2.2.1 The Atlantic, ‘Breton’ Neolithic

A simple outline of Britain and France showing a distribution of sites on the west coast of France, Wales and Scotland, and along the northern coast of Ireland

Figure a: The Atlantic façade, ‘Breton’ Neolithic strand of Neolithisation: distribution of megalithic closed polygonal chambers and simple passage tombs. From Sheridan 2010

This is found on the western seaboard of Scotland – where it forms part of an Atlantic façade coastal scatter (Figure a) – and is currently attested solely by funerary monuments (in the form of small closed polygonal megalithic chambers and simple passage tombs) and by pottery. These constitute the earliest funerary monuments and the earliest pottery in Britain and Ireland, and the origin of both lies in the Morbihan region of south-eastern Brittany (Sheridan 2010a).

The best-known site is Achnacreebeag, Argyll and Bute (J.N.G. Ritchie 1970; Figure b): this is a two-phase monument, consisting of a polygonal chamber in a low round cairn, succeeded by a simple passage tomb, with a cairn extension that makes the cairn pear-shaped. (See Ritchie 1970 for other similar monuments in the region.)

The pottery (Figure c) was found in the passage tomb and consists of a decorated bipartite bowl of Late Castellic style, along with sherds of two other pots that are of types in contemporary use with Late Castellic pottery in the Morbihan. (Incidentally, the resemblance between the Late Castellic bowl and its progenitors in Brittany had been pointed out as long ago as 1975, by Gérard Bailloud (Bailloud 1975). Furthermore, it should be noted that an attempt was made, by Gwenaëlle Hamon on behalf of Alison Sheridan, to determine through thin-section petrography whether the Achnacreebeag pots could have been made in Brittany; unfortunately, the fineness of the fabric made it impossible to determine this.)

An illustration showing the ground plan of a sub-oval stone built structure approximately 20 metres by 16 metres with a large chamber to the east and smaller chamber to the west

Figure b: Plan and section of Achnacreebeag chamber tomb, with closed polygonal chamber and simple passage tomb. From Ritchie 1970; Crown copyright.

No radiocarbon-datable material relating to this phase of the site’s use was found – or, at least, the small flecks of charcoal found on the old ground surface under the monument (Ritchie 1970, 34) were so tiny that they were not retained, and in any case they would not be large enough to provide a single-entity AMS date. Instead, the dating relies on the dating of Late Castellic monuments and pottery in north-west France, and particularly in the Locmariaquer complex in the Morbihan (Cassen et al. 2009, 761, fig. 13). This suggests that this strand of Neolithisation arrived in Britain and Ireland at some time between 4300 BC and 4000/3900 BC; it is currently not possible to be more precise than that. The contemporary indigenous inhabitants of western Scotland would have included the groups who moved around the Inner Hebrides and who placed their dead on the shell middens of Oronsay (but see Milner 2010 for a re-calibration of the relevant human remains dates that places these within the first few centuries of the fourth millennium; whatever their actual date, the point to be noted here is the stark contrast with the practice of building megalithic funerary monuments.)

As to why people should have chosen to leave the Morbihan and sail northwards, the main reason may well be the transformation of Morbihannais society around the 44th century BC. (See Cassen 2009 for a recent discussion of this.) Prior to this, from c 4600 BC, there had flourished a ‘theocratic big man’ society – its roots lying in the local Mesolithic groups, who selectively adoptied and adapted elements of the farming lifestyle – which featured the erection of massive funerary mounds and standing stones, and the deposition of precious exotic objects (Alpine axeheads and Spanish fibrolite axeheads and variscite jewellery).

A composite image showing a photograph of a wide pot decorated with small vertical lines and arcs with illustration drawings of 3 similar pots underneath

Figure c: The pottery from Achnacreebeag (1-3), and some comparanda for the decorated bipartite bowl among Late Castellic pottery in Brittany and Normandy (4. Le Castellic, Brittany; 5. Vierville, Normandy; 6. Er Grah, Brittany). From Sheridan 2010a (where the sources of the images used as 2-6 are cited)

This society, with its explicitly phallocentric expressions of power and fertility, its competitive conspicuous consumption and its rich mythology, gave way to a fully agricultural society in which power and fertility was expressed in a more maternal idiom, including in the construction of womb-like passage tombs. It may be that seismic activity, which seems to have been responsible for the collapse of many huge standing stones including the Grand Menhir at Locmariaquer, provided the catalyst for this change. At any rate, the departure northwards of the families who ended up along the Atlantic façade of Britain and Ireland formed part of a long-standing tradition of deep sea, long-distance sailing by the Morbihannais. Other northerly movement is attested by Early Castellic influence on the pottery of the Channel Islands, and on the presence of a Late Castellic bowl, very similar to the Achnacreebeag bowl, in a simple passage tomb at Vierville in Normandy (Sheridan 2010a).

The outstanding research questions relating to this strand of the Neolithic are as follows:

  1. Was this strand restricted to parts of the west coast, as appears to be the case? More closed megalithic chambers and simple passage tombs must be excavated.
  2. Where and how did the people live? There are currently no settlements associated with this strand of Neolithisation, and it can only be assumed that, by analogy with Brittany, the people practised farming (although lipid analysis of the pottery will demonstrate whether this was the case).
  3. Did these people, or their descendants, play a role in the eventual disappearance of the Mesolithic lifestyle in this part of Scotland? On current evidence, it seems quite possible that the small numbers and low density of indigenes and immigrants alike was such that both could have co-existed in ignorance of each other for some considerable time.
  4. This strand needs to be underpinned by Scottish radiocarbon dates, to complement the evidence from north-west France.To this end, more closed megalithic chambers and simple passage tombs must be excavated.

Leave a Reply