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6.3 Chalcolithic (c 2450-2200/2150 BC)

The Chalcolthic period in Britain is defined as the three centuries between the first appearance of metal objects (of copper and gold), probably during the 25th century BC, and the inception of bronze use and manufacture during the 22nd century BC (Needham 2012). No Chalcolithic gold objects so far have been found in Argyll and Bute but copper artefacts are known.

The appearance of metal objects (and metalworking know-how) was just one of a range of novelties that appeared in Argyll, as elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, from the Continent during the 25th century BC. Other novelties include a Continental style of pottery – the ‘Beaker’ ceramic repertoire – that stylistically and technically contrasts with indigenous Late Neolithic pottery; the use of individual interment as a funerary practice; and an archery kit that included a new style of arrowhead (barbed and tanged), possibly also a new type of bow (the recurve bow), a new style of belt ring, and the stone ‘wristguard’ (which was probably an ornament embellishing a functional hide wristguard). It may be that the use of oval houses – as attested in the Western Isles – was a further Beaker-associated novelty.

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Figure 61: The early Beaker-associated grave at Upper Largie and the Beakers from the grave. Plan and pot drawing from Cook et al. 2010; photos © Alison Sheridan

The question of how these new practices, technologies and artefact types appeared in Britain has been debated for well over a century, with 19th and early 20th century interpretations favouring an invasion of ‘Beaker People’ from the Continent. Disillusionment with a culture-historical approach that interpreted every change in terms of population replacement led to other explanations gaining in popularity during the 1970s: it was suggested, for example, that ambitious individuals in Britain deliberately adopted the practices and trappings of a European cult-like movement in order to gain prestige. However, following the discovery in the early 2000s of the ‘Amesbury Archer’ near Stonehenge – an individual whose strontium and oxygen isotope values in his dental enamel revealed that he had grown up in or near southern Germany – the idea of immigration from Europe returned as an explanatory mechanism, albeit one greatly nuanced and scaled down by comparison with earlier invasion hypotheses. (For an excellent summary of the debate, see Needham 2012, and for discussions of the Scottish evidence, see Sheridan 2008; 2012a; 2012b and 2013; Curtis and Wilkin 2012; and Wilkin 2016. See also Parker Pearson et al. 2016 and Vander Linden 2012 on the British Beaker phenomenon more generally – with different views being expressed.) Current ancient DNA analysis of a number of Beaker-associated individuals in Britain (including one from Sorisdale on Coll – another isotopic ‘alien’) should clarify the scale of immigration. In terms of the direction of movement, Stuart Needham’s careful reading of the artefactual evidence for Britain and Ireland (Needham 2005) concluded that Beaker users probably arrived in different areas from different parts of the Continent, with an Atlantic element being represented in western Britain and Ireland, and a Rhineland element (both from the Netherlands and further down the Rhine) being represented in parts of Britain. As for why people should wish to come to Britain and Ireland from the Continent during the 25th century, there are several plausible reasons (Needham 2012): firstly, the Continental elite tradition of the brave male warrior/hunter undertaking an heroic journey, to gain kudos; secondly, the undertaking of pilgrimage-like journeys to participate in the solstitial ceremonies at Stonehenge and elsewhere in Wessex (and possibly elsewhere too); thirdly, prospection for copper and gold; and fourthly, possible migration for reasons of economic or social upset. The local reaction to these immigrants will have varied, with the inhabitants of Wessex, for example, continuing to build major ceremonial structures (Needham 2012) while in north-east Scotland new (and non-Continental) ostentatious graves were constructed as monuments for certain special Beaker-associated individuals (Sheridan 2012b). Stuart Needham has proposed a plausible three-phase model for the Beaker phenomenon in Britain – featuring an initial period when Beaker pottery and its associated novelties were regarded as an alien curiosity, followed by a period, several generations later (during the 23rd or early 22nd century BC), when Beaker material culture and associated practices were widely adopted and adapted, becoming the norm, and ending with a period (from around the 20th to the 19th or 18th century) when Beaker use declined as other styles of material culture and other novel practices such as cremation gained in popularity.

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Figure 62: The early Beaker-associated grave at Sorisdale, Coll, and the Beaker from the grave. After Ritchie and Crawford 1978, reproduced courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Argyll and Bute did indeed experience the Beaker ‘phenomenon’. For its Chalcolithic (as opposed to its later, Early Bronze Age) manifestation, the key evidence in this part of Scotland comes from two graves – one at Upper Largie (CANMORE ID 39486) in Kilmartin Glen (Figure 61; Cook et al. 2010; Sheridan 2008) and the other at Sorisdale (CANMORE ID 21703) on Coll. (Figure 62; Ritchie and Crawford 1978). These are Continental in style and in grave goods, and the current author has argued for a Rhine delta connection, at least for the Upper Largie individual if not also for the Sorisdale (CANMORE ID 21703) individual (eg Sheridan 2008). Sadly, no human remains survived from that individual but the young woman from Sorisdale (CANMORE ID 21703) has been shown, from isotopic analysis of the enamel of one of her molar teeth (undertaken for the Beaker People Project: Parker Pearson et al. 2016), to have been raised non-locally (Sheridan 2012b). Moreover, her DNA reveals that she is of Continental, not British ancestry (Olalde et al. in press).

Figure 63: Epi-Maritime Beaker from Upper Largie. © Alison Sheridan; Figure 64: All-Over-Cord Beaker from Upper Largie © Alison Sheridan

The Beaker pottery associated with these early graves is of types that were widespread on the Continent: All Over Corded and Epi-Maritime style (Figure 63 and Figure 64).

While the earliest Beaker presence in Argyll and Bute does not currently include any metal objects, from a few generations later there is a tanged copper knife from Callachally (CANMORE ID 22285) on Mull, associated with a stone wristguard); and from Largizean on Bute there is a magnificent hoard of four copper halberd blades (Figure 65; Sheridan 2013, 54 and 56), of which three are made of Irish copper and the fourth of copper that may have originated in Iberia. Halberds – a bladed weapon where the blade was set at right-angles to the wooden haft – were a popular high-status weapon in Atlantic Europe, and especially in Ireland, during the late third millennium (Needham et al. 2015). Furthermore, at Ri Cruin (CANMORE ID 39456) in Kilmartin Glen, a slab in a cist appears to show a representation of a halberd, bedecked with streamers (Figure 66; Needham and Cowie 2012). Such objects remind us of the extensive networks of contacts over which precious materials were circulating at this time.

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Figure 65: Halberd hoard from near Largizean, Bute. © Alison Sheridan/NMS

Figure 66: Plan of the Temple Wood South stone circle, showing the position of the Chalcolithic cists outside the circle. From Scott 1989

Other evidence for Chalcolithic activity in Argyll and Bute is reviewed in Sheridan 2012a and 2013. Clearly, the practice of using Beaker pottery, and the associated novel practices and beliefs, was adopted by the inhabitants of this part of Scotland. Their graves are sometimes located in significant relationships to extant monuments, as with the two Chalcolithic cists located just outside the Temple Wood South (CANMORE ID 39504) stone circle (Figure 67) or the Beakers found inside Nether Largie South (CANMORE ID 39460) Clyde cairn, in Kilmartin Glen (Figure 68; Sheridan 2012a). Interestingly, in contrast to later, Early Bronze Age funerary practices in this part of Scotland, these additions and insertions did not materially alter the pre-existing monuments.

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Figure 67: Cast of stone pillar from cist at Ri Cruin, showing image of what has been interpreted as a halberd. © NMS

Figure 68: Beaker from Nether Largie South. From Henshall 1972

Outstanding research questions regarding this period include the following:

  1. Where did the users of Beaker pottery live; what was their subsistence strategy; and what impact (if any) did they have on the environment? (The abundant evidence for Beaker settlements in the Outer Hebrides is not matched on mainland Argyll.) See Section 4 for comments on our current understanding of the Chalcolithic palaeoenvironment.
  2. How many incomers were there?
  3. How did the initial immigrants relate to/interact with the indigenous population? It would appear that they were accepted, since the practice of using Beakers (and associated novelties) clearly continued in Argyll and Bute after the initial appearance of the phenomenon; but we know too little about where and how the indigenous inhabitants were living to have much sense of the interactions. Indeed, the archaeological record for the second quarter of the third millennium is very sparse for Argyll and Bute; we need much more information about lifestyle, material culture and practices. The Beaker novelties seem to appear in a kind of vacuum, although this is clearly a function of archaeological recovery.
  4. The users of Beaker pottery appear to have belonged to a socially-differentiated society (as suggested, for example, by the Largizean (CANMORE ID 40255) halberd hoard); how did this compare to the nature of indigenous social organisation before 2500 BC?
  5. Was there any prospecting for, or extraction of, copper in the region at this time? It is known that copper-bearing rock is present near Kilmartin Glen, for example, but there is no evidence for its use at this time. Were people coming to prospect for copper, as they had done at Ross Island in Co. Kerry, in south-west Ireland (O’Brien 2005)?
  6. Were these people engaged in the north-eastwards movement of copper from Ross Island in County Kerry to north-east Scotland, via the Great Glen, as seems to have been the case from 2200 BC onwards? It is clear that Ross Island copper was reaching north-east Scotland before 2200 BC, and it may be that Kilmartin Glen was already being used as a routeway up towards the Great Glen but there is no unequivocal evidence for this.
  7. Was Iberian copper used for one of the Largizean (CANMORE ID 40255) halberds? And if so, how had it reached Bute? Was Iberian copper circulating widely at this time?

Ways to address these questions include field survey to try to locate settlements, and surveying for traces of prehistoric copper extraction around the source areas. If further early Beaker graves are found (which seems likely), then isotopic and aDNA analysis will need to be undertaken to explore their identity. The results of the current aDNA analysis of the Sorisdale skeleton and of other Beaker-associated individuals in Britain will clarify issues pertaining to the movement of people from the Continent.