3.3 History of Research

As with elsewhere in Scotland, Neolithic monuments were the focus of antiquarian inquiry from the 19th century onwards. The investigation and documentation of megalithic monuments and burials was most common prior to the merger of the Perthshire and Kinross-shire Counties in 1975. In many instances, the sites are only known through the Ordnance Survey Name Book and Statistical Accounts; these sources make a limited contribution towards our contemporary understanding of Neolithic Perth and Kinross, in part due to the subsequent loss of recovered material remains. Nonetheless, valuable work by the likes of Coles at the turn of the 20th century have offered useful building blocks for analysis (eg Coles 1909).

In the middle decades of the 20th century, a series of excavations were carried out at Neolithic monuments in the area by eminent archaeologists such as Childe, Piggott, Simpson and Coles. Childe, for instance, investigated a Clyde-type chambered cairn at Kindrochat (MPK348) with a team of students in 1929–30 (Childe 1930; 1931; Ralston 2009). Between them, Coles, Piggott and Simpson carried out important excavations at a diverse range of sites in Strathtay including Pitnacree (MPK1714) round barrow in 1964 (Coles and Simpson 1965) and a complex pit cluster at Haugh of Grandtully (MPK6035) in 1966–7 (Simpson et al 1991). In 1965, Piggott and Simpson (1971) also excavated Croftmoraig/Croft Moraig (MPK363) stone circle. However, their Neolithic interpretation has been overturned by more recent excavations that produced an entirely Bronze Age sequence of dates (see chapters in Bradley and Nimura 2016).

The early interventions were supplemented by the work of Stewart and Barclay who focused much of their attention on studying the Neolithic of Perth and Kinross. Both have made significant personal contributions to our current understanding of the Neolithic in the area through their sustained excavation campaigns.

Stewart (1907–86) was a student of Childe and a notable figure in the history of the archaeology department at the University of Edinburgh (Ralston 2009). Her activities were centred around the pre-1975 County of Perthshire (Taylor 1989, 1) where she excavated a diverse range of Neolithic (and Bronze Age) sites and monuments between the 1930s and 1970s. These included stone settings at Monzie, Crieff (MPK848; Young and Crichton Mitchell 1939), Sandy Road, Scone (MPK3285; Stewart 1965), and a group of four-post stone settings in Strathtay (Stewart 1966; 1974; Stewart and Barclay 1997). Together with Henshall, Stewart investigated the chambered cairn at Clach na Tiompan (MPK955) in the Sma’ Glen (Henshall and Stewart 1954) and a site at Dull (MPK1027) near Aberfeldy, which she believed to have been a chambered cairn (Stewart 1959, 74; the identification was disputed and was not accepted by Henshall). She also excavated the complex multiphase ‘mini’ henge at Moncreiffe House (MPK3163) although most of this site was found to be post-Neolithic in date (Stewart 1986). Additionally, she undertook an extensive survey of the prehistoric monuments of Perthshire (Stewart 1959).

Barclay spent much of his career working with Historic Scotland; from 1977 onwards he was based in their Central Excavation Unit (Ralston 2016). This position gave him the opportunity to direct important and large-scale excavations at a range of prehistoric sites and monuments across Scotland; some of his most important work was in Perth and Kinross. His excavations at North Mains henge and barrow (MPK1358 & 1359/Canmore IDs 26005/26006) in Strathearn during the late 1970s were amongst the most significant undertaken in modern archaeology in Scotland (Barclay 1983). They inspired a great interest in cropmark sites of this period and region. In the early 1990s Barclay, together with Maxwell, excavated a Neolithic mortuary enclosure at Inchtuthil (MPK6939), the Cleaven Dyke (MPK6611/Canmore IDs 28473/73146) cursus, and the timber structure at Littleour (MPK6955) amongst many other sites (Barclay and Maxwell 1992; 1998). His First Farmers project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, endeavoured to identify Neolithic settlement sites in Perth and Kinross. It included excavations of the Claish timber hall (now Stirling although historically in Perthshire) in 2001 (Barclay et al 2003), the timber structures at Carsie Mains (MPK6977 & 6980) in 2002 (Brophy and Barclay 2004), and other assorted cropmark enclosures, pit clusters and lithic scatters with mixed results. His contribution to our understanding of the region’s Neolithic also encompassed important synthesising studies on settlement, enclosures, cursus monuments and henges (eg Barclay 1999; 2001a; 2003; for full bibliography, see Ralston 2016).

Both Stewart and Barclay were strong supporters of the ‘amateur scene’ in the County of Perthshire. Stewart had a leading role in the Perthshire Society of Natural Science, founding its Archaeological and Historical Section in 1948 (see ‘Archaeology and History – Perthshire Society of Natural Science’). She was a strong supporter of community excavations (Taylor 1989; Hall 2018). Barclay was a patron of the ‘Stones and Bones’ fieldwalking group who were active during his excavations of the 1990s and 2000s (eg Hallyburton and Brown 2000).

Following from the work of Barclay, the SERF Project delivered a significant, decade-long research-based fieldwork programme (2006–17) through the University of Glasgow (and Aberdeen in its initial phase). This landscape-scale, multiphase approach has added considerably to our understanding of Neolithic monumentality around the Forteviot-Leadketty complexes in Strathearn (Driscoll et al 2010; Noble and Brophy 2011a; 2011b; Brophy and Noble 2020; Wright and Brophy forthcoming) as well as Neolithic cremation practices (Noble and Brophy 2020; Noble et al 2017). SERF has also contributed towards research priorities such as the transition between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, the chronology of henge monuments, and the general lack of environmental contextualisation for Neolithic sites. PhD research has emanated from the SERF project has included Kirsty Millican’s work on timber monuments (2009; 2016a; 2016b) and Rebecca Younger’s thesis on henge monuments (2015; 2016). Thewider project results relating to the Neolithic are published in Prehistoric Forteviot (Brophy and Noble 2020), the first of four SERF monographs.

Cropmarks are one of the most significant characteristics of the Neolithic archaeological record in Perth and Kinross and, as previously mentioned, were the focus of most of Barclay’s work and part of the SERF Project’s prehistoric excavations (Brophy and Noble 2020). Early aerial reconnaissance in the area where Neolithic sites were documented began with the Cambridge University Aerial Photograph Collection (CUCAP) as a tertiary output from flights by St Joseph that largely focused on suspected Roman period targets (Jones 2005). A notable example is the palisaded enclosure complex at Forteviot (MPK1882/Canmore ID 26559/296263; St Joseph 1976). The identification and interpretation of cropmarks through broader aerial reconnaissance work by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS, now Historic Environment Scotland) (Maxwell 1979) has radically influenced the way that the Neolithic is viewed across large swathes of lowland Scotland (Barclay 1993; Brophy 2007a). This is especially the case in Perth and Kinross where large numbers of Neolithic sites and types such as possible timber halls, four-post structures, cursus monuments, mortuary enclosures, timber circles, palisaded enclosures and henges were unknown prior to the sorties commencing in 1976. Crucially, a large number of these cropmarks have been subject to detailed and innovative interpretation and synthesis by the RCAHMS, published in their volume South-east Perth: an archaeological landscape (RCAHMS 1994).

Where surveys have taken place in the uplands, the mixed results have played a lesser role in our understanding of this period. It is likely that Neolithic sites remain undiscovered across much of the region’s uplands. Possible Neolithic sites were found in Strathtay in the 1950s (Stewart 1959) but none were identified by RCAHMS surveys in Strathardle or Glen Shee in the late 1980s (RCAHMS 1990). Between 1996 and 2005, much attention was focused on the environs of Ben Lawers as part of the Ben Lawers Historic Landscape Project which included an RCAHMS survey in addition to the GUARD excavations (see Atkinson et al 2016). Possible and probable Neolithic sites identified during the RCAHMS survey work included chambered cairns and standing stones with the excavations revealing lithics such as leaf-shaped arrowheads and pitchstone blades. Submerged woodland remains at Craggantoul (MPK17641) in Loch Tay returned wide-ranging radiocarbon dates including those for three Neolithic oaks calibrated to various spans between about 3500 cal BC and 3000 cal BC (Dixon 2007; Dixon 2016). Over 100 outcrops and boulders with rock art were also identified (although their chronology remains unclear) (Hale 2003). These discoveries were followed up by excavations of several rock art sites in 2007–10 (Bradley et al 2013). Further identifications have since been made by amateur rock art investigator Currie (regularly reported in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland). Research into Perth and Kinross’s extensive rock art record continues through Historic Environment Scotland’s Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP). Considering these different projects together, it is clear that the use of multiple analysis techniques to investigate the sites and monuments around Ben Lawers and its wider Loch Tay environs have successfully identified Neolithic activity away from lowland arable areas.

Other fieldwork carried out in the uplands above the Highland Boundary Fault was the research excavation of the stone quarry, or so-called ‘axe factory’, at Creag na Caillich above Killin in 1989. This was funded by National Museums Scotland (NMS) and led by Edmonds, with Sheridan; palaeoenvironmental analysis was undertaken by Tipping (Edmonds et al 1993). This work followed on from much earlier fieldwork carried out by Ritchie and MacKie, as described by Edmonds et al (1993). It clarified the nature of the activities that had taken place, their date (namely intermittent, small-scale exploitation during the third millennium BC and probably also the late fourth millennium BC) and the environment around the time of the quarrying. Petrological research by NMS also confirmed Ritchie’s suspicion that a cushion macehead found at Knock on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis is of Creag na Caillich calc-silicate hornfels (Edmonds et al 1993).

A notable emergent theme in regional Neolithic studies is developer-funded archaeological work which has contributed significantly to Scotland’s archaeology sector since the latter half of the 1980s (Carter 2002). Perth and Kinross features in Scotland-wide reviews of commercially delivered fieldwork contributions (Phillips and Bradley 2005; Brophy 2007a). Brophy’s assessment (2007a) highlights that, between 1985 and 2014, 50% of the archaeological excavations which found material dated to the Neolithic were undertaken in advance of development. Work by commercial sector organisations is clearly of great importance and continues to be inform our understanding of the period, complementing the result of research-based excavations. The excavations at Haughs of Pittentian (MPK18545) between 2011 and 2014, undertaken as part of preparations for the Beauly to Denny overhead electricity cable (Becket et al forthcoming), are a good example of this, as is the recent archaeological work associated with Transport Scotland’s A9 Dualling programme (Paton and Wilson 2019).

Major UK-wide and international research projects have also illuminated the Neolithic period in Perth and Kinross. The Gathering Time chronology project, led by Whittle with Bayliss and Healy and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and English Heritage, has used Bayesian-models to analyse the available radiocarbon dates for Neolithic ‘things and practices’ in Scotland south of the Great Glen (Whittle et al 2011, chapter 14). Whittle et al concluded that ‘the Neolithic’ in this part of Scotland began either 3950–3765 cal BC (95.4% probability) or 3835–3760 cal BC (95.4% probability). The different estimates are due to the fact that Perth and Kinross straddles their ‘south Scotland’ and ‘north-east Scotland’ regions (See Sheridan 2012 for a review of their findings, also Sheridan and Schulting 2020 for new Bayesian modelling of Scottish funerary monuments). Whittle et al are revisiting their chronological models in the light of the new IntCal20 radiocarbon calibration which may alter the conclusions thus far drawn. Projet JADE, a major international research project funded by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, France and led by Pétrequin, has transformed our understanding of the small number of Alpine axeheads found in Perth and Kinross. It has located the source of the rock and situating their arrival in Scotland within a Europe-wide picture of Alpine rock exploitation and circulation (Pétrequin et al 2012a/b; 2017a/b). This work follows on from an earlier tradition of research into the stone axeheads of this part of Scotland (and the rest of Britain), undertaken by the Implement Petrology Committee (now Group) mostly in the 1970s and 1980s; it involved petrological thin-sectioning of selected axeheads (Ritchie and Scott 1988). Other research that has provided information on Neolithic Perth and Kinross is the long-standing radiocarbon dating programme of National Museums Scotland which has produced a date for secondary activity at the Early Neolithic round barrow at Pitnacree (MPK1714; Sheridan 2010b). In collaboration with Schulting, it has also produced a date relating to the use of Cultoquhey chambered tomb (Sheridan and Schulting 2020).