Newmill and other Early Chalcolithic Beakers

An All-Over-Ornamented Beaker with stab-and-drag herringbone decoration excavated from a grave pit surrounded by a ring-ditch at Newmill (MPK3217), near Bankfoot sits early in the Beaker typological sequence. It can be most closely paralleled with Bell Beakers from the Netherlands and other parts of the Lower and Middle Rhine (Sheridan 2008a, 253; see Watkins and Shepherd 1980, 37–8 and Fokkens 2012 for Dutch and Continental comparanda). In terms of Clarke’s Beaker typology (1970), the Newmill vessel would fall within his ‘E’ (for ‘European’) category. According to Needham’s scheme (2005), it could be classified as an ‘S’-profile Beaker, or else a sinuous version of a Low-Carinated Beaker. Although the human remains from this site had fully decayed, the presence of a flint strike-a-light among the grave goods – arguably another Continental novelty – suggests that the occupant of the grave was male. For a discussion of the sex associations of Chalcolithic and Bronze Age fire-making equipment, see Teather and Chamberlain 2016. The other grave good was a flint knife. The excavators concluded that the body had been deposited in an organic structure, perhaps a bark coffin or a plank-built cist-like chamber (Watkins and Shepherd 1980). The form of the grave, with its surrounding ring-ditch and low mound of pebbles over the grave pit, has parallels in the Lower Rhine and northern France. For a discussion of comparanda, see Fokkens 2012 and Salanova and Tchérémissinoff 2011. Beaker-associated graves featuring organic chambers, as opposed to stone cists, are characteristic of the earliest Beaker funerary practices in Great Britain, and are also typical of north-west European Beaker practice (Bradley et al 2016). However, they are rare in Scotland, where the slightly later rectangular short-stone cists, which constitute a translation into stone of their wooden forerunners, predominate. The closest parallel for the Newmill grave in Scotland is that at Upper Largie in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll and Bute (Cook et al 2010; Sheridan 2008a, 253). There, the enclosing ring-ditch had timber uprights, which is another Continental feature. The Beakers from the Upper Largie cist are of early Continental types. The presence of more than one Beaker in the grave is also characteristic of early Beaker graves in Britain, one such example is the grave of the ‘Amesbury Archer’ (Fitzpatrick 2011).

Newmill Beaker and flint tools ©️NMS

While the Newmill Beaker remains unparalleled in Perth and Kinross, a closely comparable example was discovered in a small cist at Battle Moss in Caithness (Sheridan 2010b). In Perth and Kinross a further example of a Clarke ‘E’ Beaker (sinuous Low-Carinated) is known from Fingask (MPK5363; Anon 1952, 208–9, pl XLI, 2). It was reportedly found on the Fingask Estate ‘many years’ before 1952; given that it is intact, it is very likely to have come from a grave. Both the Newmill and Fingask Beakers could theoretically date as early as the 25th century BC.

Fingask Beaker (Clarke 1970, 289, no 74)

Elsewhere, an important assemblage of six early Continental-style Beakers with All-Over-Cord (AOC) and All-Over-Comb decoration was discovered in association with Henge 2 at Forteviot (MPK1185). Their constituent sherds were mostly found in the basal fill of the ditch, particularly in the entrance area, and in the upper fill of two postholes in the area enclosed by the henge ditch. Wilkin and Jorge (2020) describe five Beakers, but there were possibly seven with not all the sherds being correctly attributed. Willow charcoal in the basal fill of the ditch, likely to be contemporary with the Beaker pottery, produced a radiocarbon date of 2496–2299 BC (at 87.7% probability [SUERC-37867]; 3935±35 BP; Brophy and Noble 2020, table 2.4). These Beakers are not from a funerary context, but instead must be connected with the ceremonies that took place in the henge.

Beakers from Henge 2, Forteviot (by Marion O’Neil)

A further find of an early Beaker comes from the fill of the ditch of Henge 1, in its terminal area. Here, the pot may be of Needham’s Tall Mid-Carinated type, with rows of horizontal comb impressions over most of the surface. There is a narrow band of a comb-impressed ‘ermine’ design on the lower belly. The modelled radiocarbon dates relating to the Henge 1 ditch indicate that it was probably created 2460–2230 cal BC (95% probability, Hamilton with Brophy 2020, 147). This is in line with the date for the Henge 2 ditch.

Beaker from Henge 1, Forteviot (by Marion O’Neil)

As for the other early Beakers from Perth and Kinross, the Low-Carinated AOC beakers include examples from Lundin Farm, near Aberfeldy (MPK1108; Stewart 1966), Bailelands, Auchterarder (MPK1346; Reid 1898) and there is one Low-Carinated All-Over Comb Beaker from Balnahanaid, Ben Lawers (MPK162; Sheridan 2016). They are all likely to be early examples within this British ceramic tradition (cf Sheridan 2007a). Moreover, it is likely that the four Beakers (including two AOC Beakers) that were found in a pit (Pit 022) along with abraded calcined bone at Brookfield House, Blackford (MPK15812) are contemporary with the burnt hazelnut shell and charred barley grain in the pit. These were radiocarbon dated to 24662236 cal BC (3876±26 BP, UBA-15211) and 2343–2153 cal BC (3820±21 BP, UBA-15212) respectively (O’Connell et al 2021, 10–12).

All-Over-Cord decorated Beakers from 1. Lundin Farm, Aberfeldy (Stewart 1966); 2. Bailielands, Auchterarder (Clarke 1970); and 3. Balnahanaid, Ben Lawers (Sheridan 2016)

The Lundin Farm example was found within a Four-Poster stone monument, but it clearly pre-dates that monument. It was discovered under the closely-set stones of a cairn, 24 inches (60cm) below ground surface (Stewart 1966, fig 5). Sherds of a Collared Urn were found in the vicinity, but at a lesser depth (18–21 inches, 46–53cm). It is unclear whether the Beaker had been associated with funerary activity, although this is possible.

The sinuous, Low-Carinated Auchterarder example was found in a stone cist, and had accompanied a contracted skeleton, whose ‘bones crumbled on being exposed to the air’ (Reid 1898). Its decoration is unusual as the upper part of the body has roughly parallel lines of twisted cord impressions, whereas the lower part has rows of relatively crudely incised zig-zag lines. The term ‘All-Over-Cord’ is therefore a slight misnomer.

The small, Low-Carinated, All-Over-Comb decorated Beaker from Balnahanaid, Ben Lawers was found in a pit that, which although small, would have been large enough to accommodate a tightly-contracted body (MPK163; Atkinson 2016). Sheridan (2016) has argued that this is likely to have been a grave, even though no human remains were found. At just 123mm in height, this Beaker is comparable to the diminutive AOC Beaker from a grave at Sorisdale on Coll, which survives to a height of 77mm and was probably around 90mm tall when complete (Ritchie and Crawford 1978, 75–84). The comparison is instructive since isotopic and aDNA analysis of the young female buried with the Sorisdale Beaker has revealed that she was not raised locally, and may have been a first-generation immigrant, probably from the Upper Rhine (Sheridan 2008a, 253ff; Montgomery et al 2019, 395; Olalde et al 2018, fig 2). It is quite possible that the Balnahanaid grave, like that of Newmill, had held the body of a Continental Beaker-using immigrant. The form of the putative grave at Balnahanaid, as with Newmill and other similar graves in Scotland such as Upper Largie (Cook et al 2010; Sheridan 2008a, 253) is characteristic of the earliest Beaker graves in Scotland and in Britain more widely. It was only subsequently that the use of stone cists became the ‘standard’ form of grave structure in Scotland, and north Britain more generally.