6.8 Conflict

The Chalcolithic and Bronze Age panel for National ScARF addressed the issues about, and evidence for, conflict and warfare in the Scottish Chalcolithic and Bronze Age (ScARF Bronze Age section 5.3). There is little evidence from the Highland Region to contribute to this debate. No analysed human remains from this period show any sign of blunt or sharp force trauma. Most settlements were not enclosed or defended until the Late Bronze Age when some of the hillforts may have been constructed (ScARF Bronze Age section 3.3; Chapter 6.3); even with these sites, the defences may have been more an expression of power and status than a response to a perceived threat.

Swords and spearheads are known, both as single finds and as components of hoards along with tools and ornaments, but no deposit of weapons from the Highland Region that can be interpreted as the result of a battle are known. No contemporary depictions of conflict survive, if they ever existed in the first place. Nonetheless, metal weapons appear to follow a design development path that seems focussed on inflicting injury with increasing efficiency, and it is hard to conceive a purpose for these objects that was not in some way associated with deliberately inflicted harm, either in battles, skirmishes or in set-piece ritualised combat. One approach to exploring this would be a dedicated survey of wear analysis of Bronze Age weapons from the Highland Region to identify signs of combat. This type of project could draw on the growing wealth of dynamic experimental activity involving replicas and associated wear analysis, as exemplified by Newcastle University’s Bronze Age Combat Project (Hermann et al 2020a; 2020b), which is shaping how we may conceptualise Bronze Age combat (Gentile and van Gijn 2019).

Collection of bronze objects including a woodworker’s knife, cup-ended pin, leaf-shaped sword, and two spearheads
Hoard of bronze weapons from Point of Sleat (MHG5197). ©National Museums Scotland

The tensions arising from the intensification of agriculture, or the arrival of new people, occur in many periods and have been discussed in Chapter 3.8. Many of the conditions for such tensions are present during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age, but it is a thorny issue to prove their existence from archaeological evidence in general, much less from what survives in the Highland Region. Nevertheless, it is an issue which should be kept at mind when looking at the evidence.

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