6. Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age c 4000BC – 800BC

Alison Sheridan1

1 National Museums Scotland, Chambers St, Edinburgh EH1 1JF

With contributions, feedback, critical comment and participation at workshops from: Gabriel Cooney, Vicki Cummings, Simon Gilmour, Stephen Mithen, Aaron Watson, Caroline Wickham-Jones

Brief Summary

Neolithic c 4300/3900 BC to c 2450 BC

Some time between 4300 BC and 3900 BC a new way of living, featuring the cultivation of cereals and the management of domesticated animals, appeared in the area. This represents the beginning of what archaeologists call the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period. This new lifestyle also featured a novel technology – pottery making – and other new practices, including the construction of megalithic chamber tombs as communal houses for the dead, which were wholly alien to the lifestyle and beliefs of the indigenous communities who had lived in Argyll for several millennia. There has been much debate about how these novelties came to arrive in Britain and Ireland, with one school of thought arguing that the indigenous hunter-gatherer-fisher groups were the ‘prime movers’ for the introduction of these novelties, while another attributes the appearance to episodes of immigration by small farming groups from two areas in northern France. Some of the detail of this argument is presented in this section, with the Breton-style closed chamber and simple passage tomb with Breton-style pottery at Achnacreebeag, near Oban, reflecting one of these strands of Neolithisation.

Other Neolithic monuments in Argyll include the cursus monument and stone circles in Kilmartin and there is evidence indicating that rock art (mostly found in the form of cup marks and cup and ring marks, but also including spirals and lozenges) dates to this period. There is plentiful evidence for the existence of links with other parts of Scotland and with Ireland from the Early Neolithic onwards.

Chalcolithic (c 2450-c 2200/2150 BC) and Bronze Age (c 2200 BC/2150 – c 800 BC)

Further Continental novelties appeared in Argyll during the 25th century BC, including the use of metal for the first time -copper here, but elsewhere also gold – and the use of a novel style of pottery known as Beaker pottery. The period 2450 -2200/2150 BC is known as the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age. Argyll has two of the earliest Beaker-associated graves in Britain, at Sorisdale on Coll and at Upper Largie, in Kilmartin Glen. Both of the inhabitants of these graves may have been Continental immigrants; indeed, recently-obtained results from ancient DNA analysis of the Sorisdale individual confirm that her genetic ancestry lies on the Continent, not in Britain.

From the 22nd century BC, when across Britain and Ireland copper started to be alloyed with tin to make bronze, parts of Argyll, especially Kilmartin Glen, enjoyed a period of great prosperity, thanks to the ability of its elite to control the flow of much-needed metal from Ireland to elsewhere in Scotland and northern England. This wealth was expressed in building round cairns for the graves of the leaders of the community, in the use of Irish- and Yorkshire- style Food Vessel pottery and in lavish grave goods for the elite. Ancient monuments were modified and (in one case) relocated as part of this process of competitive conspicuous consumption. This ‘golden age’ lasted until around the 19th century, by which time cremation was the dominant funerary rite. The Late Bronze Age (around 1100-800 BC) was another period when social status was displayed prominently: this was when the elite participated in an extensive network of contacts along the Atlantic façade, making votive offerings of their precious metal possessions and indulging in impressive feasts. But the collapse of this network around 800 BC, combined with climatic deterioration deterioration and the concomitant expansion of bog, meant that some areas (including Kilmartin Glen) were abandoned.

Our understanding of the everyday lives of these people during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age is limited by the relative scarcity of settlement evidence, although important Early Bronze Age settlements are known from Coll and Islay.