2.4 Late Neolithic Scotland, c 3000-c 2500BC

Understanding of developments within this half millennium is dominated by the spread – southwards from Orkney – of Grooved Ware use and associated practices, not just to other parts of Scotland but to Ireland and the rest of Britain. it is only now that research is getting to grips with all that was involved in this phenomenon, and the picture is currently evolving thanks to the results of excavations at the Ness of Brodgar ceremonial complex (and indeed at Durrington Walls in Wessex, in the recent past), but the following scenario seems plausible:

The aforementioned process of competitive conspicuous consumption and hierarchisation that occurred in late 4th millennium Orkney continued into the 3rd millennium and had led, 3000/2900 BC, to the emergence of a specifically Orcadian version of a theocratic power system. This featured the use of Maes Howe-type passage tombs for housing the dead – and it is tempting to regard these people as members of dominant lineages – and for carrying out annual ceremonies at midwinter solstice, when the setting sun entered the passage and chamber. Perhaps there was a belief that this brought the ancestral remains back to life, thereby ensuring the well-being of the living for the next year.

The people who built and used these tombs also used Grooved Ware pottery, and during the 30th century they built the henge at the Stones of Stenness – with its stone circle surrounded by a single-entrance ditch and bank. (See Schulting 2010, 35-6 for a Bayesian model of the dates.) This would have been an open-air monument for the performance of ceremonies, forming part of a complex of special sites in this part of the Orkney mainland. The ‘special’ settlement at Barnhouse, also in this area, was superseded (or complemented), after 3100 BC, by the construction of the major enclosed ceremonial centre at Ness of Brodgar, with its massive buildings and two boundary walls. This reinforced the sacred status of the isthmus between what would have been marshy areas (now the Lochs of Stenness and Harray). Stone maceheads and other carved stone objects of various shapes (including balls) were used as symbols of power and as objects to be sacrificed ritually, by deliberate breakage, during ceremonies. Ceremonies also involved feasting.

A ground plan showing large rectangular structures with internal partitions and stone features

Large buildings at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Illustration: Nick Card

It seems likely that this ceremonial centre in the heart of Orkney gained fame far beyond the archipelago, in the same way that the Boyne valley had previously been a ceremonial centre, attracting visitors from far and wide. Visitors to Orkney, and spread of its fame by word of mouth across the pre-existing networks of contacts, would account for the rapid southwards spread of elements of its traditions – namely the use of Grooved Ware (which reached southern England and south-west Ireland), of various kinds of macehead, of carved stone balls (Fig. x) (which were manufactured in large numbers in Aberdeenshire), of stone circles (and counterparts in timber, not currently/yet attested in Orkney) and, arguably, of single- and multiple-entrance, roughly circular henge monuments, including the ‘anomalous’ first-phase henge at Stonehenge. The adoption of these elements was selective, varying from region to region: for example, communities along the Atlantic façade of Scotland adopted the use of stone (and timber) circles and the use of Grooved Ware, although at Calanais stone circle on Lewis the latter is represented by just a single pot (Ashmore forthcoming; see also Sheridan 2004b on the nature and dynamics of this spread to Ireland.) Elsewhere, in Shetland, the only element that seems to have been adopted – apart from a single, and questionable, example of a Grooved Ware pot – was the cushion macehead. This type of macehead seems to have been made in Shetland (as well as elsewhere); it is likely that several of the examples of this macehead type found in England had been made in Scotland (See Theme 5).

Other evidence for the long-distance (and reciprocal) movement of ideas and objects (and people) includes the shared use of specific motifs – including the ‘eyebrow’ motif, as seen on a figurine from the Links of Noltland (see Theme 5), on a chamber tomb at Holm of Papa Westray South and on the Folkton ‘Drums’ in Yorkshire – and the northwards movement of fine oblique and petit tranchet derivative arrowheads of black flint (as seen in the passage tomb at Ormiegill , Caithness).

A photograph showing three black flint arrowheads with retouched edges and a smaller brown flint arrowhead and a circular scraper

Late Neolithic oblique and petit tranchet derivative arrowheads of black flint, along with other (probably earlier) flint artefacts, from Ormiegill passage tomb, Caithness. From Clarke et al. 1985; photo NMS.

That long-distance contacts between Orkney and the south of England persisted until at least the 26th century is suggested by a parallelism in the shape of houses at Durrington Walls and at Skara Brae (Parker Pearson 2007), and by continued sharing of some Grooved Ware styles despite the divergent regional trajectories in different parts of Britain and Ireland. Furthermore, it is well within the bounds of possibility that the Ring of Brodgar – which is by far the largest henge in northern Britain – was created for a member of the Orcadian elite who had visited Avebury and who wanted to recreate it as part of the Stenness-Brodgar ceremonial area. The dating evidence for both sites leaves much to be desired, but a date during or after the 26th century BC is consistent both with what can be said about the construction date of Avebury (Josh Pollard pers. comm.) and with the admittedly imprecise results of OSL dating at the Ring of Brodgar.

The phenomenon sketched above presents the most striking and obvious development during the first half of the third millennium, but it was not the only one. It now seems likely that most ‘rock art’, featuring cupmarks, cup-and-ring and other designs, was created during the first half of the third millennium BC (even though the earliest simple cupmarks probably date to the early fourth millennium, as suggested by a cup-marked slab from Dalladies funerary monument).

A photograph of a large area of bedrock carved with cupmarks and cup and ring motifs in an elevated position with trees, water and hills in the background

Bedrock adorned with ‘rock art’, Ormaig, Argyll and Bute. From Clarke et al 1985 © Mike Brooks.

The nature of ‘rock art’ and its complicated relationship to ‘passage tomb art’ and Grooved Ware design is explored in Theme 6; and note that the creation of rock art on outcrops should not be confused with the much later re-use of some of these outcrops to create cist slabs during the Early Bronze Age, and stone settings during the Middle Bronze Age. Suffice it to say here that the overall distribution of ‘complex rock art’, featuring cup-and-ring and other designs other than simple cupmarks, extends beyond Scotland to other parts of Britain, Ireland and north-west Iberia. As Richard Bradley argued in 1997, the close similarities in designs and placement in the landscape in these different regions implies the existence of extensive Atlantic façade networks of contact (Bradley 1997). This accords with the evidence from the late fourth millennium major passage tombs of the Boyne Valley, where long-distance elite journeying as far as the Morbihan area of Brittany and south-west Iberia is attested (Eogan 1980; Stout and Stout 2008).

A photograph of a vole emerging from grass

The Orkney Vole: a Continental arrival around or just before 3000 BC © Dr Peter Reynolds

It also accords with the genetic evidence for the arrival of the Orkney Vole in Orkney (Cucchi et al. forthcoming), which must have involved long-distance transport by sea from the Continent. Since Orkney Vole remains are present in Orkney by 3000 BC, their arrival may relate to long-distance journeying at that time. Therefore, while the Grooved Ware-associated traditions and practices involved interaction within Britain and Ireland, the evidence from rock art suggests the existence ofmore extensive networks of contact during the first half of the third millennium.

Other developments during this period include the emergence of large palisaded (and in the case of Blackshouse Burn, stone and earthen) enclosures in parts of southern and central Scotland (Figure 18) The example at Dunragit, Dumfries and Galloway, may well be contemporary (and associated) with the use of Grooved Ware at the site; it, and the recently-excavated example at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross (Noble and Brophy 2011a and b), has produced radiocarbon dates indicating construction between the 29th and 25th century BC. The poorly-dated enclosure at Meldon Bridge, Scottish Borders, is closely comparable with the Dunragit and Forteviot examples and at least one further Scottish example is known from aerial photographs (at Leadketty, not far from Forteviot, in Perth and Kinross: ibid.) Parallels can be drawn with the contemporary complex timber enclosure at Ballynahatty, Co. Down (Hartwell 2002). Timber structures featuring a central setting of four large posts – as seen at numerous sites in Ireland, and also in Wessex – have been found at Greenbogs, Aberdeenshire (Noble in press). Whether the Greenbogs examples had been special-purpose buildings for ceremonies (like the examples elsewhere), or houses, is unclear.

A composite image showing ground plan drawings of 6 circular enclosures in Scotland and a location map of the sites

Left: Late Neolithic enclosures in Scotland: a. Leadketty, b. Forteviot, c. Dunragit, d. Meldon Bridge, e. Kinloch (from Millican 2009), f. Blackshouse Burn. From Noble and Brophy 2011b; drawn by Kirsty Millican; Right: Location map for enclosures (plus others discussed in Noble and Brophy 2011b)

Many research questions remain to be addressed, principally:

  1. What was happening in those parts of Scotland that did not participate in the ‘Grooved Ware phenomenon’ as sketched above? And within Orkney, what were the social dynamics there between those who participated in the social system as sketched above, and those who did not?
  2. Have all the practices, traditions, types of structure and material culture associated with the ‘Grooved Ware phenomenon’ been identified? (Our knowledge of Grooved Ware habitation structures outside Orkney is very poor, for example.) And to what extent was their spread due to long-distance travel (presumably by elites) as opposed to diffusion through networks of interacting communities? What was so attractive about the beliefs and rituals in Orkney that other people sought to emulate and adopt them?
  3. Were the Orkney-southern England links continuous between the 30th and the 26th century, or intermittent? This requires research at a pan-British level to find an answer. Also, to what extent were Orcadian practices adopted in Wessex? It could be argued that the inspiration for the first-phase monument at Stonehenge had been the Stones of Stenness. A comparative study of Grooved Ware-associated practices, traditions and material culture in Wessex and Orkney (and elsewhere in Britain) would be useful.
  4. How does the creation and use of ‘rock art’ articulate with the practices and traditions associated with the use of Grooved Ware and associated monuments? The two overlap spatially and chronologically, but what accounts for the non-overlapping parts of their distributions?
  5. Why were the large enclosures built? Were they centres for periodic ceremonial activity, and if so, how does their use compare with the use of Late Neolithic timber and stone circles and henges?
  6. How, if at all, did subsistence strategies and settlement organisation differ from the preceding centuries in the various regions of Scotland? Does the abundant evidence for marine resource exploitation in Orkney (e.g.at Skara Brae) mean that these resources formed part of the diet?

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