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, 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 and II in Wigtownshire (Corcoran 1969), Glenvoidean on Bute (Marshall and Taylor 1977), Blasthill 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, 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 (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 and Bolsay on Islay, and/or have dates that span the critical period for transition, such as Storakaig, 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