In The Shadow of the Brochs: The Iron Age in Scotland by B. BALIN SMITH and I. BANKS (editors)
Tempus, Stroud, Gloucestershire. 2002. 256 pages, 17 tables, 76 black & white plates & figures, 31 colour figures. ISBN 075242517X

This book forms a festschrift for Euan Mackie, a pioneer of the study of brochs and Iron Age research in Scotland. MacKie recently retired from his curatorial post at the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, following a lengthy career. The scale and significance of his contribution to the study of the Iron Age in Scotland is indicated, for example, by a brief appreciation of his work (by Noel Fojut) on page 9 of the book and the list of his publications at the end (p 234-6). It is also demonstrated by the extensive references that are made to MacKie’s work in the most through current review of Iron Age archaeology in Britain (Cunliffe’s 1991). Research on the Iron Age of Scotland has developed in new and interesting ways over the past fifteen years. This new book states its aim as to provide a general overview of the state of Iron Age studies in Scotland at the beginning of the twenty-first century (p 217). I shall consider how well the volume meets this aim.

The title of the book suggests that Iron Age archaeology in Scotland remains dominated by the topic of brochs (for a thorough recent summary of brochs, see Armit 2003). The focus of this volume, as of MacKie’s career, is upon the north and west of Scotland, the area in which brochs are most common. Eleven of the nineteen papers are case studies from the Northern and Western Isles, while only four address evidence for the Scottish mainland. More particularly, there is a strong bias to the Western Isles (six papers) that reflects the focus of the attention of staff and students from the Archaeology Department of Edinburgh University upon this area. The Northern Isles, by contrast, fair rather less well (three papers, with two additional papers that address both the Western and Northern Isles). This western emphasis is a reflection of the fact that the islands of Orkney and Shetland, highly popular with prehistoric archaeologists from the 1940s to the 1980s, have seen less archaeological work that the Western Isles during the past 15 years. Despite the bias in coverage toward the Western Isles, it is a pity that the volume does not include contributions from the projects that are being run in this area by the Universities of Sheffield and Cardiff, as these would have provided a very different perspective to that developed by the research that has emerged from Edinburgh (e.g. Parker-Pearson and Sharples 1996). The mainland of Scotland is ill-served by the volume. Of the relevant papers, one examines the south-west, another Caithness, while Perthshire and Angus have a single paper each. There is no coverage of the south-east in the volume and very little discussion of the east. The bias in coverage reflect, to an extent, the places in which much of the archaeological work is occurring, as Banks notes the Inner and Outer Hebrides appear to hold a particular fascination for English University departments (p 28). There has, however, been a reasonable amount of recent work on some of the areas of mainland Scotland that are not addressed in this volume (Haselgrove et al 2001, Table 3). Therefore, the suggestion that the book provides a full statement of Scottish Iron Age studies is inaccurate. It does, however, include a variety of interesting and useful contributions.

The vast majority of the papers focus upon the period prior to the Roman conquest of Southern Britain, but the Iron Age in Scotland continues rather later and single papers in the volume address Vikings in Caithness (Colleen Batey) and aspects of Christianity in the Western Isles (John Hunter). One other interesting paper by Graham Ritchie focuses upon the survival of archival material from various old excavations and the significance of this evidence, but this contribution appears rather out of place as not all the materials that is addressed relates to the Iron Age. A paper by David Breeze considers the knowledge that survives from ancient writers for the ancient geography of Scotland, and an additional contribution by Denis Harding focuses upon early La Tène Ornamental Style in Britain and Ireland.

This reviewer finds the particular focus placed on classification in a number of the papers rather disappointing. Many Iron Age archaeologists have started to move on to some rather more complex and rewarding issues during the past fifteen years (see papers in Haselgrove and Gwilt [eds.] 1997). Although classification and detailed chronological analysis remains important aspects of archaeological research and much more work is required in the north and west of Scotland before we will have an adequate framework (Haselgrove et al 2001, 30), aspects of the debate in the Scottish Highlands and Islands are beginning to look rather dated. Does the term ‘Simple Atlantic Roundhouses’ (p 17, 55, etc) really help us to understand the roundhouses that occur during the later Bronze Age and Iron Age in the north and west of Scotland? For me, a more significant issue is that roundhouses typify much of Britain during later prehistory, while their occurrence in the Western and Northern Isles draws these island societies into the context of a broader British and Atlantic Iron Age. Continuities as well as differences across the north of Britain are important but the classifications in Scotland often tend to emphasise the regionality of culture. Thinking further about classification, is the term ‘Complex Atlantic Roundhouse’ (p 15) any more useful? The structures that have traditionally been described as brochs fall into this class and, if the term ‘Atlantic’ has relevance, why do brochs also occur in eastern, central and southern Scotland? Is the term Complex Atlantic Roundhouse really very much of an improvement on the traditional term ‘broch’?

The wish to project a simple classification is also evident in the search for a single ceramic sequence for the Western Isles that occupies two of the papers of this volume (Ewan Campbell, Ann McSween). The regionality of Iron Age culture is important and the ceramic sequence for the Western and Northern Isles perhaps has an added significance within the British Iron Age because of the difficulty researchers encounter in trying to make it sit easily within a simple chronological sequence (for the general context, see Haselgrove et al 2001, 3). It should be noted, however, that the authors of the two ceramic papers in the current volume do propose the type of critical and contextual analysis that should enable more complex ceramic sequences to emerge in due course. The paper on the souterrains of Skye (Roger Miket) contains a useful list of monuments and some of the results from the recent excavation of two examples, including the souterrain associated with the interesting rectangular house at Tungadale. The author’s apparent desire to search for a single explanation for the purpose of souterrains (p 82-5), whether they are argued to be specifically domestic, storage or ritual structures, provides another example of the same old-fashioned classificatory approach to the Scottish Iron Age. Recent research (e.g. Hill 1995) has emphasised the difficult of separating ritual and symbolism from everyday life in the British Iron Age. Why should souterrains not have both practical and ritual functions?

To me, the excitement of the Iron Age in Atlantic Scotland lies in variability and regionality of the evidence for the communities. Why do we need to look for simple and standardised explanations for evidence that actually expresses so much more about the past? Perhaps this focus upon simple classification results from the relatively limited impact of post-processual approaches within the Scottish Iron Age (as noted in the discussion of the papers in the volume by Beverley Balin Smith and Iain Banks on p 221). It also clearly results from the limited amount of works that has been undertaken over much of the area. Despite my critical comments on some of the papers in this volume, the Iron Age archaeology for the Highlands and Islands of Scotland has considerable potential. The excellent condition of preservation of much of the architectural evidence for the stone structures that exist across the area provides a promising context for exploring past society in new and challenging ways. Research across Scotland as a whole is being held back by the scarcity of funding and the general absence of co-ordinated research designs.

There are, however, promising signs. The report by Steve Dockrill upon the initial results of the major project at Old Scatness (Shetland), illustrates what is possible given adequate resources. Another interesting paper is Julie Bonds’ account of food and farming in the Northern Isles, which demands a rethinking of power relations because the animal bone information does not fit easily with the site hierarchy models that have been developed in the past. Iain Banks demands attention to the south-west, an area that has been neglected and one that appears quite different from other better-known areas of Scotland, while Ian Armit argues that substantial houses (or, in his terminology, ‘Complex Atlantic Roundhouses’) served different purposes in various areas. These papers help to knock holes in some of the questions that are asked in the book, for example, what was ‘the purpose and function of the broch’ (p 218). Is it not time to look at the Iron Age of Northern and Western Scotland in more stimulating ways?

Richard Hingley,
University of Durham

Review Submitted: September 2003

Armit, I. 2003 Towers in the North: The Brochs of Scotland. Tempus, Stroud.
Cunliffe, B. W. Iron Age Communities in Britain. Third edition. Routledge, London.
Gwilt, A. and Haselgrove, C. (eds.) 1997 Reconstructing Iron Age Societies. Oxbow Monographs No. 71, Oxford.
Haselgrove, C., Armit, I., Champion, T., Creighton, J., Gwilt, A., Hill, J.D., Hunter, F. and Woodward, A. (eds.) 2001 Understanding the British Iron Age: An agenda for Action. Iron Age Research Seminar and Prehistoric Society, Salisbury.
Hill, J. D. 1995 Rituals and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex. BAR 242, Oxford.
Parker-Pearson, M., Sharples, N. and Mulville, J. 1996 ‘Brochs and Iron Age Society: a reappraisal’, Antiquity 70, 57-67.

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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