1. It seems to this author that Argyll and Bute is very well placed to take a lead role in relating its archaeology to the sea. In Argyll “we can sense the presence of the sea”, Whittow said in his Geology and Scenery in Scotland (1977, 194). The development of a sophisticated multi–disciplinary research programme in Argyll on the significance of the sea to the archaeology of Scotland and north west Europe would be a great achievement. The Irish Sea is fundamental to any understanding of Scottish archaeology in any period. More than elsewhere in Scotland, the sea has connected people within Argyll and Bute and in the wider region. From the Mesolithic dispersal across the Inner Hebrides of Rhum bloodstone (Wickham–Jones 2005) and in the earliest Neolithic of Arran pitchstone across Scotland (Ballin and Faithfull 2009) we are accustomed to thinking of coastal travel between mainland and islands and the sea in general as a benign way of facilitating linkages between people.
There is the need to recognise that in the long term the sea and the marine environment have changed in ways we are only coming to realise. Callaghan and Scarre (2009), for example, calculated the journey times by sea from Brittany to Ireland and on to western Scotland in the early Neolithic as if weather, seas and tides were as they are now: they weren’t.
The principal driver in such change is the complex interaction of marine currents and gyres in the North Atlantic Ocean that, simplistically, we call the “gulf stream”. This transports warm water poleward, of course. It is far from stable. Empirical and modelling experiments have shown the fragility of this system to internal and external stresses. It is thought to have stopped functioning during the Loch Lomond Stadial and may have stopped at times in the Holocene (see Tipping et al. 2013). A product of these is rapid or abrupt climate change.
Tipping (2010) took the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition in the British Isles as an example of the types of coastal change we might expect during this and other periods of abrupt climatic change. We can observe between c. 4000–3000 cal BC major changes in North Atlantic ocean circulation, significant fluctuations in salinity, much lower sea surface and deeper water temperature profiles, the dispersal of ‘armadas’ of icebergs as far south as western Ireland and increased precipitation which accelerated the input to the Arctic Ocean of fresh water, thus slowing the ‘gulf stream’ further. Under certain conditions, westerly wind speeds would increase in strength and frequency and wave heights in the eastern North Atlantic would increase. We would expect these changes to have induced very significant changes in the abundance and distribution of coastal sediment, coastal settlement and the abundance, spatial and temporal patterning of marine and littoral resources. At the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition, people that lived by the coast in Argyll appear to have ‘slighted’ the sea, turning from marine food resources (Schulting 1998; Schulting and Richards 2002). Were these resources lost from our coast through climatic deterioration? Schulting (1998, 214) considered this possibility, but only through proposing falling sea level, which is surely the wrong mechanism when climate change re–arranges ocean currents, slight changes in sea surface temperatures can comprehensively re–structure marine ecosystems and resources and storm–rich periods decimate coastal resources.
Argyll and Bute sits at the centre of a whole web of inter–connecting evidential strands to do with people and the sea. The laboratories of the Scottish Association for Marine Studies (SAMS) outside Oban could be very significant in this. The region has more recognised key coastal and marine heritage sites than elsewhere in Scotland (Baxter et al. 2011, 157). And it has Scotland’s most extensive Marine Protected Area from Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura.
2. There is a need in Argyll and Bute as elsewhere for archaeologists and natural scientists to exchange data and swap ideas.
3. Scattered throughout the text above, suggestions for further research have been made. This section brings those together but arranges them in chronological order:
- We need empirical evidence for modelled low relative sea level stands in the region between the Loch Lomond Stadial and the mid–Holocene
- There is an urgent need to establish securely dated early Holocene relative sea level rise to establish the 1.4m jump in the surface of the eastern Atlantic at c. 6200 cal BC
- The work on Mesolithic–age human disturbance of plant communities in the region has been a sustained and major contribution at an international level. However, such disturbances are far from unambiguously recognised and there are now more alternative hypotheses to explain them by natural means. One advance would be a careful assessment of the ecological processes involved in these small–scale events, and a more critical testing of models of human impact ‘imported’ from environments unlike the west coast of Scotland. The significance of this work would be enormous because these disturbances, if clearly defined, offer one of the few tests of the post–6200 cal BC population collapse hypothesis of Wicks and Mithen (2013)
- We need a systematic programme of mapping and dating storm–beach ridges along the Argyll coast (Bute has one: Smith et al. 2007). Previous fieldwork has suggested that these appear to have been foci of Mesolithic occupation but further fieldwork and analysis of this link is necessary. They would provide data on past storminess
- The “slighting of the sea” is one of the most significant recent interpretations of social and economic change at the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition but it is still relatively unexplored. More research is needed on this and Argyll and Bute is a good place to undertake this. We need fine–grained, highly resolved records of the changing abundances of marine resources through time from marine sediment archives
- We know nothing about one of the most important assemblages of later prehistoric monuments in north west Europe at Kilmartin.
- Renewed archaeological and palaeo–ecological work on the Moss of Achnacree must be pursued because of the significance, first, of early Neolithic activity and, second, because the Bronze Age field walls remain one of the most significant places in Scotland to understand the complexity of later prehistoric agriculture
- The exploration of novel proxy indicators of storminess should be encouraged, such as sedimentological or geochemical signatures in coastal peat
- Clarification at a number of localities of the behaviour of the sea surface after the highest Holocene shoreline at c. 4500 cal BC in later prehistory and early history is needed because some models imply high relative sea level into the early historic period
- Greater visualisation through Geographic Information Systems (GIS) of changing coastlines through time would greatly aid the archaeologist (Bicket and Tizzard 2015, Bicket et al. 2016) in understanding the immediate significance of relative sea level fall
- A programme of 14C and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating is needed to define even a rudimentary chronology of sand dune formation and episodicity, to understand long–term changes in Atlantic Ocean storminess
- The peat of the Moine Mhor needs to yield a proxy record of later prehistoric and historic hydrological change (cf. Charman et al. 2006) to link the existing records between Ireland and Scotland (Swindles et al. 2013)
- There is a need simply for more pollen data for later prehistory and the historic period in addressing testing specific hypotheses generated by the archaeologist and historian
- The promising work on providing from pollen data local landscape settings for particular rock–art panels should be developed
- Macklin et al. (2000) attempted to relate phases of later prehistoric and historic agricultural activities to periods of climatic amelioration and vice versa. Whilst this study was unconvincing, exploring resilience on sustainable farming practices is increasingly a major concern for archaeologists
- Pollen analyses to test the archaeological assumption of intervisibility between monuments and from monument to skyline should be welcomed
- Work on the timing and extent of gleying in soils across the region would lead to a new understanding of agricultural productivity and success
- New work on understanding the chronology and scale in the region of colluvial and alluvial change is necessary because almost nothing is known of these. They are of direct significance to the archaeologist in that human causation in some events is very likely. The consequence of change has impacts on human communities
- Careful reconstruction of later Holocene relative sea level fall is needed at Dunadd if we are to fully understand the significance of the coastal setting of this fort. The potential for this is enormous but untapped
- It would be very good if the pollen analyses of Miller and Ramsay (2001) in the early historic period near Dunadd could be tested at a network of sites
- We might concede that an environmental history of Iona in the early historic period, though desirable, is unlikely to emerge, and turn to monastic settings where work would be more rewarding
- It is uncomfortable to think that we know so little about so much of the environmental history of the last c. 1500 years in the region (see also Section 10.2).