6.1 Introduction

This early medieval chapter deals with the period around AD 350–1058 and will follow a new structure which aligns with those used for the medieval and post-medieval chapters. In the past the period was often viewed as ‘the Dark Ages’ at the end of ‘prehistory’. The emphasis was on the ‘otherness’ of the period, and about how much information was simply unknown, either through archaeology or history. However, increasingly there is an emphasis on the parallels between the early medieval and the rest of the Middle Ages.

Current consensus favours labelling this as the early medieval period, as outlined in the ScARF Medieval Panel (2012). The period has previously been labelled as the Dark Ages (now antiquated), Late Antique, the Early Christian, the Long Iron Age and the Early Historic. The last two labels recognise both the importance of the continuing influence of prehistoric lifeways and traditions (ScARF 2012; Noble et al 2013) and the indigenous adoption of a new form of evidence, the written word which was a wider Roman legacy. The overlaps are demonstrated in the chronology diagram created by Scotland’s Archaeological Periods and Ages (ScAPA) shown below. ScAPA summarises the period as ‘defined by the adoption of Christianity and the emergence of identity from cultural groups leading to state formation after the end of the Roman Empire’.

Excerpt of timeline based on the ScAPA periods showing chronology of the Early Medieval period

Across the rest of Britain and much of Europe, study of the early part of the period focuses on elements of continuity with the Roman Empire. However, within Perth and Kinross the overlap with the Long Iron Age is arguably a more appropriate framework, given the limited and sporadic nature of the Roman presence.

The political, social and economic changes which occurred in the Iron Age to medieval transition are reflected in the development of different site types and monuments. These include the introduction of elongated house forms, longhouses or byre-houses, first identified as a new and distinct settlement type in the uplands of north-east Perth and Kinross (RCAHMS 1990). Later these house forms became known as Pitcarmick-type buildings (Carver et al 2013; Strachan et al 2019). Another significant change across northern Britain, as in Ireland, western England and Wales, was the re-emergence of fortified enclosures as manifestations of power, and as a symbol of more developed social hierarchies (Alcock 2003, 179–99; Noble 2016).

The period also saw the introduction of Christianity, which in this area probably began with missionaries from Iona moving eastwards through Glen Lyon, Loch Tay and Loch Earn. Monastic sites were established in the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Taylor 1999; Taylor 2000; for the posited earlier conversion episode, see Clancy 2000, 95–6 and Smyth 1989, 82–3). At this time, new ritual landscapes were introduced, leaving a primary archaeological signature of square barrows and barrow cemeteries (Maldonado 2017; Mitchell et al 2020). Finally, important new Insular art forms developed, significantly Pictish sculpture, including symbol stones and cross-slabs (Henderson and Henderson 2004; Fraser 2008; Hall et al 2020). While Roman influence persisted in the earlier part of the period, through the role of silver as a status symbol and catalyst for social change (Blackwell et al 2017).

Finally, in the latter part of the period the foundations for the emergence of the kingdom of Scotland were laid. Major medieval religious sites were established, and international connections became increasingly significant for the economy and culture of the region. Significantly, the written word began to play an increasing role in society, shaping both the nature of communication and memory, and providing us with additional evidence to compare with the archaeological record. Although the challenges of researching the early medieval period are not identical to those of understanding the later medieval period, they have sufficient overlap to make organising the content in a similar way desirable. This more thematic approach has less emphasis on monument types and artefacts that dominate the prehistoric chapters.