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Bronze Age

The change from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic can be regarded as a change in the way of life and economy with the status of the individual growing in emphasis through the period. The transition to the Bronze Age is somewhat artificial and harks back to a now outdated theory that an influx of newcomers from the continent known as the Beaker People displaced the indigenous Neolithic people. They take their name from pottery beakers specially made for a new burial rite. High status individuals were buried in a stone box called a short cist. The body was placed in the foetal position with a beaker close to the face; other grave goods were also placed in the grave. Residues found in the beakers suggest that a special drink formed part of the burial ceremony; perhaps shared by the mourners or used as a libation. Current theories see the change in material culture (burial rite, monuments and artifacts) in terms of an influx of new ideas in ritual practice and monumentality. It is likely that the reality is a mix of both immigration and the spread of new ideas and beliefs.. It also marks the use of copper and copper alloys, which, in the beginning of the Bronze Age, would have been rare, precious and possessed only by individuals of the highest status.

The earliest metalworking was probably limited to native copper (metallic copper that occurs naturally in small quantities). Native copper resources would have soon run out and copper would have to be obtained by smelting copper ore. This process might have been regarded as a magical process as, for example the green rock Malachite (copper carbonate), was transformed by fire into metallic copper. To make Bronze from copper it is necessary to alloy it with tin; lead was also added to increase the ease of casting. Metal workers might have been afforded a special position in society.

Tin does not occur in Scotland in significant quantities the main deposits being in Cornwall, Bronze must therefore have been an item of trade.

Stone circles, stone rows, henges and standing stones are thought to have originated towards the end of the Neolithic between 3000 and 2500 BC. Nobody really knows why these monuments were built but some believe they are associated with observing the movements of the sun, moon and stars. It has been speculated that monuments of this type may indicate a transition from an essentially egalitarian society to an increasingly ranked society and from ancestor based worship to more metaphysically based ritual perhaps associated with priesthood.

One such type of monument, The Stone Row is particular to Caithness and Sutherland. The monuments consist of a number of rows of relatively small stones set on edge. In some examples the rows are parallel while in other they fan out slightly. Bronze Age cist burials are sometimes found close to the axis of such settings.

There are twenty-three known examples of this site type in Caithness and Sutherland. The largest of these, The Hill O’ Many Stains in Caithness, has 22 rows set in a fan shape but there is no known associated cist burial.

Despite much analytical work no one has yet come up with a convincing interpretation of these enigmatic monuments, to this end an excavation of the Battle Moss stone row at Yarrows was conducted in 2003 by a joint team from Cardiff and Glasgow universities. More information about Battle Moss can be accessed in the Cultural Heritage section of the website.

In Scotland the Bronze Age is marked by the appearance of a new burial rite, the so-called beaker burial, the earliest of which date to about 2500 BC. It is a high status burial in which the deceased was placed on his or her side, in a crouched or foetal position, within a slab-built short cist (box), which was covered by a capstone (lid). A stone or earthen cairn was usually raised over the cist, which in some areas may have been enclosed within a stone kerb or a ditch and bank. Grave goods would have accompanied the body and were more formally ritualised than those of the Neolithic. Both male and female high status burials included a specially made funerary beaker, often placed opposite the face as if for the deceased to drink from. Organic deposits recovered from these beakers, suggest they contained a ritual drink that may have been shared by the mourners or used as a libation.

A male burial may include archer's accoutrements, barbed and tanged arrowheads and a wrist guard for example. Jewellery might accompany high status female burials. One such burial was found to include what is called a spacer-plate necklace. The finest of these were made from jet, the lesser ones from cannel coal or oil shale. Some cist burials contain a ritual pot called a food vessel rather than a beaker. These are morphologically distinct from beakers and may indicate a lower status burial. Such burials tell us something of the status of women in the Bronze Age.

Bronze Age cist burials sometimes occur as insertions into existing monuments such as stone settings or chambered cairns. The cist found in the left hand side of the anti-chamber of South Yarrows North is an example of this practice. The short cist inhumation was not the only Bronze Age funerary rite cremation was also practiced. Many Bronze Age cairns also contained evidence of cremation.

The Bronze Age farmers appear to have lived as extended families in large roundhouses that date from about 2000 BC, the remains of which are the hut-circles found in great numbers all over Scotland. By about 1500 BC. the intensification of agriculture is evident, marked by the widespread clearance of woodland, and the establishment of large enclosed fields.

By the later Bronze Age, c.a. 900 BC non-ferrous metalworking had become highly developed both in terms of technology and decorative style. Possession of such items was associated with high status within an increasingly warrior-based pan-European Celtic culture.

Short cist burial

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