Why research Neolithic Scotland?
The appearance in Scotland of domesticated animals and plants, and of novel technology (pottery manufacture), material culture, monuments, traditions, practices and beliefs – the elements that define what we call the Neolithic – marks a major change from what had gone before, and profoundly affected what came afterwards. How these novelties appeared has been the topic of heated debate for the last 25 years (and for less heated speculation for over a century. Characterising this change, understanding what happened to Scotland’s indigenous inhabitants and building a narrative for subsequent developments (which include the secondary spread of the Neolithic ‘package’, a process of regionalisation and then an interesting broad spread of beliefs and practices associated with Grooved Ware use around 3000-2900 BC), are vital tasks. To this end, this document seeks to take stock of what we can say and do know, to highlight the principal gaps in our knowledge, and to suggest ways in which these can be filled.
We are fortunate in that Scotland is very rich in Neolithic sites and artefacts, and there have been many recent discoveries through developer-funded and research excavation. This, plus an ever-growing body of high-quality radiocarbon dates, and the results of several exciting research projects (e.g. on human remains and on absorbed lipids in pottery), allows us to make sense of the mass of information now available to us: at the most basic of levels, we now have a clearer picture of what happened and when (if we cannot always explain how and why).
It is our belief that we can only understand Scotland’s Neolithic by adopting a multi-scale approach, situating developments here within a broader picture of European developments from the fifth to the mid-third millennium BC and developing narratives at the (present-day) national, regional and local scales. That is what we set out to do in this document.
Panel Task and Remit
The Neolithic panel was tasked to undertake a critical review of the current state of knowledge, and identify areas requiring future research into the Scottish Neolithic. This was undertaken with a view to identifying the key research areas that will help build narratives that describe and explain what happened in Scotland from the first appearance of new lifeways, some time between 4300 BC and 4000 BC, until the appearance of Beaker pottery and other associated novelties during the 25th century BC. The panel also sought to maintain a balance between describing the Scottish overview of major developments at the period and building regional and local narratives for Scotland’s disparate ‘Neolithics’.
The result is this report, outlining by theme the different areas of research in which work is taking place and highlighting the research topics to which archaeologists aspire. The report is structured by the following themes: The Overall Picture; The Detailed Picture – Issues of Regional and Chronological Resolution; Lifeways and Lifestyles; Material Culture and Use of Resources; Identity, Society, Belief Systems; and Research and Methodological issues. The document is reinforced by material on-line that provides additional (and alternative) discussion and further information. The Neolithic ScARF (Scottish Archaeological Research Framework) is intended as a resource to be utilised, built upon and kept updated, by those it has helped inspire and inform as well as those who follow them.
The main recommendations of the Panel report can be summarised as follows:
The Overall Picture: more needs to be understood about the process of acculturation of indigenous communities; about the Atlantic, Breton strand of Neolithisation; about the ‘how and why’ of the spread of Grooved Ware use and its associated practices and traditions; and about reactions to Continental Beaker novelties which appeared from the 25th century.
The Detailed Picture: Our understanding of developments in different parts of Scotland is very uneven, with Shetland and the north-west mainland being in particular need of targeted research. Also, here and elsewhere in Scotland, the chronology of developments needs to be clarified, especially as regards developments in the Hebrides.
Lifeways and Lifestyles: Research needs to be directed towards filling the substantial gaps in our understanding of: i) subsistence strategies; ii) landscape use (including issues of population size and distribution); iii) environmental change and its consequences – and in particular issues of sea level rise, peat formation and woodland regeneration; and iv) the nature and organisation of the places where people lived; and to track changes over time in all of these.
Material Culture and Use of Resources: In addition to fine-tuning our characterisation of material culture and resource use (and its changes over the course of the Neolithic), we need to apply a wider range of analytical approaches in order to discover more about manufacture and use.Some basic questions still need to be addressed (e.g. the chronology of felsite use in Shetland; what kind of pottery was in use, c 3000-2500, in areas where Grooved Ware was not used, etc.) and are outlined in the relevant section of the document. Our knowledge of organic artefacts is very limited, so research in waterlogged contexts is desirable.
Identity, Society, Belief Systems: Basic questions about the organisation of society need to be addressed: are we dealing with communities that started out as egalitarian, but (in some regions) became socially differentiated? Can we identify acculturated indigenous people? How much mobility, and what kind of mobility, was there at different times during the Neolithic? And our chronology of certain monument types and key sites (including the Ring of Brodgar, despite its recent excavation) requires to be clarified, especially since we now know that certain types of monument (including Clava cairns) were not built during the Neolithic. The way in which certain types of site (e.g. large palisaded enclosures) were used remains to be clarified.
Research and methodological issues: There is still much ignorance of the results of past and current research, so more effective means of dissemination are required. Basic inventory information (e.g. the Scottish Human Remains Database) needs to be compiled, and Canmore and museum database information needs to be updated and expanded – and, where not already available online, placed online, preferably with a Scottish Neolithic e-hub that directs the enquirer to all the available sources of information. The Historic Scotland on-line radiocarbon date inventory needs to be resurrected and kept up to date. Under-used resources, including the rich aerial photography archive in the NMRS, need to have their potential fully exploited. Multi-disciplinary, collaborative research (and the application of GIS modelling to spatial data in order to process the results) is vital if we are to escape from the current ‘silo’ approach and address key research questions from a range of perspectives; and awareness of relevant research outside Scotland is essential if we are to avoid reinventing the wheel. Our perspective needs to encompass multi-scale approaches, so that developments within Scotland can be understood at a local, regional and wider level. Most importantly, the right questions need to be framed, and the right research strategies need to be developed, in order to extract the maximum amount of information about the Scottish Neolithic.