4.6 Religion and Ritual

Across Europe various elements thought to relate to religion and ritual have been identified from Palaeolithic sites of this period. The Scottish evidence is such that this kind of detail is lacking, though that does not mean that religion and ritual did not play a part in Palaeolithic life in Scotland.

With regard to the Mesolithic, ritual or ceremonial artefacts and sites have been recognised in the archaeological record although interpretation is often difficult. The carved wooden baton found in 2013 in a bog at Maerdy, Wales has been linked to the Shigir Idol, an apparent Mesolithic ritual object from the Urals (Koksharov 2021; Terberger et al 2021). Perforated cowrie shells found at Sand may have been used for decoration, but ethnographic evidence shows that in some societies these objects were associated with fertility (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 9.4.7); there are many other possible associations. Similarly, symbolic objects may not be recognised in the archaeological record. There are indications elsewhere in Scotland of a richer side to life, for example the pit alignment at Warrenfield, Crathes (Murray et al 2009). It is also worth remembering that hunter-gatherer communities often place emphasis on natural places as special in some way and this may well have been the case in Scotland. Tentative evidence of this has been found at Chest of Dee, Aberdeenshire (Wickham-Jones et al 2020c; forthcoming).

Perforated cowrie beads from Sand. ©Scotland’s First Settlers Project

While ritual sites and artefacts from the Mesolithic are lacking in the Highland Region this does not mean that they were absent, and attention should be given to the recognition of these types of artefacts in future finds.

No deliberate burials have been recognised in either the Palaeolithic or the Mesolithic across Scotland. Sites with very specific preservation conditions, allowing for the preservation of human remains, would need to be found. The only human remains found comprise isolated bones (mainly of digits), from the Oronsay middens (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1). This picture has not changed in more recent years or indeed since the discovery of the Oronsay material in the 1970s.

This lack of evidence may in itself be an indication that whatever belief systems existed over this long period, they did not involve the deliberate deposition of the dead or cremated remains in a way that has survived to the present day. A number of theories have been proposed to fit this picture, and it is, of course, important to remember that burial customs themselves are likely to have changed over time. More than one pattern of activity may be involved. The relatively recent recognition of Mesolithic cremation burials on an otherwise undiagnostic site in Ireland is worth remembering (Collins and Coyne 2003), but without further evidence it is impossible to push the interpretation in any particular direction (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1).

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