Bronze Age Executive Summary

Why research Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Scotland?

Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Scotland is traditionally defined by the introduction and use of copper and copper alloys for the manufacture of tools, ornaments and weapons. It is, however much more than that, forming a less than well-understood ‘tunnel’ into which the Neolithic ‘cattle train’ disappears to emerge as an ‘iron horse’ two millennia later. Gradually, what has occurred in the tunnel is being elucidated, as research reveals sites and objects, assumed to have been from earlier or later periods, to be of Bronze Age date, whether it be hillforts, Clava cairns, recumbent stone circles and small henges in north-east Scotland, or, of course, hut-circles. Bronze metallurgy, by virtue of its dependance on supplies of copper and tin (and gold) from often distant sources, provides a category of evidence through which the place of Scotland in a wider system of exchange and circulation can be explored, and allows precious insight into the dynamics of contacts at this period of prehistory. The very nature of Bronze Age technology dictated that Scotland was to become part of an international network facilitating the distribution of metal and other materials, and tracing links with communities in Ireland, England and Europe is a growing research area.

The Scottish Chalcolithic and Bronze Age also offer a uniquely strong data set to study the effects of climate and environmental change on past communities. Palaeoenvironmental data for the period is strong, supplemented by increasing evidence of settlement systems. This was a period of dramatic social, economic, and cultural change, characterised by changes in social stratification, rich regional diversity and an increase in inter-regional, indeed international, interaction, and development of the landscape both as a physical and cosmological resource. The period is now being appreciated on its’ own terms and the fascinating insight it can provide both as a coherent region, and within a European context.

Panel Task and Remit

The panel remit was to review critically the current state of knowledge and consider promising areas of future research into Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Scotland. This was undertaken with a view to improved understanding of all aspects of what happened in Scotland from the appearance of metallurgy and other Beaker-related innovations in the 25th century BC up until the early 8th century BC and the beginnings of the Iron Age.

The resultant report, outlines the different areas of research in which archaeologists interested in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age work, and highlights the research topics to which they aspire. The report is structured by theme: The History of Bronze Age studies in Scotland; Interconnecting Issues; Lifeways and Lifestyles; Material Culture, Technologies and Use of Resources; and Identity, Society, Belief Systems. The document is reinforced by material on-line which provides further detail and resources. The Chalcolithic and Bronze Age panel report of ScARF is intended as a resource to be utilised, built upon, and kept updated, hopefully by those it has helped inspire and inform as well as those who follow in them.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarised under five key headings:

  1. Building the Scottish Bronze Age: Narratives should be developed to account for the regional and chronological trends and diversity within Scotland at this time. A chronology based upon Scottish as well as external evidence, combining absolute dating (and the statistical modelling thereof)  with re-examined typologies based on a variety of sources – material cultural, funerary, settlement, and environmental evidence – is required to construct a robust and up to date framework for advancing research.
  2. Bronze Age people: How society was structured and demographic questions need to be imaginatively addressed including the degree of mobility (both short and long-distance communication), hierarchy, and the nature of the ‘family’ and the ‘individual’. A range of data and methodologies need to be employed in answering these questions, including harnessing experimental archaeology systematically to inform archaeologists of the practicalities  of daily  life, work  and craft practices.
  3. Environmental evidence and climate impact: The opportunity to study the effects of climatic and environmental change on past society is an important feature of this period, as both palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data can be of suitable chronological and spatial resolution to be compared. Palaeoenvironmental work should be more effectively integrated within Bronze Age research, and inter-disciplinary approaches promoted at all stages of research and project design. This should be a two-way process, with environmental science contributing to interpretation of prehistoric societies, and in turn, the value of archaeological data to broader palaeoenvironmental debates emphasised. Through effective collaboration questions such as the nature of settlement and land-use and how people coped with environmental and climate change can be addressed.
  4. Artefacts in Context: The Scottish Chalcolithic and Bronze Age provide good evidence for resource exploitation and the use, manufacture and development of technology, with particularly rich evidence for manufacture. Research into these topics requires the application of innovative approaches in combination. This could include biographical approaches to artefacts or places, ethnographic perspectives, and scientific analysis of artefact composition. In order to achieve this there is a need for collation, robust and sustainable databases and a review of the categories of data.
  5. Wider Worlds: Research into the Scottish Bronze Age has a considerable amount to offer other European pasts, with a rich archaeological data set that includes intact settlement deposits, burials and metalwork of every stage of development that has been the subject of a long history of study. Research should operate over different scales of analysis, tracing connections and developments from the local and regional, to the international context. In this way, Scottish Bronze Age studies can contribute to broader questions relating both to the Bronze Age and to human society in general.




Hoard of Early Bronze Age flat axes from Hill of Finglenny, Aberdeenshire © NMS


“The Scottish Chalcolithic and Bronze Age also offer a uniquely strong data set to study the effects of climate and environmental change on past communities.”

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