Periods 3 & 4: The rest of the Early Bronze Age, 20thC – 1700/1600 BC

Ceramically and in terms of funerary practices, the trends observed for Period 2 continued, with a switch to cremation (mostly in-urned) as the preferred practice over most of Scotland, but with various practices remaining in use, and regional variability as evident as ever. In his Britain-wide re-evaluation of Beaker use, Stuart Needham (2005) characterised this period as marking the end of Beaker use: ‘Beaker as past reference’. Late Beakers, and ‘Beaker-Food Vessel hybrid’ forms, belong to this period, as do the earliest Collared Urns – an urn design which was adopted from further south in England, and then adapted in northern and western Britain and eastern Ireland to become the ‘Cordoned Urn’. In Orkney, the use of steatite urns attests to links with Shetland during this period. Differentiation in grave goods is less marked than in previous periods, although some high-status objects (e.g. daggers) are known from funerary contexts. Both flat (unenclosed and enclosed) and mound-based cemeteries were in use, with many of the latter constituting additions to pre-existing mounds.

A photograph of three complete and highly polished decorated metal objects comprising two axe heads and a dagger

Early Bronze Age hoard from Gavel Moss, Renfrewshire (Clarke et al. 1985)©NMS This hoard represents the final phase of the Early Bronze Age in Scotland and is part of a small concentration of metalwork on the modern boundary of Renfrewshire and Ayrshire.

Contacts between Scotland and other parts of Britain and Ireland continued, but patterns of interaction may have changed as the Ross Island copper source fell out of use and other copper sources started to be exploited. They also seem to have changed as the focus for design innovation and trend-setting switched from Ireland and northern Britain to inland Wessex, where particularly rich graves were being created for the elite. (See Needham 2000, 2009, 2010, Needham and Woodward 2008 and Needham et al. 2006 for a detailed and authoritative account of the complexities of this period in Wessex.) It is a matter for debate whether a possible elite represented by the rich graves achieved control of resources of tin and copper (as well as on an appropriation of the spiritual power of Stonehenge and related monuments), and whether those elsewhere emulated  Wessex fashions– most strikingly at the Knowes of Trotty in Orkney. Here, in the principal mound in a linear barrow cemetery reminiscent of those seen in Wessex, cremated remains dated to the 20th –19th century BC were associated with components of an old and worn amber spacer plate necklace, several prismatic and hook-shaped amber ornaments (unique to this grave) and four gold foil discs. The latter had probably been mounted on low conical organic objects and worn, with the prismatic and hook-shaped ornaments, on a special garment, perhaps a cape (cf. the Mold Cape, an elite garment that may have been made and used in Wales, in this case interpreted as a direct challenge to the authority of the Wessex elite, rather than as an attempt to emulate Wessex fashions.) The amber spacer plate necklace and prismatic beads, and the inspiration behind the decorated gold foil discs, could possibly have come directly from Wessex and it seems likely that an individual from Orkney had travelled by boat, the length of Britain, to Wessex. Other evidence suggesting emulation of Wessex fashions in Scotland includes a cannel coal skeuomorph of a Bush Barrow-style belt hook found at Law Hill, Dundee, the sheet gold discs from Barnhill, Angus, and a handful of daggers with close parallels in Wessex; but these need not have resulted from direct contact between ‘Scottish’ and ‘southern English’ people. Similarly, the use of faience, and the know-how to make it, might have been adopted from southern England as part of the same general process of emulation (but see Sheridan and Shortland 2004 for a fuller account).

Other evidence relating to prestige objects is less obviously linked to an emulation of Wessex fashions. In terms of metalwork, this concerns Needham’s ‘Metalwork Assemblages IV and V’, and among its developments can be seen the evolution of the dagger into a dirk and then into a rapier, suggesting a change in the nature or style of combat.

Evidence for settlements and land use is again irregularly distributed around Scotland, with domestic assemblages within the Food Vessel tradition known from the Hebrides (e.g. at Kilellan and Ardnave on Islay, and Sligeanach on South Uist); elsewhere, the earliest unenclosed platform settlements were in use in the southern uplands, with their own, southern Scottish-northern English style of domestic pottery as in the ring-banks of Lintshie Gutter and Bodsberry Hill, which seem to demonstrate continuity from the Chalcolithic period in the south-west (Pope forthcoming). Meanwhile Blairhall Burn, as well as Lairg to the north, each has a new post-built house dating to this period.  The stone built houses at Crossiecrown in Orkeny fall out of use within this period (Jones et al. 2010). The Ness of Gruting and Sumburgh timber built houses, both in Shetland falls within this time range as does a solitary timber roundhouse at the Upper Forth Crossing  site in the central valley. The key date for the settlement evidence in this period is 1800 BC, after which we see settlement  and consequent arboreal clearance flourish in both upland and lowland landscapes.

In terms of non-funerary monuments, there is evidence from Upper Largie and from Broomend of Crichie for the construction of timber circles during this period; and the practice of depositing precious items (especially of metalwork) in wetlands or other significant locations continued.

Key research questions include:

  1. What was the overall extent of habitation during this period, and how many of the extant upland house structures, or antecedents of them, are likely to date to this time?
  2. What was the nature of land use during this period? Are many of the sub-peat field walls likely to be of this date, and how were these land divisions used?
  3. What other funerary and non-funerary monument types were constructed or used at his time?
  4. What are the regional narratives for this period

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