3.6 Religion and Ritual

Archaeological evidence for religion or ritual within the Early Holocene of Scotland is not readily apparent or easily interpreted, especially given the apparent lack of identifiable burial rites. Nevertheless, recent works by Chatterton (2006), Conneller (2011), The Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF 2012) and Blinkhorn and Little (2018) have sought to define a spectrum of activities, objects and archaeological features that might constitute ‘ritual’ away from mortuary evidence.

This spectrum of Mesolithic ritual includes ‘the importance of distinctive “monumental” landscape features, structures, seasonal events, attitudes towards discard and depositional practices’, all taking place within an enculturated Mesolithic landscape (ScARF 2012).

Shell middens such as those recorded along the southern shore of the Forth Estuary (Sloan 1993) have been accepted as monuments by certain researchers (Pollard 1996, Warren 2007) displaying a distinctive and highly visible construction within the landscape. Middens were probably constructed by repeated seasonal visitations and may have formed possible territorial markers through a seemingly strict pattern of discard.

Aerial photograph showing the sandy Gullane Coastline.
Gullane, East Lothian, located on the southern shore of the forth Estuary © HES

The notion of ‘persistent places’ (Barton et al 1995, 81–2; Jacques et al 2014, 7) such as middens within the Mesolithic landscape is also possibly illustrated by the substantial pit dwellings of the late 9th and early 8th Millennium recorded at East Barns and Echline Fields. These structures were occupied for significant periods of time and possibly acted as initial territorial markers, ceremonial centres or both (Mithen 2019 105).

At East Barns, the area of the hollow in which the house was placed appears to have been subject to repeated activity throughout the Mesolithic and into the Neolithic and Bronze Age. At the northern end of the hollow two late Mesolithic dates represent activity occurring some 3000 years after the abandonment of the house itself (Engl and Gooder 2021, 99).

Photograph of excavation site. The outline of a house structure can be seen  in the site.
East Barns Mesolithic house and hollow under excavation © Rob Engl and John Gooder, courtesy of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Evidence of Mesolithic ritual may also be seen in the pit digging phenomenon recognised as ubiquitous in Neolithic Britain and Ireland (Anderson-Whymark and Thomas 2012). Pit alignments such as at Warrenfield, Crathes (Murray et al 2009) have appeared within the Mesolithic archaeological record.

Aerial black and white photograph showing the pit alignment at Warrenfield.
Warrenfields pit alignment © HES