2.3 Subsequent developments during the Early and Middle Neolithic, c 3800-c 3000 BC

A suite of developments, including a secondary expansion of farming communities and a process of regionalisation, can be identified for the period c 3800-3000 BC. It has become customary to call part of this period the ‘Middle Neolithic’, but its definition has tended to be nebulous and opinions differ as to where to place its notional start date. In fact, given the diversity of developments around Scotland and the absence of a clear horizon of generalised change, the use of this term is more a matter of convenience – as a way of breaking up a near-millennium of developments – than a marker of widespread change. Where used in the succeeding text, it will refer loosely (and arbitrarily) to the second half of the third millennium.

The principal developments during this c 800-year long period can be characterised as follows:

2.3.1 Expansion

of ‘the Neolithic’, both in terms of an infilling of landscapes in the areas of earliest Neolithic activity and a spread of the ‘Atlantic’ (passage tomb-associated) Neolithic from western Scotland to the Western and Northern Isles and the northern mainland. Indications are that this latter process may have taken place as early as the 38th or 37th century BC, and that farming and its associated traditions probably reached Shetland directly from western Scotland, rather than via Orkney. (See Theme 3 for details.) It is assumed that this relates to population growth but was not necessarily driven by that growth: in other words, it is unlikely that there would have been a land shortage on the mainland that occasioned a move out to the islands. Other factors probably informed the decision and the desire to explore new areas cannot be ruled out as a factor.

2.3.2 Diversification and hybridisation in material culture, monuments and traditions.

A process of regionalisation can be traced, as material culture, structures and traditions underwent ‘style drift’ with the passing of generations. (See Theme 3) Thus, for example, the ‘traditional Carinated Bowl’ pottery of the 39th/38th century became ‘modified CB’ pottery, with the changes (in shape, decoration and manufacture style) occurring at different rates and in different ways in different parts of Scotland. Similarly, in south-west Scotland, over the course of the 38th and 37th centuries BC, one can trace the development of CB-associated funerary monuments from their non-megalithic beginnings, through simple stone translations (e.g. at Mid Gleniron and Cairnholy) to ‘Clyde cairns’ (see Theme 6). In the west, the development of passage tombs from the simple form as seen at Achnacreebeag, and the geographical expansion of this funerary monument tradition, can be traced. Other, regionally-specific styles of chamber tomb emerged elsewhere in Scotland (e.g. the stalled cairns of Orkney). Likewise, cursus monuments – which may represent an aggrandisement of Early Neolithic rectangular mortuary enclosures – emerged at some time between 3800 and 3650 BC (Cook et al. 2010) and are associated with ‘modified CB’ pottery; the few very long bank barrows in Scotland (such as the Cleaven Dyke: Barclay and Maxwell 1998) may be alternative expressions of a similar concept. In eastern Scotland, the late fourth millennium re-emergence of large timber structures (e.g. at Balfarg Riding School) of similar size to the Early Neolithic ‘halls’, but not necessarily roofed, represents another aspect of regional diversity. Other expressions of diversity include variation in house building styles, with stone houses being constructed in areas that were relatively timber-poor (i.e. the Northern and Western Isles).

The hybridisation referred to above relates to the fact that the descendants of the two ‘strands’ of earliest farming communities – that is, the ‘Atlantic Neolithic’ (for want of a better term) and the ‘CB Neolithic’ – must have interacted and shared design ideas. In western and south-west Scotland the trajectory of ceramic development shows a merging of the ‘Atlantic’ and CB traditions into what Jack Scott termed ‘Beacharra’ pottery, and the same specific variety of modified CB pottery can be found in Clyde cairns (e.g. Glenvoidean) and a passage tomb (Achnacree) alike. Similarly, the chamber tomb of Clettraval on North Uist provides the clearest evidence for the incorporation of elements of both passage tomb and Clyde cairn design in the creation of some megalithic monuments in the Western Isles (Henshall 1968; Henley 2004). And on the northern mainland, in Caithness, the appearance of the passage tomb funerary tradition and its interaction with the CB Neolithic tradition can be perceived (e.g. in the form of multi-phase monuments, where the long cairn format of the CB Neolithic tradition was superimposed on passage tombs (as at Camster Long, Caithness).

A ground plan of an elongated cairn with horned ends and two large internal chambers

Multi-phase monument construction at Camster Long, Caithness, where a horned long cairn was superimposed on two pre-existing passage tombs with round cairns. From Henshall 1972

The particular trajectories of change that can be traced in different parts of Scotland – see Theme 3 for details – will have been influenced by the amount, kind and direction of interaction between different regions. With Shetland, for example, a marked regionalisation may well relate to a relative paucity of outside contacts over the course of the 4th millennium, while in south-west and western Scotland, influences resulting from the development of an Irish Sea interaction network can clearly be seen in aspects of ceramic design. Likewise, in southern Scotland the emergence of Impressed Wares, possibly from c 3600/3500 BC but certainly by 3300 BC, shows a sharing of design ideas both with northern England and (in the south-west) with north-east Ireland. And links between the northern mainland, Orkney and the Western Isles at some time between c 3600 and 3300 BC are shown in the shared use of a specific type of pottery vessel known as the Unstan Bowl.

2.3.3 Social differentiation and strategies of competitive conspicuous consumption

A process of competitive aggrandisement in chamber tomb construction can be identified, for example in the emergence of massive horned cairns in Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney around 3600/3500 BC. These truly monumental long cairns – of which short versions also exist – were sometimes imposed on pre-existing passage tombs (as at the aforementioned monument of Camster Long, Caithness), and sometimes constructed from scratch (as at Point of Cott, Orkney). Given that they would have involved a considerable investment of effort to build, they can arguably be seen as statements of a group’s – perhaps lineage’s – power and authority.

A dramatic black and white photograph showing a substantial and well built domed structure with stepped linear walls

Massive horned cairn: façade of Camster Long, Caithness. Photo: Mick Sharp. From Davidson and Henshall 1991

Other evidence for the same kind of process can be seen in Orkney, where aggrandisement can be traced not only in stalled cairns (with the massive example at Midhowe ‘trumping’ smaller versions) but also in passage tomb construction, with the emergence of Maes Howe-type passage tombs during the last quarter of the 4th millennium representing a step-change from pre-existing Orcadian passage tombs (Schulting et al. 2010). The appearance of the latter is connected with the invention of Grooved Ware as a novel ceramic style, at some time between 3300/3200 and 3100 BC, and relates to the emergence of a markedly inegalitarian society whose elite drew some of their power from what Mary Helms has termed ‘cosmological acquisition’ (Helms 1993). In other words, members of an emerging elite undertook long-distance sea travel to the major passage tomb cemeteries of the Boyne Valley in eastern Ireland – a centre of power during the Middle Neolithic – and brought back ideas emulating the design of these tombs (including the use of cruciform chambers, of winter solstice solar orientation and of spiral designs on passage tomb stones: see Theme 3 and Schulting et al. 2010 for further details.)

Other hints at social differentiation elsewhere in Scotland come from the rare examples of jet and jet-like jewellery (i.e. ‘monster beads’) that probably belong to the second quarter of the fourth millennium, and the jet and jet-like belt sliders that probably date within the 3200-2900 BC bracket. (See Theme 5 for details.)

Further, and regionally-specific details of developments between c 3800 and c 3000 BC – including the opening of the flint mines at Den of Boddam, Aberdeenshire, towards the end of the 4th millennium – are presented in Theme 3, along with the regionally-specific research questions. Meanwhile, the main outstanding research questions relating to this long period are as follows:

  • While the outline of the principal developments can be sketched, many questions remain as to their timing, tempo and trajectory. For example, did the ‘Neolithic package’ appear in Orkney from the north-east mainland, as seems quite likely, and did this happen as early as the late 38th or 37th century BC?
  • What lay behind the expansion of farming communities to the Western and Northern Isles?
  • Can the regionalisation be associated with any changes in subsistence strategy or in the design and construction of settlement structure? For example, isotope analysis of human remains from a communal Middle Neolithic cist grave at Sumburgh has indicated some consumption of marine resources, in contrast to the picture obtained from contemporary, earlier and later human remains elsewhere in Scotland (Melton and Montgomery 2009). Was this a peculiarity of Shetland? And in Orkney, was the documented exploitation of marine resources for non-dietary purposes? A further example: in lowland Scotland, many settlement sites dating to the second half of the 4th millennium are represented only by pits and spreads of material; is this because the architecture of houses changed, so as to leave fewer traces in the ground, or can it be explained through taphonomy – since many of these sites are in prime agricultural land that has been worked over for millennia? And can any traces be seen of the continuation of a purely ‘Mesolithic’ lifestyle over this period, or of ‘acculturated hunter-fisher-gatherer’ groups? (Perhaps yes, at West Voe, Shetland).

Comments 1

  1. Neolithic Flint excavations at Den of Boddam, Aberdeenshire

    The following is a link to a lecture given by Alan Saville at the 2012 Archaeological Research in Progress lecture in Aberdeen – Neolithic Flint Extraction at the Den of Boddam.  http://www.screencast.com/t/hI7z57ZM


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