Case Study: Teasing out regional settlement traditions

Pope (2015) has identified three major regional traditions of settlement for parts of the Scottish mainland through the synthesis of the C14 dated roundhouses (currently c.100 dated structures): 1) unenclosed platform settlements, in the southern uplands; 2) ring-ditch settlements, predominantly along the eastern coastal plain; and 3) coastal houses in the north and west (largely Caithness and around Argyll). These broad regional traditions exist across the Bronze Age, but seem to reach their ‘peak’ during the Middle Bronze Age.

Within these broad settlement traditions Pope has identified three main Bronze Age architectural types: 1) ring-banks; 2) post-built structures; and 3) polygonal ring-grooves. Of these, the ring-bank was the major house type in some areas of Scotland. With later Neolithic origins, the ring-bank is first found at unenclosed platform settlements. From here the ring-bank went on to become a very versatile architectural form with diversity in both use of materials and building practices: largely upland, but also found in coastal lowlands; popular in the far north; and found in a real variety of landscapes during the Later Bronze Age.

The second key house type in Bronze Age northern mainland Britain was the post-built structure. Jobey was correct in re-asserting Steer’s (1956) belief that post-rings were a Bronze Age type (contra. Feachem 1965). Now known to have Early Bronze Age origins on the lower slopes (120-130m) of hills in the north and west, post-built structures became a key feature of the eastern lowlands throughout the Later Bronze Age, increasing in size and circularity after 1200 BC. The question now is whether it is possible to see post-built structures as a structural variant of the more usual ring-bank type.

Both Feachem and Jobey saw large double-ring structures as an Iron Age development. In fact, it is now recognised that they have clear Early Bronze Age origins and became particularly common in the southern uplands, as simple rings remained popular in the eastern lowlands, particularly at older sites (Pope forthcoming). Similarly, Feachem and Jobey both saw the third house type – the ring-groove – as an Iron Age development. Whilst circular ring-grooves are an artefact of the Later Iron Age, the northern Bronze Age reveals a polygonal pre-cursor.

A photograph showing people excavating deposits of a circular platform on a sloping landscape with fields and a road in the background

The excavation of a Bronze Age House Platform at Lintshie Gutter, South Lanarkshire ©West of Scotland Archaeology Service. Licensor

The 17th century BC origin of the polygonal ring-groove house heralds, simultaneously in  a phase of real architectural innovation, simultaneously in upland and lowland landscapes, a phase of real architectural innovation. Ring-grooves, however, became a key feature of the lowlands – contemporary with the formation of the first ring-ditches. Unlike more traditional types (ring-banks and post-built structures), lowland ring-grooves survived social change around 1400 BC; however by the 13th century BC they had become rare, replaced by the more traditional post-built structure as the main lowland type. At the same time we see repeated rebuilding at coastal sites in the north and west and a return to upland platform settlements.

The distribution of settlement is now hard to reconstruct. Subsequent land use seems to have eroded almost any upstanding settlement at lower altitudes (say below 100m OD) but in general most buildings do not occur much above 300 m OD.

Return to Section 3.3 Settlement, Landuse and Resources

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