The Chain Mail

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The Neolithic

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With the winter slowly passing and the days become lighter, what better way than to ‘spring’ into the new Year of History Heritage and Archaeology theme, and introduce Early Scotland.  To welcome this theme, we caught up with Georgie from our Cultural Resources team to give us more information about our Neolithic (4000 – 2500BC) sites.

Dotted around the country are a number of spectacular monuments dating from the Neolithic period, many of which are under our care. Below we examine a few:

Early Settlement and Farming: New Dates from the Knap of Howar

Knap of Howar - New radiocarbon dates from the Knap of Howar, have confirmed that these structures date to 3300-3100 BC

Knap of Howar – New radiocarbon dates from the Knap of Howar, have confirmed that these structures date to 3300-3100 BC

On the island of Papa Westray in Orkney, two stone-built oblong structures sit side by side, linked by a passage running between their walls. Built by early farmers, this dwelling and workshop are encased in a layer of domestic waste, or ‘midden’, which would have offered insulation and stability to the structures within. Analysis of the midden material provides interesting dietary information about the Neolithic occupants; their household refuse reveals that they were rearing cattle, sheep and pigs, exploiting marine resources (particularly fish and shellfish) whilst also cultivating early forms of barley and wheat. The quern stone used for grinding this grain still survives in one of the structures.

The Knap of Howar is famously referred to as the oldest preserved house in Northern Europe, but new radiocarbon dates have helped to pinpoint this more precisely. After a small area of wall was damaged, archaeologists assessed the disturbance prior to repair, and found two pieces of ‘articulated’ cattle bone (still attached at the joint) which could be accurately dated to 3300-3100calBC. This verifies the ancient origin of these remarkably well-preserved structures.

Shared Technology and Architecture

Later Neolithic settlements took the form of clustered circular houses, like those at Skara Brae

Later Neolithic settlements took the form of clustered circular houses, like those at Skara Brae

As the Neolithic progressed, settlement developed from oblong, relatively isolated structures such as those at the Knap of Howar, to denser clusters of more circular houses like those seen at Skara Brae and Links of Noltland in Orkney, which likely would have supported far larger communities. This change in settlement form is echoed by a change in pottery style; the early ‘Unstan Ware’ vessels with round bases and decorated collars were typical of the early settlement types, while later communities tended to use bucket-shaped ‘Grooved-Ware’ pottery with more elaborate decoration. The latter style was widespread throughout Britain and Ireland, and helps provide evidence of extensive networks of contact, and the long-distance movement of people sharing ideas, objects and resources around the Neolithic world.

We also see the widespread use of chambered cairns, with Neolithic communities placing their dead in large communal tombs. These took many forms, but generally comprised a stone-built chamber reached by a passage, with the whole contained within a mound of stone, earth and turf. There were often distinctive regional developments, and across our estate we have many examples in different configurations, including the Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness, to Nether Largie North in Argyll, and Cairn Holy in Dumfries and Galloway. They were designed so that they could be reopened, perhaps with the remains of the dead being rearranged and curated over a period of time in some form of ancestor worship.

Chambered cairns come in many different shapes and sizes, such as the long linear form of one of the two Grey Cairns of Camster

Chambered cairns come in many different shapes and sizes, such as the long linear form of one of the two Grey Cairns of Camster

We can only speculate what these funerary rituals may have involved, but the development of large open-air monuments may have been important for performing other types of ceremonies. Orkney’s Ring of Brodgar is the largest henge in northern Britain, and could have potentially accommodated an extremely large assembly, but so too could the henge at Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian. Elsewhere we find rows, circles and individual settings of standing stones, not least at Calanais on Lewis (for which the full survey and excavation report has recently been published and is free to download).

Large open-air monuments such as Calanais may have been important for communal ceremonies. Many have important celestial alignments.

Large open-air monuments such as Calanais may have been important for communal ceremonies. Many have important celestial alignments.

Many such monuments have important celestial alignments, or bear ancient artwork carved onto their stones. We also find so-called ‘cup and ring’ marks, or hollows and circular grooves carved into bedrock such as those at Cairnbaan in Argyll; with the same designs being repeatedly used over hundreds of years. Alongside these we also see the development of other types of object that are not purely functional, but could also be classed as ‘art’. These include personal adornments, jewellery, and carved and polished stone objects, which help us understand a complex society capable of creating truly beautiful objects, not just monumental architecture.

‘Cup and ring’ mark motifs such as those at Cairnbaan, were in use for hundreds of years

‘Cup and ring’ mark motifs such as those at Cairnbaan, were in use for hundreds of years

But it’s important to remember that the spectacular upstanding remains we see now do not represent the full picture of Neolithic architectural endeavour, but only the most visible. The chambered cairns, standing stones and settlements constructed from hard wearing stone have stood the test of time, and survived for us all to behold several thousand years after their conception. But any elements made from less-durable materials such as wood, reeds or turf have long since rotted away. Once impressive timber buildings or enclosures may now survive only as shadowy cropmarks or insubstantial postholes; offering only hints of how impressive these forms may have once been.

This whistle-stop tour has barely scratched the surface of the wealth of remarkable Neolithic sites in Scotland, of which many others are beyond the guardianship of Historic Scotland. More information regarding opening and access to our sites can be found here.

Remember to share your photos with us @welovehistory #HHA2017.

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About Author

Georgie is an Assistant Cultural Resources Advisor, providing historical and archaeological research services related to our Properties in Care.

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