5.3.3 Other Settlement Evidence

As noted in 5.3.3, most of the evidence for settlement comes from pits, usually found in clusters. Along with spreads of artefacts and of waste material (eg ash from hearths), pits are likely to constitute the final remaining features of a truncated land surface, from which any traces of houses have been erased. An excellent example of a Neolithic settlement attested almost exclusively by pits is that at Lewiston, Drumnadrochit, explored in 2017 (Peteranna 2017: Smiddy Bar, EHG5167) and in 2018 and 2019 (Williamson et al 2019, EHG5558). Bayesian modelling of the radiocarbon dates obtained for the latter investigation concluded that this settlement dates to 3662–3543 cal BC (ibid, 69).

Much has been written about the nature and significance of pits and pit-filling activities in Neolithic Britain (eg Anderson-Whymark and Thomas 2012) and a spectrum of uses, from sub-surface receptacles for rubbish to foci for carefully-deposited material (in other words, for ‘structured deposition’), has been proposed, particularly as far as some Late Neolithic deposits of Grooved Ware pottery are concerned. A critical review of the uses of pits in Highland Region may prove instructive in this regard, and is recommended.

One interpretation that was favoured by some during the 1980s to the recent past (eg Thomas 2013) was that sites featuring pits without structural traces of dwelling structures related to a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. The wrongness, and indeed naïvete of such a view, was exposed by excavations at Sewerby Cottage Farm, Bridlington, East Yorkshire (Fenton-Thomas 2009) where a Middle Neolithic settlement had not been truncated to such an extent as to destroy all traces of a house with very shallow sub-ground features. A further factor militating against the ‘pits = mobile settlement mode’ argument is the common presence of cereal grains in pits (and the occasional presence of cereal-processing debris). While it is indeed possible to move cereal grains around, nevertheless cereal cultivation requires year-round occupation of an area, and any arguments for Neolithic communities living a lifestyle that was not basically sedentary (albeit with seasonal and temporary occupation of other kinds of site, such as transhumance ‘shielings’) would require far more robust evidence to be deployed than can be provided by pits.

One additional factor to be borne in mind when considering the significance of pits as indicators of habitation is that most developer-funded excavations are spatially constrained. It may be that in some cases the excavation has hit upon the area of rubbish deposition but has missed the area where dwelling structures had been.

Finally, one other kind of Neolithic structure – wattle fencing – is attested at GUARD Archaeology’s excavations at Knocknagael (MHG23404, same site as MHG54504, Slackbuie Way, Inverness, excavated as part of the Inverness Flood Relief work: Kilpatrick 2016). Willow and hazel charcoal from this structure has produced a Middle Neolithic date of 3250‒3100 cal BC (which was erroneously described by Kilpatrick as ‘Early Neolithic’).

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