The study of Bronze Age material culture in Scotland has traditionally been dominated by metalwork (copper, bronze and gold) and mainly Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age ceramic vessels due to their relative ubiquity and 19th century concerns of value and aesthetics. Until recently, only Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age flint and coarse stone ‘prestige’ objects such as barbed and tanged arrowheads, bracers and battle-axes received comparable attention. There is now a welcome emphasis on quartz as well as on later stone/flint assemblages. Rarer materials such as amber, faience and jet ornaments were frequently recorded and discussed but it has only been in recent decades that they have been researched systematically. The Bronze Age material world would have been dominated by objects made from wood textiles and animal/vegetable/plant fibres which generally do not survive in the archaeological record in Scotland. However, the preservation of these materials in many waterlogged contexts has ensured that their contribution has not been ignored. Less fortunately, it is also probable that bone objects would also have played a significant role but their preservation is rare in mainland Scotland. The concept of a ‘Bronze Age’ misleadingly suggests that bronze metal immediately replaced other materials. In reality, it appears that copper objects were initially imported from Ireland from c. 2500-2200 BC and were only subsequently supplanted by bronze objects. However, if the depositional record from hoards and single finds is representative, then it is only in the mid-late 2nd millennium BC that bronze objects were genuinely widespread in all activities which would coincide with the eventual decline in the expertise and organisation in the production of flint objects.
Research relating to Bronze Age material culture in Scotland has sought to analyse production materials and techniques, form, decorative motifs, use-wear, movement and deposition. In recent decades, cross-craft and cross-material relationships have been explored due to the relatively rare phenomenon of prolific scholars having expertise in two or more materials. The bridging of the traditional metal-ceramic-flint-organic scholarly divides is welcome as there is little evidence to imply that such separation reflected prehistoric realities. Multiple materials were used to make virtually all objects whether they were reflected in the final form (e.g. Early Bronze Age daggers and dagger hilts) or were discarded as debris (e.g. ceramic, stone or sand moulds for all cast bronze objects). The clear implication is that the majority of Bronze Age craft involved expertise that was cross-material.
Where it is possible to assess, communities obtained raw materials and/or finished objects with a combination of local exploitation of resources (e.g. coarse stone in the Northern Isles) and connections to far-flung regions beyond Scotland (e.g. tin from southwest England or jet from northeast England). However, it is assumed that the majority of material culture made from wood, bone, plants and animals would have been locally sourced and worked with widespread expertise being evidenced or suggested during the preceding Neolithic. The virtual absence of Bronze Age material workshops reflects a broader pattern throughout Britain as well as the barely visible archaeological consequences of many manufacturing practices such as (re-)casting metal in sand/clay moulds, the firing of ceramics, the carving of wood or the weaving of textiles. The use of local materials for a new or more complex production technology (e.g. firing of thin-walled Beaker vessels using locally available clay) or the deposition of objects involved in manufacturing (e.g. stone and clay moulds for metal objects at the sites of Jarlshof and Cladh Hallan or in the Migdale-Marnoch region) strongly suggests local craft expertise. This is harder to demonstrate where the objects are found in Scotland and elsewhere, are relatively rare and require a very high level of craft expertise (e.g. complex sheet metalworking for shields, cauldrons and buckets).
Establishing the patterns of circulation and use of objects prior to deposition remains a challenge although significant progress has been made (e.g. see copper/bronze below). This is mainly due to the difficulty in: tracing the source of the material; the place where an object made; finding and interpreting use-wear. The growing awareness that objects could have been in circulation for generations before being deposited, possibly as ‘heirlooms’, raises complex possibilities. Modern excavation techniques in research, developer-funded and public-related excavations (e.g. finds through Treasure Trove) have dramatically improved the recording and publishing of the contexts of object deposition. For instance, it is now possible to make accurate comparisons of the arrangement of material culture and the body at funerary sites or the landscape context of bronze hoards. The bias towards objects which were deliberately placed in the ground rather than recycled, inorganic rather than organic materials and the regions with high, rather than low, levels of archaeological activity will naturally remain.