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Neolithic Scotland: Timber, Stone, Earth and Fire by Gordon Noble
Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2006, 262 pp, 143 figs, ISBN-10 0 7486 2338 8 (£22.99)

It is 22 years since Ian Kinnes’s review of the Scottish Neolithic (1985), produced in what was to Noble a ‘standstill’ period of interest in Scottish prehistory (p. 236). In that time, we have seen three books dedicated to this period (Ashmore 1996, Barclay 1998 and the present one), in contrast to the preceding century which saw only Joseph Anderson’s Rhind Lectures on the Bronze and Stone Ages (1886), synoptic volumes by such as Childe, Piggott, and the Ritchies apart. Pressures on young academics and a material increase in activity in the field are no doubt responsible for this late efflorescence.

This is a brave, but limited, attempt to characterise the Scottish Neolithic in terms of current methodological concerns. In the blurb, Colin Richards praises its emphasis on ‘materiality’, yet the text is notable for its unsure handling of material culture in general and pottery in particular. Noble does set down a coherent thesis, although one that draws in places too heavily on developments in England.

Briefly, the nine chapters cover an introduction to Scottish Neolithic studies and the geography of Scotland; ‘islands in the fast lane’, which postulates an early role for west-coast islands in settlement; ‘burning down the house’, in which fire is much to the fore in the end-game of buildings and monuments; ‘planting trees, planting people’ on long and round barrows in eastern Scotland; Megalithic Architecture in the west; the emergence of monument complexes; the architecture of monumental landscapes and the Early Bronze Age, followed by a brief conclusion.

The introduction quotes as model Childe’s Prehistory of Scotland (1935) which aimed at a wider public and eschewed ‘detailed technical studies’ for the presentation of an (albeit) provisional view. Noble is certainly bold in attempting to define regional sequences congruent with most, but by no means all, current views on the Scottish Neolithic, although it is strange that he omits to reference Anna Ritchie’s work when listing syntheses on Orkney (p. 2: Ritchie 1995). In many ways, the split is traditional – Atlantic seafarers and east-coast timber monuments (but with no Perthshire E-W melting pot which to me characterises that great area’s archaeology). Chronologically speaking, the division is simple: at 3300 BC (p. 15) between the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition to the early Neolithic and the later, Grooved Ware-influenced later Neolithic. It is here that Noble deserts the use of pottery, which might rather suggest three phases, for a simpler early-late, monument-related chronology. He is, however, unwise to simplify matters to the extent of characterising Unstan Ware as a ‘local style of Impressed Ware’ (p. 15).

He picks up Alison Sheridan’s bid for possible Breton links to Beacharra (2004), but misses Kinnes’s droll commentary on it (2004). The implications of the burning down of complicated timber structures such as halls must wait until the third chapter (the creation of memories), but the section on lithics (p. 20) is deficient in missing Alan Saville’s work at Boddam on behalf of the National Museums of Scotland (Bridgland et al. 1997). The point about clearance being found ‘under’ the long barrow at Dalladies (p. 21) is wrong – the evidence came from the turf within the mound. The solution to the Thomas/Barclay debate on sedentism is apparently a recognition of the ‘regionalised nature of the Neolithic’ (p. 22), but confusion follows from the qualification: ‘even when houses were present a level of mobility in settlement strategies may still have existed’.

The second chapter promotes the western seaways approach to colonisation and is good on the ‘technologies of the sea’ that small island communities would have practised across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (p. 24) – as they still do. There is a welcome re-assertion of the primacy of the Western Isles (p. 29) in this process, although it remains an assertion, for he does not articulate expressly the implications of this process, nor does he speculate on the likely continental origins of such traffic. The map supporting this point showing the major sea routes in the Irish Sea is a shocker, but is only one of a series of poorly-reproduced line drawings (including the C14 tables) that the publisher has seen fit to inflict on its customers – the half-tones pass muster, just.

The overlap between Mesolithic and Neolithic in NE Scotland is discounted in a sentence: this is rash for while there may not always be direct inter-site overlap (and there is generally a big time-gap), areas such as Deeside, for example, do furnish Mesolithic evidence from the haughs of the river and Neolithic material from the immediately adjacent terraces. Balbridie itself sits a mere kilometre from significant microlith scatters, while the recent work at Warren Field, Crathes, has apparently produced a Mesolithic pit alignment reused in the Neolithic (British Archaeology, March/April 2007, 7). Spurryhillock, Stonehaven, at least is another contender for direct overlap (Alexander 1997). The discussion of agriculture is mildly confusing, but Noble makes the obvious case for the likely complexity of its onset.

The next three chapters explore the regionality of the Scottish Neolithic, beginning with one on the role of fire in ending timber (invariably oak) structures such as cursus monuments, mortuary enclosures, timber halls, and other forms of enclosure. Although the chapter’s epigraph is from Douglas, on ritual enlivening memory, the statement that ‘these structures were aimed at creating social unity at times when this was threatened’ (p. 45) is not expanded and remains contentious. There is, however, a useful discussion of whether the firing could have been accidental or deliberate; Noble is surely correct to conclude, based on SE European evidence, that it was the result of a conscious decision on the part of Neolithic people. He also addresses the debate on the nature of such halls as Balbridie or Claish, and follows Topping in suggesting that they were ‘constructed to house large social gatherings of regional significance’ (p. 59). The role of pit groups surely gives the lie to the impression of a sporadic kind of settlement, although it is a pity that Noble did not pick up on the extraordinarily diverse range of cereals recovered from the very large pits on Dubton Farm, Angus (rather buried by its appearance in a journal lacking an exchange system, but meriting much wider knowledge: Cameron 2002), and was writing before the bountiful results of the Kintore open-area excavations were available (Cook & Dunbar 2004) which have vastly increased the population of Neolithic pottery in the NE. Whether the elision of houses with larger enclosures under the term ‘symbolic houses’ is valid remains to be established, but Noble presents a good argument for seeing the houses themselves as involved in the ‘creation of memories of people, places and events’.

The following chapter, 4, turns to the long and round barrows of eastern Scotland, and plunges immediately into detailed discussion of English type-sites such as Fussell’s Lodge or Aldwincle. This is necessary, Noble avers, because interpretation of Scottish monuments has been dominated by considerations of sites from outside Scotland. It would perhaps have been refreshing not to have gone down this particular first-year undergraduate road, particularly as the presentation of the Scottish data is contentious enough. (It should be said that the illustrations to this chapter are particularly nasty.)

One Scottish site that is reinterpreted is the long barrow of Dalladies. Writing as a witness to the excavation, albeit 36 years on (and one who found the cup-marked slab on a re-visit organised in response to an urgent plea for assistance from his professor who had run out of the time allotted for the excavation), I am unhappy at the characterisation offered. While it is true that the approach to the rescue excavation of this Wiltshire-looking long barrow may have had elements of the Wessex of the 1950s – eg, reliance on a squad of labourers for the heavy spading – the co-directors, Trevor Watkins and Mary-Jane Mountain played a major role in the interpretation and recording. While it is also true that the final stages of recording relied on a scratch crew of Edinburgh graduates, including Audrey Henshall and Margaret Stewart, I do not think that the report merits the description ‘confusing and contradictory’ (p. 83). Certainly, the D-shape of the large post-holes does invite comparison with those at Lochhill, Slewcairn and Pitnacree, but the issue is whether the post-pipes identified were secondary, which Noble argues they are. Piggott’s discussion was governed by the model of a pitch-roofed mortuary house such as was believed to be at Wayland’s Smithy, but I am sure he would have happily acknowledged the possibility being argued, particularly as, since then, we have seen an increased awareness of the Scottish evidence, reflected in Noble, as well as Haddenham-inspired thoughts of virgin forests. Such thoughts are developed by Noble into an argument against the use of exposure platforms at these sites, but rather for the split tree as a symbol of decay, with the dead being offered to where the tree had decayed (p. 93). There follows an interesting discussion of the role of trees and woodland in Neolithic life, concluding that the tree represented ‘a potent symbol of vitality ... permanence ... continuity’ (p. 101).

Chapter 5 considers megalithic architecture in Atlantic Scotland and plots (p.103) Henshall’s groups of chambered cairns in what is really the only attempt to portray graphically the regionalism that is one of the themes of the book. Noble draws on Corcoran and Scott’s work on the multi-phased nature of tomb construction to suggest changing attitudes to the dead in Neolithic society (p. 104). He argues a progression in thought and ritual from the deposition of the dead in essentially closed tombs to the need to use these remains in subsequent rituals, requiring forecourts, facades and access to them. This is interpreted, after Barrett, as denoting the rise of ancestral rites in which the ‘presence of the dead is established amongst the affairs of the living’ (p.132). The architectural implications of this postulated change from funerary to ancestral rituals are then tracked across the various well-known tomb groups to the conclusion that they represent ‘a long-term commitment to a place’ (p.137).

This provides a convenient opening to the next chapter, 6, the emergence of monument complexes in the late Neolithic, in which it is argued that they developed in areas of important natural routeways. Noble rather retreats from his previous positive Early/Late division of the Neolithic by stressing the ‘time-depth of the activities that occurred in these landscapes’ (p.140). He then offers ‘a tour’ of some of the major archaeological landscapes of Scotland. Although he specifically disavows completeness, and includes Balfarg, North Mains, Cairnpapple, the upper Clyde, Meldon Bridge, Kilmartin, Machrie Moor, Callanish, Stenness/Brodgar and Dunragit, I still think it regrettable that he omitted the Fintray/lower Don landscape of Aberdeenshire, particularly after featuring its cursus in full colour on the cover (a photograph this reviewer must claim). This river leads past the cursus, a possible hall, and a massive ring ditch to the ceremonial complex of Broomend of Crichie, currently under excavation by Richard Bradley (Shepherd & Greig 1996, 72-3, 77, 68, 70).

This chapter develops into a discussion of the lack of division between the ritual and domestic in ordinary prehistoric life, following Bradley. Where Noble gets things wrong here is in uncritically accepting the views of other Bradley students, such as Colin Richards, whose howler over the allegedly specialised use of House 7 at Skara Brae, refuted entirely by Clarke (2003 – wrong date cited by Noble) and Shepherd, A.N. (2000), is repeated rashly (p. 200). There are other incongruities, such as the comparison of the Beckton, Lockerbie houses with the much larger henge monument at Balfarg (p. 202) – superficially alike as plans but surely grossly different in scale and purpose. In arguing for a regional Neolithic, there is a surprising lack of use of evidence such as carved stone balls, whose distribution was so heavily eastern and congruent with Pictish symbol stones as to mislead Childe (Clarke 2003, 85).

Noble makes good use of pollen cores from the vicinity of the monument complexes he identifies, but in omitting to discuss Kevin Edwards’s work at Dinnet in the Howe of Cromar (Edwards 1979), leaves the reader wondering if he does not count its two long cairns, and other features such as the Tomnaverie stone circle as a monument complex. Perhaps not.

Chapter 8 introduces the early Bronze Age as a ‘deliberate attempt to break from the traditions of the past’ (p. 221), with a re-orientation from the Atlantic west to a focus on Europe across the North Sea, predicated on the appearance of beakers and cognate burial rites.

As characterised above, this is a brave, if limited exposition. Lacking confidence in exploring the rich artefactual heritage of the Neolithic in Scotland, this cannot be recommended as the complete book on Neolithic Scotland.

Ian A G Shepherd
Planning and Environmental Services
Aberdeenshire Council

Alexander, D. 1997. Excavation of pits containing decorated Neolithic pottery and early Mesolithic material of possible Mesolithic date at Spurryhillock, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland 127, 17-27
Anderson, J. 1886. Scotland in Pagan Times: the Bronze and Stone Ages, Edinburgh: David Douglas
Ashmore, P.J. 1996. Scotland in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. London: Batsford
Barclay, G.J. 1998. Farmers, Temples and Tombs: Scotland in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Edinburgh.
Bridgland, D.R., Saville, A. & Sinclair, J.M. 1997. New evidence for the origin of the Buchan Ridge Gravel, Aberdeenshire, Scot Journal Geology 33(1), 43-50
Cameron, K. 2002. The excavation of Neolithic pits and Iron Age souterrains at Dubton Farm, Brechin, Angus, Tayside Fife Archaeological Journal 8, 19-76
Clarke, D.V. 2003. Once upon a time Skara Brae was unique, in Armit, I., Murphy, E., Nelis, E. & Simpson, D. (eds), Neolithic Settlement in Ireland and Western Britain, Oxford: Oxbow, 84-92
Cook, M. & Dunbar, L. 2004. Kintore, Current Archaeology, 194, 84-9
Edwards, K.J. 1979. Environmental impact in the prehistoric period, Scottish Archaeological Forum 9, 27-42
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Kinnes, I. 2004. Context not circumstance: a distant view of Scottish monuments in Europe‘, in Shepherd, I.A.G. & Barclay, G.J. (eds), Scotland in Ancient Europe: the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of Scotland in their European Context, Edinburgh, 139- 42
Ritchie, A. 1995. Prehistoric Orkney. London: Batsford
Shepherd, A.N. 2000. Skara Brae: expressing identity in a Neolithic community, in Ritchie, A. (ed), Neolithic Orkney in its European context, Cambridge: Macdonald Institute, 139-58
Shepherd, I.A.G. & Greig, M.K. 1996. Grampian’s Past: its archaeology from the air. Aberdeen. Grampian Regional Council.
Sheridan, J.A. 2004. Neolithic connections along and across the Irish Sea, in Cummings, V. & Fowler, C. (eds), The Neolithic of the Irish Sea: Materiality and Traditions of Practice, Oxford: Oxbow, 9-21

Review Submitted: April 2007

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

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