Periods 6 & 7: Late Bronze Age, c 12th –8th C BC and Early Iron Age transition

Post-built structures became a feature of Later Bronze Age lowland landscapes along the east coast and, by the 12t century BC, were increasingly large and circular suggesting larger households. Settlement on the western mainland was predominantly coastal and focussed south of the Firth of Lorn.

After 1000 BC, settlement became even more coastal, with inland areas only really occupied around the Forth: in Perthshire, Lothian and the Borders. Although unenclosed platform settlements saw occupation across the 2nd millennium BC, a C-14 gap is found in the 10th century BC, and it remains possible that upland settlement instead moved into palisaded enclosures at this time. Instead, the 10th century BC dates are from lowland ring-banks and post-built structures. Settlement continued in many 2nd millennium BC lowland landscapes – as at Kintore, Aberdeenshire and at the Upper Forth Crossing – with the re-facing of older coastal structures as at Upper Suisgill and Cùl a’Bhaile. By the 9th century BC, there was an apparent return to ancestral unenclosed platform settlements (Green Knowe, Kilearnan Hill). Platforms were again utilised as people began occupying ring-banks at very high altitudes (Carn Dubh and Eildon Hill North at 405 m) in high visibility/highly visible locations, in common with suspected Late Bronze Age occupation of landmark, hilltop sites such as Traprain Law.

Crannogs such as  Oakbank Crannog, Loch Tay are a feature of this period. Two burnt mounds in Orkney, Liddle and Beaquoy, date to the late Bronze Age and have distinctive complex internal arrangements of tanks and drains (Hedges 1975).

Towards the end of the Bronze Age there is a period of disruption in the settlement record, beginning after 850 BC (Pope forthcoming). First is an apparent decline in occupation of the western mainland: the last upland date from Balloch Hill, Argyll at c 800 BC, slightly later in the western lowlands at Aird Quarry (Dumfries and Galloway) and Ednie (Aberdeenshire). Meanwhile in the eastern lowlands, by 800BC, traditional post-built houses and ring-banks disappear. An apparent ‘re-organisation’ of lowland settlement takes place in favour of turf-walled ring-ditch structures, a type which had by this time been absent for two centuries. These structures occupy the east coast after c. 780 BC at Kintore, (Aberdeenshire) Douglasmuir (Angus) and Dryburn Bridge (East Lothian). Meanwhile occupation declined in the eastern uplands by c. 750 BC (Eildon Hill North, Selkirk and Kilearnan Hill, Highland), after which no dated upland houses are known until the 5th century BC at Carn Dubh. Settlement contracted to the east coast, as these arguably more sedentary ring-ditch households engaging in mixed pastoralism came to characterise the Early Iron Age. This LBA-EIA ‘re-organisation of settlement’ utilises traditional sites and familiar landscapes, as well as an indigenous ring-groove house type.

A photograph showing a row of six mostly intact Bronze Age swords, a bronze hoop, a smaller flattened ring, and a small disc

LBA sword hoard, Grosvenor Crescent, Edinburgh ©NMS This hoard from the West End of Edinburgh forms part of a group of sword finds in Mid- and East Lothian.  Deposition of seven complete swords is significant on a European scale.

Forts and Enclosures in the Late Bronze Age

Syntheses of settlement have always struggled with the chronologies of forts and other settlement enclosures. For 19th century antiquaries it was the general lack of artefacts, which made excavation such an unrewarding prospect, but despite some limited work by David Christison following up his exhaustive district surveys, and in the 1930s excavations by Gordon Childe (see Ralston 2009, 73-5, note 39), no real progress was made until the excavations of the Piggotts in the late 1940s and 50s. The chronology that emerged, however, familiarly known as the Hownam Sequence after the fort of Hownam Rings excavated by Mrs C M Piggott (1948) in the northern Cheviots, was severely compressed, and remained so despite Stuart Piggott’s best efforts (1966) until the first application of radiocarbon dating to forts at Craigmarloch Wood in Renfrewshire, Finavon in Angus (Mackie 1969), and Huckhoe in Northumberland (Jobey 1968). While Jobey discussed the possibility that some of the palisaded enclosures of Northumberland and southern Scotland might be Late Bronze Age in date rather than Early Iron Age, the plateau in the calibration curve effectively prevented any precise resolution, and the main thrust of his own work concentrated on unenclosed round-houses to push the settlement record back into the Bronze Age.

Nevertheless, Jobey was well aware of the assemblage of bronze tools from Traprain Law (Jobey 1976), which at the very least seemed to attest a Late Bronze Age occupation if not a fortification, and radiocarbon dates from his excavation of the ramparts at Burnswark in Dumfriesshire also hinted that some of the other large forts known as minor oppidda might well have their origins in the Late Bronze Age (Jobey 1978). More recent work at Eildon Hill North (Owen 1992) and Edinburgh Castle (Driscoll and Yeoman 1997) has also uncovered evidence of Late Bronze Age occupation, but in neither case can it be demonstrated that there are contemporary defences. More recently still in East Lothian, however, Colin Haselgrove obtained a series of Late Bronze Age radiocarbon dates from enclosures at Standingstone and Whittingehame; two comparable dates were also obtained from an evaluation of a fort at East Linton (Haselgrove 2009); while the taphonomy of some of the samples is not without its problems (see Sharples 2011 review), at face value these dates relate to phases of enclosure.

The bulk of the settlement enclosures that contribute to the regional character of the archaeology of south-eastern Scotland are almost certainly Iron Age in date, but it seems likely that the origins of this regional character originate in the Late Bronze Age. Whether this holds more generally for the forts that are found across the rest of Scotland has yet to be tested. By far the majority of these latter are minor works, but amongst them there is a series of larger enclosures, often occupying prominent topographical features in the manner that is familiar from Traprain Law, Eildon Hill North and Burnswark (see Halliday and Ralston forthcoming); it would be surprising if some of these were not occupied in the Late Bronze Age.

Only with the Ewart Park assemblage (named after the sword find close to the Scottish Border) did the swords and socketed axes that traditionally define the Late Bronze Age become common in Scotland. Hoards also became common again only at this time. Alongside Scottish axe types (Highfield type, etc) occur types more common in northern England (notably Yorkshire type). Irish axes also occur (though thorough study of Eogan’s corpus is still required to distinguish these from similar Scottish types).

Bronze ornaments distinguish Scottish hoards from those in southern Britain. Penannular bracelets are most characteristic. Pins probably derive from Ireland. Gold ornaments also became common, though many appear to have been imports. Bracelets of British form are found in southern Scotland, while Irish forms are numerous in the west and north, like Irish dress fasteners.

Most types characteristic of Carp’s Tongue (including copper ingots) or Broadward hoards in southern Britain are rare or absent from Scotland. One iron object belongs to this phase, a small ring in the Balmashanner hoard, consistent with the few small iron objects from probable Ewart Park contexts in northern England.

Only two Scottish hoards (Poolewe (Ross), Lamancha (Peebles)) can be attributed to the Llyn Fawr assemblage, but moulds (Rosskeen (Ross), Dunagoil (Bute)) indicate that Sompting axes were being made in Scotland and Gündlingen swords also occur. The sword from the Clyde near Renfrew has recently been identified as a rare import from continental Europe in Scotland. No iron objects appear to be associated with bronzes of this phase.

Evidence is emerging for a variety of different monuments attributable to the Late Bronze Age. A type of henge monument identified by Richard Bradley, of which two examples have been excavated (Bradley 2011). Late Bronze Age dates have been ascertained from an earth house at Ness Breck, Mainland Orkney (Carruthers and Lee forthcoming). Burial evidence from the period is however, as in the Early Iron Age, scarce.

Key features / research questions:

  1. Re-use of ancient monuments, especially recumbent stone circles; continuing construction of kerb cairns. Cremation remains the main funerary practice, but at Covesea cave children’s heads apparently used in ceremonial manner. (This is notwithstanding that the vertebrae with cut-marks have been found to be of Iron Age date.)
  2. Small, slightly oval stone circles being built early 1st millennium BC (as suggested at Croft Moraig).
  3. The emergence of hilltop enclosed settlements and other enclosed settlements; more roundhouses found from developer-funded excavations. This also includes Cladh Hallan with its distinctive practice of using preserved ancestral remains as foundation deposits.
  4. Further debate is required regarding the possible effects of further climate shift towards cooler, wetter conditions.
  5. What happened around 1000BC to revive metalworking in Scotland?