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6.4.2 The rest of the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze (1900-c 1100/1000 BC)

Our understanding of this period is dominated once again by funerary evidence and by other monuments; not enough is known about where and how people carried out their everyday lives, although important evidence for Early/Middle Bronze Age field walls, later covered by peat, has been recovered from Arran (Barber 1997) and in the Moss of Achnacree. Details of the material culture in use during this time (other than funerary pottery) are somewhat sparse, as revealed for example in John Coles’ distribution maps for Middle Bronze Age metalwork in Argyll and Bute (Coles 1964).

Figure 81: Encrusted Urn from Glenvoidean, Bute. From Marshall and Taylor 1977 © copyright

Developments between 1900 BC and 1500 BC include the switch to cremation as the predominant funerary rite by around 1900/1800 BC, with burial of the cremated remains usually in ceramic cinerary urns, starting with Vase Urns and progressing chronologically through Collared and Cordoned Urns to Bucket Urns (Figure 81 Longworth 1984; MacGregor 1998; Cook et al. 2010; Sheridan 2007; 2012a; 2013). In Kilmartin Glen a timber circle was constructed at Upper Largie (CANMORE ID 39486) between 1600 BC and 1400 BC; a timber post-hole row, between 1870 BC and 1650 BC; and an enigmatic monument, bearing some formal similarities to the much earlier Beaker grave, probably during the first half of the second millennium (Sheridan 2012a, 178-9).

Figure 82: Short stone row (with kerb cairn in the foreground), Ballymeanoch. Photo: David Lyons, from Kilmartin: an Introduction and Guide. © Kilmartin Museum

There is no evidence for a continuation, much beyond c 1900 BC, of the conspicuous consumption noted for the preceding centuries. This could be due to a relative decline in the significance of the Ross Island source of copper and to the opening up of new copper mines elsewhere in Britain and Ireland – thereby diluting the inhabitants’ ability to control the metal supply system.

For the period 1500BC-1000 BC, we see the establishment of the short stone rows of the west of Scotland (Figure 82; Martlew and Ruggles 1996; Ruggles 1999) and probably also of the more complex setting at Nether Largie (CANMORE ID 39471) in Kilmartin Glen (Figure 83). These, as Clive Ruggles (1999) and Douglas Scott (2010) have demonstrated, relate to marking the position of the moon at its southern standstill position – something that happens every 18.4 years. The use of some of the monuments for marking other astronomical phenomena as well has been claimed by Scott (2010; cf. Hawkins 1983). Some of these monuments incorporate slabs with cup-and-ring designs, which must have been over a millennium old when they were prised up and erected as parts of the standing stone settings (Figure 84); this demonstrates an appropriation of ancient sacred sites within the belief system of the Middle Bronze Age inhabitants of Argyll and Bute.

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Figure 83: Stone setting at Nether Largie. Photo: David Lyons, from Kilmartin: an Introduction and Guide. © Kilmartin Museum

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Figure 84: Orthostat in the Nether Largie setting, showing ancient rock art on it. Photo: David Lyons, from Kilmartin: an Introduction and Guide. © Kilmartin Museum

Another novelty of this period was the use of kerb cairns – a distinctive type of funerary monument, described and discussed by Lynch and Ritchie (1975), and found not only in Argyll but also in north-east Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The associated funerary rite is cremation. Two examples that were constructed within the Temple Wood South (CANMORE ID 39504) monument have been radiocarbon-dated to between 1450 and 1200 BC – a date range matched at Claggan cairns 1 and 3 (CANMORE ID 22436) and at Strontoiller (CANMORE ID 23205) (Sheridan 2012a, 180). The incorporation of a south-east facing ‘false portal’ in these monuments indicates that they were designed with an astronomical alignment (Figure 85), and the proximity of the Ballymeanoch (CANMORE ID 39458) example to two short stone rows suggests that these contemporary monuments played complementary roles in the belief system, with the observance of the moon’s standstill position a key element in the rituals.

Some evidence for deteriorating climatic conditions,and consequent expansion of peat, has come from John Barber’s excavations on Arran where it appears that various attempts to continue cultivating the land were made in the face of peat expansion (Barber 1997).

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Figure 85: Kerb cairns inside Temple Wood South stone circle. From Scott 1989 © copyright

Key research questions for this period include the following:

  1. Is the downturn in expressions of ostentation really related to a decline in the ability of the inhabitants of Argyll and Bute to control the flow of bronze and/or copper, once sources other than Ross Island began to be used?
  2. The choreography of climate change and its effects on human behaviour needs to be refined for this period. How, if at all, did settlement and land use change?
  3. What was responsible for the shift to cremation as the normative funerary rite over this period?
  4. Where did the people who built the monuments in Kilmartin Glen live?

To address these questions, a combination of fieldwork and palaeoenvironmental investigation is needed, together with further analysis of metal objects (especially the rare gold items).