ECR Case Study: Aesthetics, visual tradition, knowledge transmission and group identity negotiation in tomb-building communities of Neolithic Caithness

Lusia Zaleskaya, University of Edinburgh 

Main objectives and summary of the project 

Architectural remains are a vital source of evidence for the Neolithic period in Europe. Especially so in the areas where the choice of material contributed to their longevity, such as northern Scotland. The project aims to conceptualise Neolithic tomb architecture of Caithness as part of the larger corpus of Neolithic visual culture and one of the instruments of community formation. The aims are to demonstrate the existence of not just functional and technological traditions and concerns in the Neolithic but also aesthetic and visual ones. Furthermore, the role such aesthetic and visual traditions played in the creation of social cohesion, as well as dissemination and development of the body of knowledge pertaining to the building of these kinds of architectural forms in the Neolithic will be addressed.

To cohesively present this notion of visual culture and tradition in the past and their role in the Neolithic communities, architecture will be considered in itself, with emphasis on its design, and the visual and technological knowledge necessary for its construction and re-construction or reuse. Aesthetic considerations and norms, and visual tradition will be regarded as the mechanisms which helped foster social cohesion. At the same time, the notion of exercised creativity and deliberate choices in the past (as evident in Neolithic architectural forms) will be elucidated as one of the important aspects of human condition. The theoretical and methodological framework for this approach will be developed and evaluated in terms of its applicability towards the study of the material remains of the past, particularly prehistoric architecture. 

The project will cover the region Caithness, Scotland, with comparisons to nearby Orkney and Sutherland, and focus on the discussion of a select number of Orkney-Cromarty type tombs to understand how their overall architectural and structural design, style, individual elements and other visual properties fit into the visual culture, aesthetic sensibilities, and knowledge tradition in the Neolithic period. The hope is that the findings of the project can later be extrapolated and applied as a theoretical and methodological framework to other geographical areas. 

Exposed chamber architecture at Cairn o’ Get, Caithness © Lusia Zaleskaya

Background to the project  

Research discussed here falls within the scope of studies of European Neolithic. It is interdisciplinary in nature, owing some of its theoretical foundations to the fields such as art and architecture theory, learning theory, and concerns itself with the ideas of how social cohesion might have been fostered in the past through visual tradition and socially negotiated aesthetic sensibilities. 

The Neolithic activity in the historic county of Caithness has been studied since the 19th century, with most of the antiquarian work focusing on the architectural remains. Yet, if compared to the nearby Orkney, there is a big disparity in the amount of research produced since. In Orkney, the body of scholarship is substantial, with key themes in research being inquests into architecture, art, place, space, monumentality (eg Richards 1993, Richards 1996, Noble 2006, Thomas 2016, Marshall 2017), establishing chronologies (eg Bayliss et al 2017, Card et al 2018), Neolithic beyond monuments (Renfrew 1985, Richards and Jones 2016), to management strategies for the WHS area (Card et al 2007).  

When it comes to Caithness, even though it is not less rich in Neolithic sites, the research is scarcer (e.g. Heald and Barber 2015 discuss this (34-57 for chapter on cairns, also see Davidson and Henshall 1991: 6-11 for history of research of the cairns in Caithness). Such apparent neglect can be attributed to the remoteness of the region, as well as relatively poorer quality of preservation of sites (Heald and Barber 2015, Davidson and Henshall 1991). 

Considering this fact, and that there has not been sufficient effort to synthesise the evidence from both regions, despite their proven connectedness in the past and geographic proximity, this research has potential to close knowledge gaps regarding the development and role of the Neolithic architecture in Scotland. 

Theoretical Framework 

While there is no consensus on the fitness of an explicitly aesthetic approach to the study of prehistoric material culture, as, historically, ‘aesthetics’ are often tied to the Western philosophy and art making it problematic in archaeology, I believe that adopting an aesthetic approach to the discussion of Neolithic architecture is essential to understand the full complexity of culture and human condition in the past. As there is precedence and merit for its use in archaeology (see Gosden 2001; Heyd 2012, for example), the discussion of aesthetic in prehistory will form part of the theoretical to be developed and used for the current research. I propose to consider architecture in prehistory as not just part of technology but also as part of visual culture – ‘art’, if you will – to shift the focus from investigation of its functional aspects to understanding these monuments as products of creativity, design, and visual tradition, and communal effort/participation. 

Where technology will be considered is in elucidating the relationship between learning, knowledge transmission and development, and community formation – as can be understood from the construction processes and use of drystone technology in the Neolithic architecture. For the discussion of that, the concepts of ‘communities of practice’ first developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and elaborated by Wenger (1998) will be used as the jumping off point for understanding the interplay between knowledge transmission (including aesthetic preferences and technological know-how) and establishment/performance of community identity in the past.  

Outer cairn material visible on the surface and modern marker cairn, Warehouse Hill Round (West), Caithness © Lusia Zaleskaya


Davidson and Henshall identify 74 Neolithic cairns in Caithness (1991). To keep the research focused and manageable within the constraints of the PhD project, a selection of case studies will be chosen for detailed discussion. The focus will be on the tombs of Orkney-Cromarty type, considering that it is likely that the spread of Maeshowe-type tombs is limited to the Orkney Isles (Davidson and Henshall 1991: 3). Priority will be given to the sites which have been excavated in the late 20th century, thus ensuring that sufficient and detailed evidence of their architecture is available. Additionally, cairns with exposed internal architecture will be considered as well. The goal is to have a representative sample, which can provide evidence for both similarity and variation within the architecture, within and between the regions. The preference will be given to the sites which fall outwith of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney WHS in Orkney: this area is well-protected and draws significant attention from researchers. Research efforts focused elsewhere will help shed light on lesser known yet not less valuable sites, thus diversifying our knowledge of the Scottish Neolithic.  

Primary data will be extracted from photographs, diagrammatic drawings, plans, and other forms of visual documentation of archaeological sites in question, both archival and author’s own. Data collection involves fieldwork visits to the selected Neolithic cairns to gather first-hand observations in order to better understand the nature, setting, and context of the sites. Such fieldwork takes form of non-invasive visual assessment of upstanding architectural remains. Alongside the observations collected during fieldwork, archival materials held at the Historic Environment Scotland Archives and the National Record of the Historic Environment are being examined. Archival research focuses primarily on the materials available pertaining to the excavations carried out in Caithness in the late 20th century, as well as various historic environment surveys in the region, and consists of photographs, drawings and plans, excavation day books and so on.  

The aim of data collection is to identify architectural details which can convey communally negotiated aesthetic considerations and visual/design choices. Considerations will be given to such details as the size of stone slabs and blocks used in construction, overall quality of masonry, apparent construction sequences, texture of stones used, internal organisation, decorative elements and embellishments, art, as well as any non-structural/atypical elements.  

Finally, the primary and secondary data will be synthesised and (re)interpreted within the theoretical framework and with objectives of this study in mind. 

Research questions and anticipated outcomes 

The central research questions of this project are as follows:  

  • how does one define aesthetics, visual culture and visual tradition in the context of Neolithic period?  
  • can we identify visual tradition and aesthetic sensibilities in pre-literate past?  
  • to what extend would have the existence of a visual cultural tradition contributed to the fostering of community ties/generational memory/social cohesion? 
  • what role did the building technology and the dissemination of technological knowledge play in the creation and maintenance of community identity, as well as visual and aesthetic traditions? 
  • can we identify evidence of knowledge development and transmission in regard to Neolithic architecture? 
  • was architecture of past societies bound by tradition or created through the exercise of individual design/engineering choices and decisions? How do we identify those choices? 

Through this research I expect to refine our understanding of variation in prehistoric architecture through exploring the nature and origin of such variation through a different theoretical lens than employed in most research of built environments in prehistory. This aligns in part with the question 5.36 identified in Highlands Archaeological Research Framework. Through examining the aesthetic qualities of Neolithic tombs, I expect to find that main sources of stylistic and design differences in prehistoric tomb architecture of Orkney-Cromarty type tombs in Caithness, Orkney and Sutherland, can largely be attributed to diverging visual aesthetic traditions/micro-regional identities in these inter-connected cultural regions. For a distribution map of cairns in Caithness and Sutherland, see ScARF’s HighARF Neolithic chapter.

Additionally, variations arising from the different level of technical skill as well as ability to exercise a certain degree of artistic license of prehistoric architects in these regions will be considered. The evaluation of which factors likely account for most variation and contribute to structural, visual and design traditions in architecture of Orkney-Cromarty cairns will be made. I expect to find that the shaping of aesthetic/visual tradition in the material culture of these past societies was one of the mechanisms of fostering a shared cultural identity. 


Bayliss, A, Marshall, P, Richards, C, and Whittle, A 2017 ‘Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney’,  Antiquity 91(359), 1171-1188.   

Card, N, Downes, J, Gibson, J and Ovenden, S 2007 ‘Bringing a landscape to life? Researching and managing ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site’, World Archaeology 39(3), 417-435. 

Card, N, Mainland, I, Timpany, S, Towers, R, Batt, C, Ramsey, C, Dunbar, E, Reimer, P, Bayliss, A, Marshall, P and Whittle, A 2018 ‘To cut a long story short: formal chronological modelling for the late Neolithic site of Ness of Brodgar, Orkney’, European Journal of Archaeology 21(2), 217-263.    

Davidson, J L and Henshall, A S 1991 The chambered cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 

Gosden, C 2001 ‘Making Sense: Archaeology and Aesthetics’, World Archaeology, 33(2), 163-167. 

Heald, A, and Barber, J 2015 Caithness archaeology: aspects of prehistory, Dunbeath: Whittles Publishing.  

Heyd, T, 2012 ‘Rock “art” and art: why aesthetics should matter’, in McDonald, J, and Veth, P (eds) A Companion to Rock Art, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 276–293. 

Lave, J and Wenger, E 1991 Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.   

Marshall, J 2017 ‘Absence, presence, indexicality: the mise en scence of ‘the Heart of Neolithic Orkney’, Theatre Research International 42(1), 72-90.  

Noble, G 2006 ‘Harnessing the waves: Monuments and ceremonial complexes in Orkney and beyond’, Journal of Maritime Archaeology 1(1), 100-117.   

Renfrew, C 1985 Prehistory of Orkney, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 

Richards, C 1993 ‘Monumental Choreography: architecture and spatial representation in late Neolithic Orkney’, in: Tilley, C (ed), Interpretative Archaeology, Providence and Oxford: Berg Publishers, 143-178. 

Richards, C 1996 ‘Monuments as landscape: Creating the centre of the world in late Neolithic Orkney’, World Archaeology 28(2), 190-208.    

Richards, C and Jones, R 2016 The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994-2014), Oxford: Windgather Press.     

Thomas, A 2016 Art and architecture in Neolithic Orkney: process, temporality and context, Oxford: Archaeopress.    

Wenger, E 1998 Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.