Beaker People and the Beakers and Bodies Projects.

More recent excavations at the site of Kintore in Aberdeenshire provide a wealth of new information on ring‐ditch structures (Cook and Dunbar 2008), and recent developer‐funded excavations continue apace including new and important sites in the west such as Aird Quarry and The Carrick, as well as Upper Forth Crossing in the east. Mike Parker Pearson’s work at Cladh Hallan, South Uist (Parker Pearson et al. 2005) has produced not only evidence of remarkable treatment of the dead, but through the excavation and sampling approach undertaken has permitted a detailed interpeataion of house architecture and use

1.2.5. Summary chronology and associated artefacts

The table below summarises a chronology for Scotland base on artefact types. Although, as it will be seen, this chronology does not reveal what appear to be obvious changes for example around 1400BC in the settlement record, the period subdivisions are used to subdivide the Scottish Bronze Age in the overview chapter that follows.

Table 2: Summary chronology and associated artefact types for Scotland (based on Needham et al 2010 Table 1 and Needham 1996 Fig 3 for the Southern British Bronze Age). It is not clear whether any iron objects can confidently be dated to this period.

Period Metalwork assemblage
1. Copper 2450-2200 Copper axes etc
Early Beaker pottery
Copper axes, halberds, knives, sheet gold
2. EBA 2200-1950 Migdale> Colleonard
Beaker/Food Vessel/Vase Urn
Bronze flat axes, flat daggers, halberds, bronze and gold ornaments. Knowes of Trotty Barrow 1. Rameldry dagger grave. Finglenny>Migdale>Colleonard hoards.
3. EBA 1950-1750 Bunrannoch
Beaker/Food Vessel/Urns
Raised-edge and decorated axes, Armorico-British daggers. ?Barnhill dagger grave. Bunrannoch hoard.
4. EBA 1750-1550 Gavel Moss
Collared/Cordoned Urns
Long-flanged axes, Arreton daggers, tanged spearheads. Gavel Moss hoard.
5. MBA 1550-1150 Caverton>Glentrool>Mugdrum
Bucket Urn
Short-flanged axes, few palstaves, Group I-III dirks and rapiers, few imported swords, eg Mugdrum, looped spearheads. Glentrool hoard.
6. LBA 1150-950 Poldar Moss
Bucket Urn
Palstaves, earliest socketed axes, Group IV dirks and rapiers, looped spearheads, few gold ornaments, cauldrons, few imported swords, eg Poldar Moss.
7. LBA 950-800 St Andrews
Bucket Urn/’Flat-rimmed ware’
Various socketed axes, Ewart Park swords, spearheads, sheet-metal vessels and shields, bronze and gold ornaments. Many hoards, eg St Andrews.
Earliest iron, if only ring from Balmashanner hoard.
8. EIA 800-600 Poolewe
‘Flat rimmed ware’
Sompting axes, Gündlingen swords. Poolewe hoard.
Any iron objects confidently datable to this period?

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