5.4 Key Priorities for Future Research

As this overview of the early prehistory of Argyll and its environmental context has indicated there are a large number of research themes that require on-going exploration, being of relevance not only to Argyll but also to national and international debates about early prehistoric settlement and society. While on-going fieldwork to simply discover and excavate further Mesolithic and ideally Palaeolithic sites along with palaeoenvironmental research is desirable, the following can be identified as the five priorities for the region, three concerning fieldwork, one desk-based research and one heritage management.

5.4.1 The Late Glacial: excavation at Rubha Port an t-Seilich and its environmental context

Argyll now has the only known in situ Late Glacial site in Scotland, located at Rubha Port an t-Seilich (CANMORE ID 98306) (Mithen et al. 2015) – the site of Howburn (CANMORE ID 216532) in South Lanarkshire being a scatter of probably Late Glacial artefacts in a plough soil, intermingled with those from later periods (Ballin et al. 2010). In light of stone artefacts at Rubha Port an t-Seilich (CANMORE ID 98306) having Ahrensburgian affinities, and its most likely date being in the latter part of the Younger Dryas, this site has significance for the Late Glacial of NW Europe in general, notably the extent to which maritime adaptations were developed. At present, however, all that we know about Rubha Port an t-Seilich (CANMORE ID 98306)(other than its Mesolithic archaeology) is from a small collection of chipped stone artefacts and preliminary studies of tephra, pollen, phytoliths and the geochemistry of a sediment monolith. Whether the site contains a substantial number of artefacts, structural features, and preserved faunal material remains unknown. As such, this site should be the research priority for early prehistory in Argyll. As a hugely valuable by-product of this research priority, the Mesolithic deposits at Rubha Port a t-Seilich would also be excavated, these containing abundant artefacts, charred plant material, faunal remains and features indicative of significant structures.

The value of further evidence about the Late Glacial activities at Rubha Port an t-Seilich (CANMORE ID 98306) would be significantly enhanced if this could be placed within an improved understanding of the environmental context of Late Glacial and early Holocene exploration and settlement. Of particular importance is securing a better data and models for sea level change and tidal range between the Younger Dryas and the mid-Holocene. Exploring the extent – if any – of correlations between abrupt climatic fluctuations in the Late Glacial and early Holocene and the presence/absence of archaeological sites within the region should also be a key priority.

5.4.2 The appearance of the Neolithic and the demise of the Mesolithic: Targeted excavation, dating and environmental reconstruction

A second priority is a programme of fieldwork, dating and analysis to explore the nature of the earliest Neolithic and the demise of the Mesolithic, focusing on the following questions:

  1. At what date were the Breton-style closed chambers and simple passage tombs first constructed?
  2. Where did the builders of the funerary monuments live, and what was their lifestyle and subsistence practice? And when, precisely, did these putative Breton immigrants – if indeed that is who they were – arrive?
  3. Where (in addition to the sites we already know) did the Carinated Bowl (CB) Neolithic settlers live, and what precisely was their subsistence strategy? Is their settlement organisation the same as elsewhere in Scotland (as reviewed, for example, in Sheridan 2007)? And are there any non-megalithic CB funerary monuments in Argyll and Bute, such as those at Lochhill and Slewcairn in Dumfries and Galloway (Masters 1973; 1975; Millican 2012)?
  4. Why were some of the early Neolithic inhabitants buried in a cave (Raschoille cave) as opposed to a built funerary monument?
  5. What exactly was the process, timing and tempo of the demise of the Mesolithic? Did the Mesolithic communities become culturally and biologically extinct or did they become acculturated into the Neolithic? How late did a lifestyle based solely on the exploitation of wild resources continue? Is there any reason to accept Bonsall et al.’s (2002) argument for environmental change having an impact on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition?

A regional, problem-oriented fieldwork strategy is required to address such questions, most likely involving extensive field-walking, test-pitting and excavation in the quest to locate Neolithic domestic settlements and to date the earliest construction of funerary monuments. A critical element of this fieldwork will need to be directed towards securing datable evidence to enhance our understanding of the chronology of the Early Neolithic. That will need to be fully integrated with that for Mesolithic to create a single model for the early prehistory of Argyll. In addition, obtaining ancient DNA from the Mesolithic individuals buried on Oronsay and the earliest Neolithic individuals, such as those from Raschoille cave (CANMORE ID 22924), might help to identify places of human origin – local or external to the region – and patterns of life-history mobility; this work is currently underway and the results are expected in 2017.

The fieldwork programme should include targeted excavation of the megalithic monuments suspected to be of Breton type. Although the later dated Clyde cairns do not represent the first wave of the Neolithic in the west of Scotland, they become the predominant monument form in Argyll from about 5800 cal BP (3800 BC) and in many areas they are the earliest known evidence of the Neolithic way of life, Figure 46. They have been in several cases proven to be later developments from simpler closed chamber round cairns, such as Mid Gleniron I (CANMORE ID 61594) and II (CANMORE ID 61608) in Wigtownshire (Corcoran 1969), Glenvoidean (CANMORE ID 39897) on Bute (Marshall and Taylor 1977), Blasthill (CANMORE ID 38677) on the Mull of Kintyre (Cummings and Robinson 2015) and Cladh Aindreis in Ardnamurchan (Cobb et al. 2008). In some cases they sealed earlier archaeological deposits, such as at Port Charlotte (CANMORE ID 37313) , Islay (Harrington and Pierpoint 1980) and at Glacknabae (Bryce 1904). As such the Clyde Cairns carry possibility for building longer stratigraphic and chronological sequences which may reflect the importance of these places in the landscape prior to the monument construction, as well as their construction histories, the histories of their use, re-use and even robbing (see also Case Study 5: Jack Scott’s excavations at Ardnacross II chambered tomb and later associated structures, near Peninver, Kintyre). The on-going excavation at Slochd Measach (CANMORE ID 37335) (Giant’s Grave) on Islay may further contribute to this cause (Mithen et al. 2015), Figure 45 and Figure 47.

Figure 46: Distribution of chambered cairns in Argyll © copyright

Figure 47: Excavations at the Slochd Measach (Giant’s Grave) Neolithic Cambered cairn, Isle of Islay © copyright

As with the case of Late Glacial settlement, understanding the environmental context of the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition is as important as enhancing our knowledge of the archaeological record itself. The proposition that this was a period of increased storminess and climatic fluctuation requires further consideration, both to verify this proposition and to explore its environmental impacts. Did this change encourage indigenous groups to adopt the novel, exotic Neolithic lifestyle of their farming neighbours? Fine-grained records of both terrestrial and marine environmental change are required, along with models for Mesolithic economies and their resilience to such change.Further investigation should be undertaken at those sites that contain both Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts, such as at Newton (CANMORE ID 37769) and Bolsay (CANMORE ID 37342 AND CANMORE ID 37347) on Islay, and/or have dates that span the critical period for transition, such as Storakaig (CANMORE ID 304908), on Islay. Survey and targeted excavation of the Neolithic chambered cairns located those parts of the landscape that had been repeatedly visited by the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, is another important line of enquiry, especially in the absence of the early farming settlement sites.

Read the related case study Case Study 5: Ardnacross

5.4.3 Establishing the Mesolithic chronology: A programme of radiocarbon dating and Bayesian analysis: testing the 8.2 Ka model and reaching out to the Neolothic

The chronological development of the Mesolithic as described in this contribution is based on a sample of a mere 163 radiocarbon dates (selected as those considered reliable from a total sample available of 253 dates). This is far too small a number with which to confidently establish the chronology of settlement over a period of at least 6000 years. As such, the pattern identified by Wicks and Mithen (2014), and especially their proposal of the impact of the 8.2 Ka event, should be considered as hypotheses requiring further testing. There is already a large quantity of well-sourced material suitable for radiocarbon dating from Mesolithic sites, while small scale targeted excavation could produce further samples from localities, especially those that appear under-represented. Securing an additional 100 AMS dates, subjecting these to Bayesian analysis and establishing activity event on a site-by-site base and for the region as a whole will enable the 8.2 Ka hypothesis to be tested and provide a secure chronological foundation for the earliest prehistory of Argyll. As noted above, it is perhaps even more important to develop an enhanced understanding of the Early Neolithic chronology, and to create a single integrated model for the Early Prehistory of Argyll.

5.4.4 Heritage Management of early prehistoric sites

Argyll has some of the most important Mesolithic sites in Scotland, and indeed the UK. Yet there is no heritage management of these sites. In one regard the required management is limited: with the exception of middens, Mesolithic sites are predominately buried below ground in areas unlikely to be disturbed or developed. This is not always the case: numerous Mesolithic have been found by ditch digging and other farming activities and remain subject to further risks of this nature; others are in fields that are regularly ploughed or coastal areas subject to erosion, especially with anticipated rise in sea level. Our understanding is that none of the Mesolithic sites have been scheduled to ensure they are protected. Another dimension of heritage management is public engagement. Our experience is that the public have a huge interest in the Mesolithic and would enjoy visiting Mesolithic sites, even if these are only points on the landscape with no visible archaeology. As such a programme of marking sites with suitable display boards, producing walking trails, guide-books and related exhibitions within the local museums should be a priority. This must also apply to the Neolithic. The chambered cairns on Islay, for instance, are largely buried by vegetation, with no markers for visitors or walking trails.

5.4.5 Writing the history of archaeology in Argyll

Finally, it would be of considerable value to have a systematic study and interpretation of the history of archaeological research in Argyll. Our impression is that this is important to the history of archaeological thought in general in the late 19th and early 20th century. Why were the tiny islands of Oronsay, Coll and Tiree so attractive to the likes of A. Henderson Bishop and William Galloway? What were their intellectual networks? This project would also help recognise the contribution of amateur collectors such as George Holleyman, stationed on Tiree during the war, and indeed those who continue to contribute to archaeological knowledge today.

5.4.1 The Late Glacial: excavation at Rubha Port an t-Seilich and its environmental context

5.4.2 The appearance of the Neolithic and the demise of the Mesolithic: targeted excavation, dating and environmental reconstruction

5.4.3 Establishing the Mesolithic chronology: A programme of radiocarbon dating and Bayesian analysis: testing the 8.2 Ka model and reaching out to the Neolithic

5.4.4 Heritage management of early prehistoric sites

5.4.5 Writing the history of archaeology in Argyll