In common with other parts of Scotland, Highland Region witnessed a significant change around 3800 BC (and possibly as early as c 4000 BC in parts of the west) in the appearance of a wholly new way of life, whose subsistence strategy was based on cultivating cereals and keeping domesticated animals. This novel lifestyle was accompanied by other striking novelties: megalithic monuments (initially in the west), built to house and commemorate the dead; a wholly new technology, pottery manufacture; ground (and sometimes polished) stone axe- and adze-heads, including some very special examples that had originated in the north Italian Alps; and other novel practices and ways of making sense of the world. Thanks to ancient DNA (aDNA, henceforth just DNA) analysis undertaken since the national ScARF Neolithic section was published in 2012 (Sheridan and Brophy 2012), we can now confirm that these changes were indeed the result of the arrival of immigrants from Continental Europe (eg Sheridan 2010a), and not by their adoption by indigenous Late Mesolithic groups, as others have claimed (eg Thomas 2013).
The arrival, possibly as early as 2500 BC, of further Continental immigrants (as attested by DNA analysis of a young woman buried at Achavanich: Hoole et al 2018), bringing further novelties including knowledge of metal, is conventionally regarded as marking the end of the Neolithic period. What happened between c 4000 BC and c 2500 BC is summarised below, but first it is necessary to review briefly the history of research into the Neolithic of Highland Region.
5.1.1 A brief history of research into Neolithic Highland region
Historically, most attention as regards this period in Highland Region’s past has been paid to its megalithic monuments (Datasheet 5.5), with Caithness being a focus of early fieldwork, initially by Alexander Henry Rhind (1833–63). Rhind excavated four chambered cairns around the Loch of Yarrows – Warehouse South (MHG2099), North (MHG2212) and East (MHG2110) and McColes’ Castle (MHG 2211; also spelt ‘M’Coles’ Castle’ and ‘M’Coul’s Castle’) – in the summer of 1853, largely in the hope of ‘securing some tolerable specimens’ of human skulls for comparative anthropological study by the craniologists Davis and Thurnam, who were compiling their Crania Britannica publication at the time (Rhind 1854). (He was, sadly, unsuccessful in this quest and the human remains that he did excavate have been lost.) After his untimely death, Robert Innes Shearer and Joseph Anderson continued his project around the Loch of Yarrows and at Camster, excavating eight chambered cairns and exploring a ninth in 1865, and excavating three more and exploring a fourth in 1866 (Anderson 1886). Again, sadly, the human remains from these excavations have not survived. Even the calcined human remains found at Ormiegill, reportedly presented to the (then-named) National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1871 by the (then-named) Anthropological Society of London, per Joseph Anderson (Donations to the Museum, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 9 [1870-–72], 246), cannot now be located and are suspected to have been lost during various moves of the NMAS collections during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (cf. Sheridan 2020a).
Around a century later, excavations were undertaken at several chambered cairns in Highland. On the Black Isle, Anthony Woodham and his wife Maisie excavated Carn Glas passage tomb, Kilcoy, in 1955 (MHG9014; Woodham and Woodham 1957) and Kilcoy South passage tomb in 1957 and 1958 (MHG9017; Woodham 1956); they then excavated a further chambered cairn at Tomfat in Strathnairn in 1963 (MHG3519; Woodham and Woodham 1964). At Embo, Sutherland, rescue excavation of a dual passage tomb threatened by the construction of a car park was undertaken by Audrey Henshall and James Wallace in 1960 (MHG11630; Henshall and Wallace 1963), following her earlier investigation of an Early Bronze Age cist set into the cairn in 1956 (Henshall and Taylor 1957). In 1961, John Corcoran excavated three passage tombs around Loch Calder – at Tulloch of Assery A and B and at Tulach an t’Sionnaich, Caithness – in advance of their inundation when Loch Calder was expanded to make it into a reservoir (Fig. 5.1; MHG981; MHG932; MHG926; Corcoran 1966). Corcoran went on to excavate further passage tombs at Balvraid, Lochalsh in 1965 (MHG5357; Henshall and Ritchie 2001, 230–2) and at Ord North, Sutherland in 1967 (MHG11983; Sharples 1981) and the long horned cairn at Camster Long, Caithness – one of the monuments that had previously been investigated by Anderson and Shearer in 1886 – in 1971–3; after his death, Lionel Masters continued excavations there, in 1976–80 (MHG1809; Masters 1997). More recently, between 2006 and 2014, Oliver Harris has excavated a Clyde cairn, Cladh Aindreis, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula (MHG459; Harris et al 2010) and amateur archaeologist George Kozikowski excavated a chamber tomb at Strathglebe (Strath Glebe) on Skye (MHG5316) between 2016 and 2019 (Wildgoose and Kozikowski 2018).
The chambered cairns of Highland Region were also the subject of Audrey Henshall’s magisterial survey of this monument type, first during the 1960s as part of her nationwide survey (Henshall 1963; 1972) then again during the 1980s and 1990s, publishing the results in a series of books (Davidson and Henshall 1991; Henshall and Ritchie 1995; 2001). These publications provide an invaluable account of the various explorations and excavations that had taken place, as well as details of the finds and definitive descriptions of the monuments and their distribution.
Other kinds of Neolithic site in Highland Region have traditionally received much less attention and targeted fieldwork, being found mostly by chance (although note Roger Mercer’s systematic field surveys in the north, eg Mercer 1980). Neolithic artefacts have generally been found as stray finds, or during excavations of later sites, or during surveys such as Caroline Wickham-Jones’ and Karen Hardy’s Scotland’s First Settlers project (as described in Chapter 4; see also Case study; Scotlands First Settlers), for instance. On Canna, the Middle Neolithic settlement at Beinn Tighe was discovered as a result of rabbit damage, and was then the subject of a small-scale excavation by Jill Harden and Thistle Camp participants for the National Trust for Scotland in 2006 (MHG5560).
The Late Neolithic rectangular timber structure – probably a house – at Stoneyfield, Raigmore, was discovered during rescue excavations in 1972–3 when a Clava ring cairn on the same spot was due to be demolished by construction of the approach road to the Kessock Bridge (MHG45837; Simpson 1996a). A further timber structure and other settlement evidence was excavated at Kinbeachie on the Black Isle as a result of ploughing, with the farmer, Mr Fraser, having reported finds to archaeologists (MHG58909; Barclay et al 2001).
The growth of developer-funded archaeology, particularly from the 1990s and particularly in and around Inverness, is responsible for much of the Neolithic settlement evidence currently at our disposal. The Middle Neolithic settlement at Milton of Leys, for example, was found in advance of a housing development on the southern outskirts of Inverness between 1998 and 2000 (MHG54230; Conolly and MacSween 2003), while the Neolithic settlements at Culduthel have been found through further housing and other development and infrastructural work (eg Murray 2007; 2008; 2010b; 2011; Peteranna 2011a; Malone and Young 2019; MHG51630).
Research on artefacts found in Highland Region has, historically, principally focused on pottery and on specific categories of stone artefact. Audrey Henshall’s exemplary recording of Neolithic (and later) pottery from chamber tombs as part of her aforementioned nationwide and county-based surveys provides invaluable information on, and much-needed illustrations of, pottery from these contexts. The carved stone balls from the Region were listed by Dorothy Marshall in 1977 and 1983 in her overall survey of this artefact type (Marshall 1977; 1983); more recent work is noted below. Stone axeheads have been the subject of research by the (formerly-named) Implement Petrology Committee of the Council for British Archaeology (now the Implement Petrology Group), with a compendium of results of petrological research being published in 1988 (Ritchie and Scott 1988; Clough and Cummins 1988, 234-245; see also Ritchie 1968 and Sheridan 1986). Roy Ritchie and Jack Scott’s 1988 article, ‘The petrological identification of stone axes from Scotland’, sets out the history and rationale of stone axehead study in Scotland to 1988. Axeheads of Alpine rock have been thoroughly researched and sourced by the international, French-led Projet JADE (Sheridan and Pailler 2012; Pétrequin et al 2017a, plates 3–5; 2017b). Maceheads have featured in Fiona Roe’s nationwide survey of this artefact type (Roe 1968; 1979), and finds of Arran pitchstone have been listed by Torben Ballin in his overall survey of pitchstone use (Ballin 2009).
5.1.2 Recent developments
Much has changed in our understanding of the Neolithic period in Highland Region since the publication of the national ScARF Neolithic section:
- Targeted fieldwork at Uamh Mhór, Cove, by Stephanie Piper and colleagues from Newcastle University, as part of the Coastal Archaeology and Erosion in Wester Ross Project, has produced evidence for Early Neolithic activity as well as a dispersed burnt mound of probable Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age date (Piper et al 2019; Piper forthcoming). Likewise, on the coast of Easter Ross, the systematic fieldwalking undertaken by the Tarradale Archaeological Project has recovered lithic evidence for Neolithic activity, as well as evidence for Mesolithic and post-Neolithic activity (Tarradale Archaeological Project – Findings to Date | NOSAS Archaeology Blog); Ballin forthcoming).
- The discovery of a stone with an incised Late Neolithic design very reminiscent of that seen at Ness of Brodgar and other Late Neolithic Orcadian sites at Arisaig, on the Rhu peninsula (MHG56817; Bowker 2014), informs us about the network of connections that existed along the west coast.
- The discovery of a slab (reused as a cist slab) with incised lozenge designs reminiscent of those seen on early Orcadian Grooved Ware and on Orcadian stones at Drumnadrochit (McLaren 2019) – and the discovery of Grooved Ware at various sites in Highland Region – provides yet more information about the interchange of ideas along the network of contacts linking Highland Region and Orkney.
- The aforementioned amateur excavation of an entirely new kind of Neolithic chamber tomb at Strathglebe on Skye between 2016 and 2019 by the late George Kozikowski, greatly assisted by Martin Wildgoose, has produced invaluable evidence for the Neolithic inhabitants of Skye (MHG5316; Wildgoose and Kozikowski 2018), and ongoing post-excavation work funded by a generous benefactor and co-ordinated by Alison Sheridan is maximising the information yield from the human remains and artefacts.
- Radiocarbon dating of human remains from several funerary monuments has helped to establish a regional typochronology of these sites (as discussed in Sheridan and Schulting 2020); has confirmed the existence of a Neolithic megalithic funerary monument first investigated in 1902 by Francis Tress Barry at Ackergill but subsequently neglected (ie Ackergill Mound, MHG2136; Sheridan et al 2019, 234); and has broadened our understanding of the range of funerary practices in this part of Scotland, with a cist at Balintore producing late fourth millennium BC dates for human remains (MHG6341; Sheridan et al 2018, 7; Sánchez-Quinto et al 2019). Moreover, research carried out for the Highland Archaeological Research Framework by Alison Sheridan has revealed that the 1985 fieldwork by members of Historic Environment Scotland’s predecessor body at Cairn of Get (Garrywhin) passage tomb (MHG2210) recovered numerous animal and some human bones. These are still to be sorted and studied, but they offer an invaluable source of information, not least on dating the use of this monument.
- DNA analysis of the human remains from passage tombs around Loch Calder has enhanced our understanding of the genetic history of Highland Region’s Neolithic inhabitants (Sheridan et al 2018, 6–7, 8–9; Olalde et al 2018; Brace et al 2019). Further DNA analysis of individuals from these passage tombs is being planned by Vicki Cummings (University of Central Lancashire).
- Isotopic analysis was undertaken, by Kate Britton and colleagues, on the adult and child buried in the Balintore cist. Mike Richards (University of British Columbia) had previously undertaken strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of individuals from Tulach an t’Sionnaich, and carbon and nitrogen analysis for dietary reconstruction on individuals from the Loch Calder passage tombs was undertaken by Rick Schulting (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, fig. 18.5). Nicky Milner and Oliver Craig undertook carbon, nitrogen and sulphur analysis of human remains from the midden inside the An Corran rock shelter (Milner and Craig 2012).
- A thorough osteological examination of the human remains from Embo chambered cairn by Aida Romera has clarified the age range and sex of the individuals buried there and has shed new light on their palaeopathology (Romera and Sheridan forthcoming).
- Dental microwear analysis by Rowan McLaughlin (Queen’s University of Belfast) on an adult male buried at Rattar East chambered cairn, and on individuals buried at Tulloch of Assery B, Tulach an t’Sionnaich and Embo, has revealed evidence relating to the nature of those individuals’ diet (McLaughlin 2008).
- Osteological examination of the human remains from the Loch Calder passage tombs by Kelsey Yohe for her Masters research (University of Aberdeen) has revealed two bones with chop marks, from Tulloch of Assery A and B; in one case, it is thought that the chop (to a humerus) related to inter-personal violence, while in the other, the chop (to a femur) could relate to defleshing or dismemberment of the dead (Yohe 2019).
- A reassessment of Scottish Neolithic pottery has clarified the typochronology of Neolithic pottery in this part of Scotland, and has contextualised it within a broader picture (Sheridan 2016). Meanwhile Mike Copper’s Tracing the Lines project on radiocarbon dating Grooved Ware pottery has produced a date for the Grooved Ware from Raigmore, and a date for Impressed Ware pottery, formerly claimed to be Grooved Ware, at Milton of Leys (Case Study: Tracing the Lines; Copper et al 2018; 2019; 2021).
- Torben Ballin has explored the exploitation of specific non-flint rock types in the west of Highland Region, including Rùm bloodstone (Ballin 2018; cf. Ballin and Grant 2020). Ballin has also reported on several lithic assemblages, including the multi-period assemblage from the field-walking project at Tarradale (Ballin forthcoming).
- John Barber’s experimental construction and destruction of a part of a chambered cairn has informed our interpretation of the taphonomy of human remains and artefactual finds in such monuments (Heald and Barber 2015, 36–9).
- Richard Bradley has reassessed the finds from Littleferry in terms of his model of ‘coastal havens’ – areas where people from different areas came together to exchange items and to socialise (Bradley et al 2017).
- 3D photogrammetric models of several carved stone balls found in Highland Region have been made by Hugo Anderson-Whymark, and the Region’s carved stone balls have been included in PhD research by Christopher Stewart-Moffatt.
- Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) has been investigating rock art in Highland region as part of its nationwide survey.
- Finally, work has been undertaken by Candy Hatherley of Headland Archaeology to publish some of the developer-funded excavation undertaken at Culduthel; a report on the 2005 excavations (Culduthel Phase 5, CDF05) has been published (Hatherley and Murray 2021), while another, on the 2006 excavations (Phases 7 and 8, CSE06) is well advanced (Hatherley forthcoming).
Despite these developments, however, there still remain major gaps in our knowledge of the Neolithic period in Highland Region, and much research remains to be undertaken on the artefacts that have been found, as highlighted below in the ‘Strengths and Weaknesses’ list and in the research questions at the end of this chapter. Before considering these, the key characteristics of the Neolithic period in Highland Region as they are currently understood can be summarised as follows:
5.1.3 Beginnings: the appearance of farmers, the ‘Mesolithic–Neolithic transition’ and subsequent developments to c 3500 BC
This part of Scotland is likely to have been affected by two ‘strands’ of immigration, one from the Morbihan region of Brittany (as indicated by the megalithic closed chambers and simple passage tombs in the west, at Greadal Fhinn [MHG70] and Rahoy [MHG488]) and the other ultimately from the Nord-Pas de Calais region of northern France, which is associated with the Carinated Bowl (CB) ceramic tradition and the use of long mounds for funerary monuments. Inverness appears to have been an early focus of settlement activity by the incoming ‘CB Neolithic’ people, some of whom chose to break and burn a precious axehead of jadeitite from the North Italian Alps that they had brought over with them from northern France, and to deposit it at a place that was subsequently to become the Inverness Railway Stores (MHG3831).
The rapid north-easterly spread of passage tomb users from their initial ‘arrival’ areas on the west coast, and the rapid northerly spread of the users of Carinated Bowl pottery from ‘arrival’ areas in northeast Scotland, can be traced: for example, recent Bayesian modelling of the dates for unburnt human bones from ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ (OC) passage tombs in Caithness has shown that passage tomb use had spread to this part of the Region by 3840–3645 BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, 201). A process of regional diversification in passage tomb design can be traced, with Rubh’ an Dunain on Skye (MHG4901; also known as Rudh’ an Dunain) being an Outer Hebrides-style passage tomb like those in the Outer Hebrides, and with many of the OC passage tombs showing strong design connections between the northern Mainland and Orkney.
Also attested is the practice of burial in a cave – not a feature of either the Breton or the CB tradition, nor was this a Mesolithic practice in Scotland. DNA analysis of individuals buried in the caves around Oban has shown that those people were indeed descended from Continental immigrants, so the same may be true of the individual buried in Loch Borralie cave (Bownes 2018; Knight et al 2020).
Highland Region experienced a fascinating interplay between the people associated with these two ‘strands’ of the Neolithic over the succeeding centuries, as witnessed, for example, in the superimposition of a long mound – a monument format associated with the Carinated Bowl Neolithic – on passage tombs whose ‘ancestry’ lies in the Breton, Atlantic tradition (eg at Camster Long [MHG1809]: Masters 1997).
Various themes can be discerned in the growing body of evidence concerning Neolithic Highland, and these will be dealt with below. They include the close connections that existed, and persisted, between the northern Mainland and Orkney (as shown, for instance, in the sharing of ceramic and funerary monument design); movement of objects, ideas and people over extensive and rapidly-established networks of contacts; a process of competitive conspicuous consumption in monument construction, most clearly expressed in the construction of massive long horned cairns, probably between 3600–3500 BC; the importance of seaborne travel down both the west and east coasts; and the variability in material culture and monuments over the large area occupied by Highland Region. The presence of a precious and prestigious jet ‘ monster bead’ in Strathglebe chamber tomb, possibly dating to around 3600 BC, hints at some social differentiation.
The question of how these incoming farmers related to the indigenous hunter-fisher-forager communities, and for how long the lifestyle of the latter persisted/survived after the arrival of farmers, is one of the key outstanding research questions. Unlike at Raschoille Cave near Oban, Argyll and Bute, there is no DNA evidence indicating genetic miscegenation between the two populations; nor are there artefact assemblages or sites attesting to the adoption and/or adaptation of elements of each other’s lifestyle or material culture. No ‘Mesolithic’ style lithic assemblage in the Region is known to post-date c 4000 BC. On a broader scale, the DNA evidence for elsewhere in Scotland and the rest of Britain suggests that indigenous Mesolithic bloodlines effectively died out (Brace et al 2019). It may be that, as suggested in Chapter 4, the indigenous population was very small and sparsely distributed and that its members rapidly acculturated to the novel lifestyle, their genetic signature getting drowned out by the larger numbers of the farmers (cf. Booth 2019). The absence of any Mesolithic human remains in the Region makes direct comparison of the indigenous population with the incomers impossible.
5.1.4 The Middle Neolithic, c 3500 BC – c 3000 BC
Continuity of occupation in the Inverness area is attested, as is continuity in agricultural activity at Lairg over this period (McDonald et al 2021); in the manufacture of pottery in the CB tradition; and in the practice of cave burial (at Inchnadamph Cave; individuals were also buried at the An Corran rock shelter on Skye). It is unclear whether any chamber tombs were built as late as this, but there is good evidence, from the dating of human remains from Embo passage tomb and Strathglebe chamber tomb, that the dead were still being buried in some of them. Regional diversification in ceramic styles can be seen, reflecting the strength of contacts between people in different parts of Highland Region with others to the north, south and west. A style of pottery commonly known as ‘Impressed Ware’, featuring the use of impressed decoration, had emerged by c. 3300/3200 BC if not earlier. A jet belt slider from Skye, and a partial slider from Fendom Sands near Tain (discussed in Section 5.4.5), attest to some degree of social differentiation in the c 3300–2900 BC bracket as these would have been status symbols.
5.1.5 The Later Neolithic and the ‘Neolithic–Chalcolithic transition’, c. 3000–c. 2500 BC
To the north of Highland Region, in Orkney, momentous social changes had been occurring since c. 3100 BC among the prosperous, ambitious and socially differentiated farming community there. Some people in Highland Region no doubt visited Orkney for its midwinter solstice celebrations, admiring monuments such as the Stones of Stenness stone circle and henge and the other imposing examples of Orcadian stone architecture (eg at Ness of Brodgar). Some of them chose to adopt the trappings of the new, Orcadian, way of life, including flat-based Grooved Ware pottery and stone maceheads. A recently-discovered slab decorated with a lozenge design, found reused in a cist at Drumnadrochit (EHG4672; McLaren 2019), expresses this relationship, as the lozenges are also seen on early Grooved Ware and on some stone slabs in Orkney, The Arisaig decorated slab (MHG56817; Bowker 2014), with its incised design reminiscent of that seen at Ness of Brodgar and elsewhere in Orkney, confirms that people were travelling up from the western side of Highland Region as well as from the eastern part.
Further evidence for this is provided by the small timber and then stone circle that was built, then subsequently dismantled, at Armadale on Skye (MHG60879); this may well be roughly contemporary with, or else it may pre-date, a pit containing cremated human bone dated to 2880–2570 cal BC (Peteranna 2011b; Krus and Peteranna 2016). The Armadale circle could well have been inspired by the Stones of Stenness in Orkney, and it is one of a number of Late Neolithic stone and timber circles in Scotland – some associated with Grooved Ware pottery – including examples at Balbirnie, Fife (Gibson 2010), Calanais (Phase 1) on Lewis,Temple Wood in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll and Bute and Machrie Moor, Arran (Sheridan 2004a).
These people also adopted the use of carved stone balls, but whether this was due to their contacts with communities in Orkney (where balls were used), or with others in Aberdeenshire (where the vast majority of carved stone balls have been found), it is impossible to tell.
Funerary practices changed to cremation, in common with the trend elsewhere in Britain (but seemingly not in Orkney). Token amounts of two people’s cremated remains were buried in a pit at Raigmore (MHG45835, Pit 20) with Grooved Ware sherds around 3000 BC (Simpson 1996a; Copper et al 2018), and parts of at least one individual were buried in a pit at Culduthel, along with sherds of Grooved Ware pots Sheridan 2010b; Hatherley forthcoming).
Very little is known about the reaction of Grooved Ware users in Highland Region to the arrival of yet more Continental immigrants – the so-called ‘Beaker People’ – around 2500 BC (Parker Pearson et al 2019; Hoole et al 2018). Just as during the ‘Mesolithic-Neolithic transition’, where the question of what happened to the indigenous hunter-fisher-foragers remains open, it is unclear for how long Grooved Ware continued to be used after the appearance of Beaker pottery, or what the dynamics of indigenous vs. incomer relations were. As pointed out by Tom Booth (2019; Booth et al 2021), the genetic picture of a near-total genetic turnover in Britain following the appearance of ‘the Beaker People’ does not mean that the indigenous population was wiped out.
5.1.6 Strengths and weaknesses of Highland Region’s evidence for the Neolithic period, plus opportunities and threats
Before suggesting research questions and recommendations (in section 5.9), it is useful to identify the regional Neolithic archaeology strengths and weaknesses and to characterise these as either “within reach of a solution” (opportunities) or with no obvious solution (threats). Many of these relate to all periods, outlined in Chapter 3, and are relevant to this discussion.
- There is a reasonable amount of palaeoenvironmental (including palaeoclimate) information available, which can be used to create narratives of land use.
- The activities of NOSAS and other community groups help to redress the geographical imbalance in fieldwork, with dedicated volunteers providing a great help in collating information, especially local details that may have escaped existing databases.
- Large parts of the northwest mainland remain under-researched due to the paucity of archaeologists in the areas, the remoteness of the areas, and the nature of the terrain – with many sites likely to be concealed under peat or rough grazing. Consequently it is hard to know whether the archaeologically ‘blank’ areas (for this period, as for other periods) had been devoid of people, or else contain hidden traces of their presence. It is strongly suspected that people were indeed living in the northwest Highlands, particularly around the coast, during the fourth and early third millennia, but without targeted fieldwork the chances of finding evidence for this are very slim.
- More generally, there is a serious geographical imbalance in the amount of archaeological research, investigation and excavation undertaken over Highland Region, with Inverness and environs being disproportionately well served by developer-funded projects. The Neolithic archaeology of Skye, for example, is very poorly documented.
- Most of the Neolithic settlements remain unpublished, or disseminated only via ‘grey literature’ accounts (often at the Data Structure Report stage, prior to the undertaking of specialist reporting and radiocarbon dating), and in some cases the amount of artefactual illustrations in the available literature falls far short of what is required for people to understand the nature of the finds. Other shortcomings in the presentation of results in a few of the ‘grey literature’ reports include inadequate dating and inadequate discussion of the Neolithic material uncovered; mis-identification of pottery in the field and/or by non-pottery specialists; and the undertaking of insufficient post-excavation research to establish a date or a definitive identification of the artefactual and other finds. Often, too, there is a long interval between production of the DSR and publication of a final definitive report, complete with dating information; in some cases, final reports are never published and there are no funds available to bring them to full publication. (This is the case, for example, with the excellent report on the important multi-phase site at Lower Slackbuie [ASDA], which should be brought to full publication without delay.) This, and the fact that it can be difficult to track down where the finds currently reside (especially in the case of assemblages that have still not been through the Treasure Trove process), makes the construction of synthetic narratives unduly difficult.
- Very little is known about the nature and organisation of settlements. The record is dominated by funerary evidence, and the known distribution of settlements is very largely due to the location of developer-funded fieldwork, which is geographically skewed to the area around Inverness.
- As noted above, the question of what happened to the indigenous Mesolithic inhabitants of Highland Region after farmers appeared remains unresolved: it is not known for how long the Mesolithic lifestyle persisted, or whether indigenous communities rapidly became acculturated to the farming lifestyle. As explained in Chapter 4, the number of Late Mesolithic sites in Highland Region is very small and there is not a ‘critical mass’ of evidence allowing us to understand the nature of the relationship between the indigenous population and the incoming farmers.
- Related to that issue is the question of the dating of shell middens in Highland Region. Clearly they formed at many different periods, including medieval times, but there is currently no clear picture of how many were accumulating during the fourth and early third millennia – and whether any that may date to that period relate to activities by fisher-hunter-foragers who chose not to adopt farming, or by farming communities who diversified their subsistence activities.
- At the other end of the chronological scale, we know very little about what happened to indigenous farming communities when Continental Beaker users arrived in the region around 2500 BC, other than that they clearly did not die out.
- More research needs to be carried out on the patterns of lithic resource exploitation, particularly in the west of the Region, to build on work already undertaken by Torben Ballin on individual rock types including Arran pitchstone, Rùm bloodstone, and flint around Tarradale (eg Ballin 2009; 2018; 2019; 2020a,b).
- Similarly, much work remains to be done on assessing the chronology of the surface scatters of lithic artefacts, and on undertaking targeted fieldwork to examine the nature of activity represented by these scatters.
- No systematic attempt to synthesise all the available evidence on the Neolithic period in Highland Region has been made in the past, and the invaluable collation of data that has been undertaken by Susan Kruse and members of Archaeology for the Community in the Highlands (ARCH) group for this research framework highlights the need to re-investigate the collated material to check, update and correct descriptions and attributions and to create definitive, well-illustrated corpora to facilitate future research.
- An unknown number of artefacts remain in private hands, and thus inaccessible to the public, and there are also records of objects that have been ‘lost’ in the past.
- The work of collating information that has been undertaken for HIARF provides a good foundation for, and offers the opportunity to develop, a comprehensive dataset of information on the Neolithic sites, monuments and finds in Highland Region. Further development of the existing artefact data would offer the opportunity to create a ’24 hour museum’ of images and information relating to objects that are currently scattered among several museums and collections.
- The Highland Archaeological Research Framework’s defined research questions and highlight lacunae in our knowledge and provides the opportunity for funding bodies to understand where funds could most fruitfully be directed in order to address these questions
- The peat-covered landscape offers a good testing ground for the development of survey methods designed to ‘see through’ peat
Threats (in addition to the general threats outlined in Ch. 3)
- The continued retention of artefacts in private hands, in contravention of Scots bona vacantia law (which states that all objects whose original owners or rightful heirs cannot be identified are the property of the Crown, and can be claimed by the Crown), denies everybody the possibility of seeing and understanding these pieces of the evidential ‘jigsaw’. There needs to be a publicity campaign to encourage people to obey the law.
- The absence of funds specifically dedicated to ‘rescuing’ developer-funded excavation reports from their current state of publication ‘limbo’ means that it will be hard to improve the status quo – but not impossible. Exploration of all potential funding sources should be pursued.