Early Neolithic

Three discrete practices and traditions are attested in this period namely:

  1. Burial in a passage tomb and, initially, in a closed megalithic chamber – a practice relating to the Atlantic façade, Breton ‘strand’ of Neolithisation
  2. Burial in a non-megalithic long, rectangular or trapezoidal mound and, over time, square and heel-shaped mounds – a practice relating to the ‘Carinated Bowl Neolithic’
  3. Burial in a cave – a practice whose cultural affiliation is uncertain; it certainly does not represent a survival of a Mesolithic practice, since in Scotland there is no evidence for Mesolithic burial in caves.

During the second quarter of the 4th millennium there is an intriguing interplay between the first two traditions as outlined below.

The passage tomb

Ground plan of Greadal Fhinn closed chamber and simple passage tomb. From Henshall 1972; ©Audrey Henshall

Arguably the earliest evidence for the Breton passage tomb tradition is provided by the Greadal Fhinn monument on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula (MHG70), in the southwest part of the Highland Region (Henshall 1972, 358–60). This monument consists of a squarish closed chamber and a simple passage tomb with a small, low round cairn. It is very similar to the monument at Achnacreebeag, Argyll and Bute (Ritchie 1970), around 50 km to the ESE, which contained Breton Late Castellic style pottery. A further simple monument at Rahoy (MHG488), c 18 km from Greadal Fhinn (Henshall 1972, 360), may well be of the same kind. Neither has been excavated, and both have been badly disturbed and robbed. It may be that targeted excavation would uncover traces of human remains or grave goods. The monuments form part of a west Scottish cluster of such monuments, which itself is part of a broader distribution of Breton-style monuments in the west of Britain and around the northern half of the coast of Ireland. As argued elsewhere (Sheridan and Schulting 2020), these could well date to as early as c 4000 BC; firm dating evidence is badly needed. Cremated remains from one such monument at Moleigh, Argyll and Bute, produced a date of 3715–3645 cal BC, but it is unclear whether that relates to primary or secondary use of that monument (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, 196).

Distribution of Breton-style closed chambers and simple passage tombs: 1. In west Scotland and the north coast of Ireland. Key: 1. Achnacreebeag, 2. Rahoy, 3. Greadal Fhinn); 2. In Britain and Ireland overall. From Sheridan and Schulting 2020 ©Alison Sheridan

A subsequent expansion of the use of passage tombs can be traced both north and east, presumably as the population of farmers grew. Over the generations, slightly larger, more complex and regionally diverse types of passage tomb emerged, including those labelled by Henshall as ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ (O-C) passage tombs (Henshall 1972). The first phase monument at Balvraid, Lochalsh (MHG5357), with its simple, non-compartmentalised passage tomb and small round cairn, is likely to be an early example of this process; it is particularly disappointing that the grave goods, including sherds of Neolithic pottery, were lost, presumably by the excavator (Henshall and Ritchie 2001, 230–2). No human remains were found.

Passage tomb spread, development and dating. From Sheridan and Schulting 2020; ©Alison Sheridan

A further example of a similar passage tomb design is known from the first phase of the monument at Tulach an t-Sionnaich, Caithness (MHG926), one of the chamber tombs around Loch Calder also excavated by Corcoran (Davidson and Henshall 1991, 146–9). The remains of one of the unburnt individuals buried there have recently been radiocarbon-dated to the 38th century BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, fig. 18.4). This date demonstrates this expansion out of the west of Scotland occurred rapidly. Recent dating of individuals from the ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ passage tombs around Loch Calder at Tulloch of Assery A and B (MHG981; MHG932) suggests that these tombs were in use around the same time as, or slightly later than, the first-phase of the monument at Tulach an t’Sionnaich. Bayesian modelling of the dates for these tombs, and for Tulach an t’Sionnaich, Rattar East, Caithness (MHG8910) and Embo, Sutherland (MHG11630), indicates an overall start date for these monuments of 3840–3645 BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, 201).

The chambers in the passage tombs at Tulloch of Assery A and B, like those of other O-C passage tombs, are internally divided by projecting slabs. The rectangular shape of the chamber at Tulloch of Assery B resembles the ‘stalled’ chamber shape of many passage tombs in Orkney which also underlines the close connections between the northern mainland and Orkney – although no Orcadian example has been dated as early as the Caithness ones. The slightly oval shape of other O-C chambers, as at Tulloch of Assery A, is also paralleled in Orkney. While Tulloch of Assery B has a round cairn, in common with many other O-C passage tombs, that of Tulloch of Assery A is roughly rectangular, and of ‘short horned’ type – a design associated with the Carinated Bowl Neolithic tradition. This interplay between two discrete traditions will be discussed below.

The passage tomb at Rubha’ an Dùnain, Skye (MHG4901; Henshall 1972, 485–8), excavated by W. Lindsay Scott(1932) in 1931 is a good example of the regional variant of passage tombs that developed in the Hebrides, with its funnel-shaped passage. This monument, and the other ‘Hebridean’-type passage tombs on Skye, attests to the close links that existed between communities in the Inner and Outer Hebrides. While some of the artefactual finds from Rubha’ an Dùnain survive in National Museums Scotland, others were lost, and the human and animal remains are almost certainly lost as well. They were sent to osteologist M.L. Tildesley at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in London for identification, and much of their collection of human remains was destroyed by a bomb during World War II.

The funerary tradition associated with the Carinated Bowl Neolithic

Elsewhere in Scotland, there are a wide range of funerary practices associated with the initial stages of the Carinated Bowl (CB) Neolithic. This includes deposition of remains in rectangular timber mortuary structures, also known as ‘linear zone structures’ (Kinnes 1992a), which were then burned down and covered by long or round mounds, as is found for example at Dalladies, Kincardineshire, with its trapezoidal horned long mound (Piggott 1972). An alternative practice at Boghead, Moray (Burl 1984), is open air cremation followed by encapsulation within a round or long mound. See Sheridan (2010c) on Neolithic non-megalithic round mounds in Scotland. It is also believed that rectangular timber or ditch-defined enclosures, such as the ones at Douglasmuir, Angus or Inchtuthil, Perth and Kinross, could have served as mortuary enclosures where corpses were deposited to decompose naturally (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, fig. 18.2). No example of a timber ‘linear zone’ mortuary structure has yet been found in the Highland Region, although one cannot, however, rule out the possibility that the Culduthel structure could have been a mortuary enclosure, or possibly a cursus – a type of monument that may have evolved from mortuary enclosures. The arrangement of postholes at Culduthel does not resemble that of a linear zone mortuary structure (Kinnes 1992a), and the monument in question is more likely to be a cursus monument, as noted in Section 5.6.4. Similarly, there is no example of an Early Neolithic open-air cremation site or non-megalithic round mound in the Highlands.

Nevertheless, the existence of non-megalithic long mounds in the Highland Region has been proposed by Ian Kinnes (1992a; 1992b; see for comparison Henshall 1972, 158–62). The four candidates that he proposed (Kinnes 1992b, 83), all unexcavated, are at Lairg, Sutherland; Carn Liath, Easter Ross (MHG8715); Craig an Amalaidh, Sutherland (MHG11762); Edderton Hill, Easter Ross (MHG8657, incorrectly listed as a chambered long cairn in the HER). They range in length between 23m andv62 m and in width, and between 14 and 15m in height. Without targeted excavation, it is impossible to confirm whether these are indeed non-megalithic long mounds dating to the early 4th millennium BC, so this constitutes an outstanding research question that needs to be addressed.

One example of a chambered long mound is the monument at Cladh Aindreis on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Lochaber (Harris et al 2010) This clearly belongs to the CB tradition of funerary monument building that is found mostly in west and southwest Scotland known as the Clyde cairn tradition. Such monuments are the translation into stone of the non-megalithic monuments of the earliest CB Neolithic, and their development is discussed elsewhere (Sheridan and Schulting 2020).

With other chambered long mounds in the Highland Region, the story is more complex, with remarkable developments occurring in the centuries leading up to c 3500 BC.

Examples of superimposition of long or squarish cairns onto passage tombs with round cairns: 1. Camster Long, Caithness (and note the round cairns poking through the top of the long cairn on the photograph); 2. Tulach an t’Sionnaich, Caithness; 3. Ormiegill, Caithness. Photo ©Chris Sinclair; plans after Davidson and Henshall 1991; ©Audrey Henshall

The first of these developments features the imposition of a rectangular and square or heel-shaped cairn on top of (or around) a pre-existing passage tomb with a round cairn – thereby imposing a monument type associated with one Neolithic tradition on examples from a different tradition. The most obvious example of this is of two passage tombs being encompassed within an enormous (60.5 by 17m) trapezoidal long horned cairn, at Camster Long, Caithness (MHG1809; Davidson and Henshall 1991, 96–102). Among the many other examples of this ‘appropriation and cultural rebranding’ phenomenon in the Highland Region are the incorporation of the simple passage tomb at Tulach an t’Sionnaich, Caithness (MHG926), first within a horned, heel-shaped cairn and then within a long cairn (ibid, 146–9), and the incorporation of a similar simple passage tomb with small round cairn into a short rectangular cairn at Balvraid, Lochalsh (MHG5357; Henshall 1972, 558–9) and into a short horned cairn at Ormiegill, Caithness (MHG2184; Davidson and Henshall 1991, 129–30). While none of these enlargements have been dated, the existence of a long horned cairn at Point of Cott, Orkney, whose initial use has been radiocarbon-dated to the 36th or 35th century BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, fig. 18.6), indicates that such monuments were clearly in use by that time.

Not only was there superimposition of CB Neolithic-style rectilinear cairns on pre-existing round-cairn passage tombs: at Tulloch of Assery A, Caithness (MHG981), it appears that a monument of hybrid design, featuring two Orkney-Cromarty style passage tombs set within a short horned cairn, was constructed (Davidson and Henshall 1991, 157–9). Radiocarbon dating of human remains from within this monument has shown that it was in use as early as the 37th or 36th century BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, fig. 18.4).

The second and related development was that of the aggrandisement of funerary monuments. This is exemplified by Camster Long (MHG1809) and the several other monuments where long cairns were superimposed on one or more pre-existing round cairns. The final monument form was truly impressive. It may be, as argued elsewhere (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, 205), that this was an expression of a process of competitive conspicuous consumption via funerary monuments, where neighbouring groups tried to outdo each other through the magnificence of the monuments devoted to honouring their dead. The dating of this process still leaves much to be desired, so any opportunity that may be afforded to date the construction of long horned cairns in the Highland Region needs to be taken.

Cave burial

The recent radiocarbon dating by Jessica Bownes (2018) of unburnt humanremains from a cave at Loch Borralie, Sutherland, to 3710–3543 cal BC or 3653–3524 cal BC. The latter date being a recalibration using a method known as FRUITS (Bownes 2018; Knight et al 2020, 164), confirms that in Highland Region, as in Argyll and Bute and Moray, people were being buried in caves prior to c. 3500 BC. As discussed elsewhere (Sheridan and Schulting 2020), there is no Mesolithic precedent for this practice in Scotland, unlike elsewhere in Britain. In the absence of grave goods, except for a single flint arrowhead from Raschoille Cave near Oban, Argyll and Bute, it is impossible to determine the cultural identity of the deceased, since cave burial does not feature in the funerary traditions of the Continental forbears of our earliest farmers in Brittany or Nord-Pas de Calais. Analysis of the DNA of several individuals from Raschoille Cave (Brace et al 2019) has revealed that their genetic ancestry does indeed lie in continental Europe, and that in three cases (Brace pers. comm.) there had been intermixing between immigrant farmers and indigenous hunter-fisher-foragers.

Other practices

The intriguing discovery of a pit containing calcined bone, a leaf-shaped arrowhead, charcoal and ‘coarseware pottery’ (MHG8342), during fieldwork connected with the creation of the Inverness-Dingwall gas pipe line in 1992, needs to be investigated and radiocarbon dated to check whether this is an example of the Early Neolithic practice of depositing cremated remains in a simple pit. The bone needs to be examined osteologically to check whether it came from a human, the pottery needs to be identified by a pottery specialist; the charcoal needs to be identified; and the calcined bone and charcoal, if of short-lived species, needs to be radiocarbon dated.

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