Period 2: The earliest Bronze Age (22nd–20thC BC)

For parts of Scotland, the rapid switch to bronze-using during the 22nd century seems to have ushered in a period of great change, reflected mainly in the expression perhaps of marked status distinctions in funerary monuments. The adoption of bronze (and the inception of the Migdale-Marnoch bronze manufacturing tradition in the North East – the first unequivocal evidence for metal production in Scotland) necessitated the operation of a yet more complex network of contacts than hitherto, over which copper from south-west Ireland (and elsewhere(?)), and tin (almost certainly in ingot form) from south-west England, travelled. Status distinction – which, for the first time, includes female differentiation – is reflected in the following ways:

  1. For men (mostly senior adult males): continuation and elaboration of the Period 1 tradition, including daggers/knives (as, for instance, at Forteviot), ornate archery equipment and the use of jet and jet-like buttons; also bronze jewellery, and stone battle axeheads. In the case of the Migdale hoard – which seems to comprise a high-ranking man’s possessions – evocations of Bavarian fashions (e.g. in the graded bronze bangles and the sheet bronze jewellery, possibly from a head-dress) suggest long-distance links;
  2. For women: jet and jet-like jewellery (especially spacer plate necklaces, skeuomorphs of Irish gold lunulae) and metal jewellery (e.g. bronze armlets, for instance from Melfort and Masterton).
  3. Some ‘rich’ child graves are also known, as in the case of two from Doune (Hamilton 1957), one associated with a miniature battle axehead, the other with a miniature macehead.
A photograph showing two rows of flat axe heads, four on the top, three on the bottom. Three are broken in half.

Hoard of Early Bronze Age flat axes from Hill of Finglenny, Aberdeenshire © NMS Some of the axes have been deliberately broken. The hoard was deposited near the possibly contemporary enclosure of Wormy Hillock

For both sexes, conspicuous consumption in the construction of the funerary monument is evident, such as in the size and/or construction of the cist itself, the siting of cist graves in pre-existing sacred monuments, or the construction of large and imposing cairns. If the Clava cairns and recumbent stone circles had not been constructed during Period 1, they would have been constructed during this period, and they appear to represent  regionally-specific high status funerary monuments.

The areas in which burials display the most obvious evidence for status differentiation (such as the Kilmartin Glen and around the northern end of the Great Glen, parts of eastern Scotland) are areas that probably had greater access to key resources such as metal and agricultural surpluses respectively.  Very active networks of interaction operated, with north-east Ireland/south-west Scotland/Great Glen/north-east Scotland being a major conduit for metal from Ireland, and south-west Scotland/east Scotland/north-east England being another network, around which jet jewellery made by specialist producers near Whitby circulated. The recent discovery (through isotopic analysis) that the aforementioned rich male from a cist at Culduthel, near Inverness, had grown up in north-east Ireland is but one of several pieces of evidence for links between Ireland and north-east Scotland (the others including the Irish Bowl Food Vessel from Seafield West and the gold lunula and hair ornaments from Orbliston, Moray). In the heart of Argyllshire, to the south of the southern end of the Great Glen, rich and/or imposing graves in the Kilmartin Glen attest to links with Ireland, evidenced by Irish-style Food Vessels, and carvings of flat axeheads on cist slabs; with north-east Scotland (as in the partial infilling of the Temple Wood South stone circle to form a ring cairn, reminiscent of a Clava ring cairn); and with Yorkshire (as in the Whitby jet jewellery and in the unique footed Food Vessel from Upper Largie, which embodies both Yorkshire and Irish traits).

In terms of ceramics, this is the period during which most Scottish Beakers were manufactured (i.e. Needham’s ‘fission period’ – which may have started as early as c 2300 BC), but it is also the period when the Food Vessel tradition was adopted, and when the first cinerary urns were used. It appears that the practice of using Food Vessels was adopted from Ireland and from north-east England (especially Yorkshire), probably as a fashionable novel alternative to Beaker pottery; there is no evidence to suggest that it developed within Scotland (although Scottish variants did subsequently emerge). In Aberdeenshire and Moray, it appears that most of the inhabitants preferred to continue using Beakers while further south, in Tayside and Fife, Food Vessel use became popular. The earliest cinerary urns – which developed as part of the Food Vessel tradition – were used in Scotland during the 22nd or 21st century BC and reflect the beginning of a trend towards cremation as the preferred method of disposal of the dead. A variety of funerary practices were in use: while the inhumation of unburnt, crouched bodies in cists, usually either in flat cemeteries or under mounds, is the commonest mainland practice, enclosed and unenclosed cemeteries featuring the deposition of cremated remains, either in-urned or un-urned, are known from this period, as are other practices. The sealing of some Neolithic megalithic monuments may well have occurred during this period, as well as the re-use of such monuments for burial (as at Embo, Highland, for example). At Eweford, East Lothian, non-funerary ceremonial activity at an ancient, Early Neolithic long mound is attested with the deposition of thousands of barley grains, and their ceramic container, on the mound. Elsewhere, the deposition of metalwork in special locations in the landscape, presumably as a votive act, is attested (Cowie 2004).

Considerable regional variability existed, although its details tend to be unclear in many areas. The phenomena described above tend to apply to parts of mainland Scotland (although including the southern Hebrides and Clyde islands). Orkney seems to have been on the northern periphery of mainland developments and networks: there is little Beaker pottery (and what is there includes non-mainstream variants); ‘classic’ single crouched interments in cists are relatively rare, with cremation appearing to be the preferred funerary rite; and high-status objects are few (mainly comprising one bronze flat dagger, a spacer plate from a jet necklace and a V-perforated button of albertite). Shetland appears to have followed its own, insular trajectory.

For most of Scotland for this early Bronze Age period the evidence is heavily biased towards funerary and artefactual finds, with relatively little known about settlement and land use. The exception is the Western Isles, where the evidence is skewed towards the latter (e.g. at Northton, Dalmore and Cnip), and sandhills areas such as Glenluce (where the nature of the activities needs to be understood better). Occupation continues at the platform settlement of Lintshie Gutter, whilst in the east a solitary roundhouse is found at the long‐term lowland site of Upper Forth Crossing. Overall, few houses currently date to this period.

Burnt mounds dating to Period 2 have been found near Crawford in Lanarkshire, and at Stair Lodge in Dumfries and Galloway (Ashmore 1996, 83). A burnt mound dating to a little earlier than these (Period 1) was excavated on Machrie Moor, Arran (op. cit.)

Key research questions relating to this period:

What was the nature of settlement and land use? Old finds of settlement evidence (as at Muirkirk, Ayrshire) could usefully be revisited; the question of where occupation assocaited with Kilmartin Glen monuments is located; and a round-up of all the settlement and land use evidence for this period from the whole of Scotland is recommended.

What was going on in those parts of Scotland where the main trends noted above are not evident? In particular, the regional narratives for Shetland, Orkney, the north-west Mainland and the central Highlands need to be fleshed out (if indeed there was an appreciable presence in these last two areas).

What was the nature of the long-distance links (as in the case of the Lumphanan neck rings and ceramic influences on Beaker design in north-east Scotland) with Central Europe, southern Germany and with early Veluwe Netherlands?

How did the flow of objects and materials circulate around Britain and Ireland? Where there, for instance, materials and artefacts or even people, animals or secondary products, taken to Ireland in exchange for Irish copper, and how was the supply of material organised? Whilst the BPP/B&P projects have produced evidence for reciprocal human movement between Scotland and Yorkshire, what was the nature and scale of exchange activities or of specialist production, and what can the Scottish evidence contribute to these wider questions?

Burial and society – what can burial from this period tell us about how was society organised? Can the funerary evidence can be taken as some indicator of the nature of social organisation, of women were being accorded richly furnished burials, in apparent contrast to EBA Period 1?