Chapter 6 image The appearances of the novel practices, things and beliefs: the ‘Breton’ and ‘Carinated Bowl’ Neolithics

Figure 48: The Atlantic façade strand of Neolithisation. © Alison Sheridan

In Argyll, as noted above, the earliest evidence for a Neolithic way of life takes two discrete forms, attesting to the existence of two strands of Neolithisation (as discussed elsewhere, for example in Sheridan 2010a). The first strand (Figure 48) relates to a northward movement up the Atlantic façade of small groups of settlers from the Morbihan region of Brittany, as attested by the Morbihan-style closed megalithic chamber and simple passage tomb, with Morbihan-style pottery (including a Late Castellic bowl), at Achnacreebeag (Ritchie 1970; Sheridan 2010) (Figure 49).

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Figure 49: Achnacreebeag: left, ground plan showing central closed chamber and secondary simple passage tomb (© HES); top right: view of the central closed chamber (©HES); bottom right: Late Castellic-style bowl (© NMS)

Figure 50: Distribution of Breton-style closed chambers and simple passage tombs; the star indicates the Morbihan region of Brittany and the ‘A’ indicates the location of Achnacreebeag. From Sheridan 2010

Similar monuments are known elsewhere in western Scotland (eg the north-west chamber at Greadal Fhinn in Ardnamurchan: Ritchie 1970, 37), at the north-west and south-west tips of Wales, and around the northern half of Ireland, always in coastal (or near-coastal) locations (Figure 50). No settlements or other evidence relating to the builders of these monuments have yet been found in Britain and Ireland, but it is known that, in the Morbihan, they had already been farming for several centuries. Similarly, there is no radiocarbon date for the construction of the Achnacreebeag monument (and no chance of obtaining such a date), and radiocarbon dates obtained for similar monuments at Carrowmore in County Sligo, Ireland, have been subject to trenchant (and justified) critique (Bergh and Hensey 2013). At present their dating, and that of Late Castellic pottery, is based on dates from Brittany and Normandy, where they date to between 4300 BC and c 3900 BC. The British and Irish monuments and pottery are therefore likely to fall within this date bracket, and could lie towards its end.

Figure 51: The Carinated Bowl strand of Neolithisation. © Alison Sheridan

The second strand of Neolithisation in Argyll (Figure 51) relates ultimately to a different northward movement, again of small numbers of immigrant farmers, this time from the Nord-Pas de Calais; this has been named the ‘Carinated Bowl [or ‘CB’] Neolithic’, after its distinctive style of pottery (Figure 52; Sheridan 2007; 2010a).

These people had been farming for a millennium by the time they arrived in Britain. The appearance of this CB Neolithic in Argyll – extending as far north as Islay and the Cowal peninsula, as excavations at Newton (McCullagh 1989) and Port Charlotte on Islay (Harrington and Pierpoint 1980), and at Auchategan, Glendaruel (Marshall 1978) make clear (and see Sheridan 2012b on the ‘CB Neolithic’ presence in Kilmartin Glen) – is likely to relate to a rapid south-westerly spread of settlers from eastern Scotland, moving along major river valleys and the Great Glen, rather than to direct movement from northern France. Much more is known about these people: in addition to their distinctive pottery style (Carinated Bowl pottery – one of several variants of Chasseo-Michelsberg pottery that developed towards the end of the fifth millennium in northern France and Belgium), we know that:

  • in some parts of Scotland the first arrivals built large rectangular communal timber houses (halls), staying there until people felt sufficiently well established to ‘bud off’ into individual households;
  • they initially used non-megalithic communal funerary monuments, usually involving rectangular timber mortuary structures that were usually burnt down and covered by long or round mounds; importantly, however, we know that they also buried their dead in the cave at Raschoille  near Oban (Connock 1985; Bonsall et al. 2012), and elsewhere in Scotland (and Ireland) they also cremated people on open pyres, covering them with round mounds (as at Boghead, Aberdeenshire: Sheridan 2010);
  • they brought with them their sacred and ancient axeheads made of jadeitite and other Alpine rocks, as precious and talismanic heirlooms (rather than as workaday axeheads: Sheridan and Pailler 2012; Figure 53);
  • they introduced to Scotland the practice of using ground stone axeheads – necessary for clearing the forest and working timber for their houses, tools and monuments – and they sought out good sources of stone for making them;
  • they also introduced new styles of small lithic artefact (eg leaf-shaped arrowheads) and a new style of knapping flint (Warren 2005), and they also sought good-quality flint and other types of stone; furthermore, they introduced technology relating to the processing of cereals (i.e. saddle querns and rubbers);
  • they rapidly established networks of contact over which they exchanged objects (such as pitchstone artefacts and stone axeheads), ideas and probably people;
  • they grew cereals (wheat and barley) and flax in small plots on good agricultural land that they had sought out, and kept domesticated cattle, sheep/goats and pigs. They also hunted wild animals (as is clear from the yew bow found at Rotten Bottom, Dumfries and Galloway: Sheridan 2007) but they did not consume marine foods (Schulting and Richards 2006). The site at Auchategan (Marshall 1978a) suggests that they practised transhumance, this being a probable summer camp.

The date of the arrival of the CB Neolithic in this part of Scotland is likely to fall within the 39th century or early 38th century BC; at Newton on Islay, a mixed-species sample of charcoal associated with CB pottery has produced a date of 3945-3640 cal BC (to use the Bayesian-modelled calibrated version as cited in Whittle et al. 2011, 813). It is unclear whether the individuals buried in Raschoille cave belong to this strand of the Neolithic, but their calibrated date ranges extend back to the 39th century BC (Bonsall et al. 2012), as does a recently-obtained date for an individual at Macarthur Cave (Armit et al in press). (See Sheridan 2012a for a critique of Whittle et al.’s (2011) date estimates for the appearance of the Neolithic lifestyle in different parts of Scotland.)

Figure 52: Traditional Carinated Bowl pot from Auchategan. From Marshall 1978a; reproduced courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

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Figure 53: Alpine jadeitite axehead from Appin. © National Museums Scotland