7. Research and methodological issues

7.1. Introduction

It is, perhaps, fair to say that much research goes on in isolation from other specialist research, with no sense of there being a coherent strategy for investigating the Archaeology of the Scottish Neolithic. While there would be little support for centralised control over research activities, nevertheless the development of a research framework – i.e. the raison d’être of the ScARF project – is a useful way of seeing where individual projects can fit into a larger whole. In particular, there is a need for integrated, collaborative research that takes cognisance of what has been achieved elsewhere (e.g. in terms of effective methods and strategies) and is able to situate the research within different levels of understanding, the international, national and the local setting.

Current and recent research into Neolithic Scotland has taken a wide range of forms, as the foregoing text makes clear and as is evident from the following examples of topics and approaches:


  • Isotopic and osteological analysis of human and faunal remains.
  • radiocarbon dating programmes and Bayesian modelling of dates.
  • palaeoenvironmental (including palaeoclimatic)
  • underwater and aerial survey (including Lidar).
  • analysis of absorbed lipids in pottery.
  • targeted fieldwork to explore specific types of site, or as part of a broader study of an area through time (e.g.as in South Uist, Caithness, RCAHMS survey on Donside).
  • raw material characterisation through petrology, chemical analysis and mineralogical analysis; material-specific mapping and inventorising (as in the case of Arran pitchstone and Alpine axeheads).
  • Issues-based research programmes (e.g. the Nationalmuseet’s Farming on the Edge project, comparing the Neolithic of Shetland with that of southern Scandinavia).


  • study of the Orkney Vole and its origins.
  • experimental construction and destruction of a megalithic monument.
  • investigation of Caithness stone alignments.
  • investigation of Cursus monuments.
  • reviewing assemblages from chambered tombs.

This research is being/has been undertaken by individuals and teams within and outside Scotland; on different scales; and in different capacities – some being university-based, some undertaken by museum curators, some by freelance individuals and voluntary groups.

Along with the results of previous research, it is helping to shape and transform our understanding of Neolithic Scotland. But there are various issues which mean that the broad potential of this work is not currently being fully realised.

These issues are explored briefly below; many are common to all the periods of ScARF’s remit. In essence, they boil down to the following two main issues:

  1. Accessibility and quality of existing information (ie dissemination and awareness issues)
  2. Overall approach, including  scope of the questions posed and organisation of research

7.2. Accessibility and quality of existing information (ie dissemination and awareness issues)

Currently researchers into the Scottish Neolithic can find it very hard to discover what information already exists, and where it is held. The results of previous research may be widely scattered – in publications, in unpublished reports, in databases, in hard copy notes, etc. – and only a small proportion is available electronically. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, which has faced problems in the current economic climate, is an invaluable resource for Scottish archaeology which makes the establishment of knowledge about current work relatively easy in Scotland; that fact needs to be acknowledged and its future existence needs to be safeguarded. Scotland also has a copyright library and the Antiquaries Library in the Museum which again is a resource that is advantageous. Furthermore, the quality of some of the existing database information leaves something (or a lot) to be desired. RCAHMS are aware of the shortcomings of CANMORE and are committed to making corrections and improvements in the light of the ScARF exercise. Similarly, the AdLib museum database of National Museums Scotland (which is, however, not publicly available) contains much out of date and incorrect information and cannot be treated as a reliable research resource; furthermore, it does not contain accurate geographical information so cannot be used to create distribution maps. The disjunction between the sites and monuments-based CANMORE database and the artefact-based databases held by museums has long been recognised as a serious problem, and a pilot project, MAGI (Cowie & McKeague 2010), has demonstrated the benefits to be gained from creating an integrated sites-and-finds database as has been developed in Wales. There is a pressing need for a full-scale integration project to be undertaken.

The problems associated with accessing grey literature and specialist reports from developer-funded excavations are well-known; the fact that specialist reports are sometimes not included in final publications (as was the case with the A1 project publication, Lelong & MacGregor 2007) makes accessing this valuable information difficult.

Perhaps this opportunity ought to be seized to remind all researchers that the British and Irish Archaeological Bibliography is available on-line (http://www.biab.ac.uk/). Similarly the 1988 list of petrological identifications of stone axeheads and shafthole objects undertaken by the (formerly-named) Implement Petrology Committee, and published in Stone Axe Studies 2 (Clough & Cummins 1988), is available electronically (http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/petro_cba_1999/overview.cfm). Other on-line datasets include the very useful, Historic Scotland-commissioned SWAD database of information on Scottish wetland archaeology (http://xweb.geos.ed.ac.uk/~ajn/swad/) and SPAD, the Scottish Palaeoecological Archaeology Database (http://xweb.geos.ed.ac.uk/~ajn/spad/); other, national and international palaeoenvironmental databases also exist. It is perhaps unfortunate that none are advertised as broadly as, perhaps, they ought to be.

Other awareness issues arise from the fact that some scientific research is published in specialist journals, whose existence may not be known to non-specialist researchers on the Neolithic; while researchers may be aware of the Journal of Archaeological Science, few regularly access more specialist publications unless directed to these by the specialists in question.

This situation is complicated by the fact that there may be several researchers who are interested in undertaking a specific kind of study (e.g. isotope analysis of human remains) but who may be unaware of other’s research on the same topic (perhaps even involving the same specimens). There is a need for current research, and its published or web-available outcome to be notified systematically in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. Furthermore, the attempt to create a Scottish Human Remains Database started by needs to be revived in order to ease access to material and to its research.

Finally, there is the issue of sustainability. This relates to all sets of data, including maintenance, updating and disseminating the 14C database. The comprehensive database of Scottish radiocarbon dates needs to be revived; the Historic Scotland on-line 14C database was taken down in 2011 and has not been reinstated, or updated since 2006. (The 2006 version is appended as a ScARF accessory document.) While some dates (including those obtained through NMS) are published each year in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, there has not been an annual systematic trawl of new dates since 2006.

Sustainability is also relevant to the question of skills transfer: with an ageing cadre of specialists. There has been a tendency in the last three decades for artefact studies to be eschewed in favour of more social reconstructive studies and there is a danger of a skills gap opening if expertise is not passed on to younger researchers. Acquiring specialist knowledge requires many years of experience and some kind of mechanism for training and mentoring could usefully be developed, in addition to the existing IFA Skills Transfer initiative.

7.3. Overall approach, scope of the questions posed and organisation of research

While almost all research that is undertaken is of excellent quality, it is also highly specialised and there is always the danger of insufficient interdisciplinary collaboration. This has been a perennial problem as regards post-excavation research; the projects that have worked best are where the collaborative workers are engaged at an early and where feasible are introduced to the site itself ‘on the ground’ and there follow regular meetings of the entire team to assess progress and share insights right up to the point of production of a final report.

7.4. Recommendations

Many of the issues identified in Sections 7.2 and 7.3 are of course already being addressed. For example, making past editions of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Discovery and Excavation in Scotland freely available online has been one of the greatest steps forward in addressing the ‘accessibility’ problem. This is to be followed, in 2013, by the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society becoming available online to members – an arrangement that is matched by subscriber e-access to other journals such as Antiquity and the European Journal of Archaeology. Other initiatives, to make grey literature available online, are also to be welcomed. However, there is much still to do, and the key recommendations are as follows:

  1. Create a hub for information on at least the Scottish Neolithic although it is difficult to believe that this would not be a valuable initiative for all periods, where all the diverse sources of information can be identified, with links to relevant online resources while also making more of the sources of information available online as well as in hard copy. Some suggestions as to the contents of this will be made available on the ScARF wiki.
  2. Develop databases, and in particular develop plans for integrating sites and monuments and artefact information on a national basis, and develop the Scottish Human Remains Database – an initiative that will be progressed during 2012.
  3. Reinstate a 14C online database, and maintain and update it
  4. Promote opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion of research needs, and encourage more major project applications (to bodies such as AHRC) that feature integrated strategies for enhancing our understanding.
  5. Develop mechanisms for skills transfer.

These recommendations should be viewed against the reminder that the individual researcher has the responsibility of developing her/his own expertise: there is a difference to be drawn between improving the efficiency of information dissemination and spoon-feeding. At the end of the day, we need debate about the Scottish Neolithic that is above all well-informed; there is no short-cut to achieving knowledge and understanding of the rich resource of information that already exists, and to developing a critical faculty that is able to assess this information.

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