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Stone Age Cave

Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland

Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland...

Skara Brae: The Story of a Prehistoric...


Skara Brae

Stone Age ' Beaker '

The Stone Age

The Stone Age, or Neolithic period, had its origins in Northern Europe more than 9000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age. As the ice retreated, gradually first of all vegetation, and then animals, colonised northwards into the area of modern Scotland. The first humans in Scotland who followed would have been hunter-gatherers, living off the land, gleaning a natural harvest of fruit and vegetables and killing fish and small mammals with rudimentary weapons. Since the land and climate in Scotland would not have been particularly productive, these peoples are likely to have been mostly nomadic in their lifestyle, moving on to new territory whenever they exhausted the natural supplies. As a result the natural environment would have been able to recover each season and their impact would have been slight. Populations would have been very small indeed by modern standards also.

Clothing would, as shown, have been made from the skins of the animals they killed and their tools were made of the stone which has given the era its name. Humans from this time have left very few traces of their existence. Amongst these were the arrowheads and axes made of flint on which they depended to hunt their supply of protein.

Their 'middens' or rubbish heaps have also been found and these contain in some places thousands of shells of the whelks, mussels, limpets and other shellfish which supplemented their diet. Bones were used as harpoons or spears for catching fish.

Gradually humans, in Scotland as elsewhere, began to develop more sophisticated methods and tools. Fire began to be used to clear land to encourage new growth of vegetation and make permanent changes to the landscape. From this the removal of the great forests from Scotland's scenery began.

From this time onwards appeared the first real monuments to the existence of man as a society in Scotland. The great Neolithic structures bear witness to communities which could organise themselves to quarry and construct huge stone circles, the purpose of which is still obscure, although they are thought to have had religious significance. Particularly fine examples are at Stenness in Orkney and Callanish in the Hebridean island of Lewis.

Evidence of daily life now also becomes available. In the north of Scotland, especially, where timber to construct shelters was rare, houses built of stone have survived at places like the settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney. Here, a whole village from around 3000 BC was buried by encroaching sand and uncovered only comparatively recently by wind and tide erosion.

The houses and their contents of furniture, also built of stone, are in many cases almost intact and allow us a unique insight into the lives of the people of the period. Excavation of this site and others have provided examples of the food that was eaten, of the domestic livestock that was kept, and of the vessels used in cooking and eating.

The peoples of the later Stone Age in Scotland were not homogenous, however. There were amongst them different cultures and there is some indication that new peoples continued to migrate into the country. The evidence for this comes from the very elaborate religious rituals which surrounded the burial of the dead.

On the west coast, people arrived, probably originally from the Mediterranean. From interpretation of archaeological remains, they appeared to have moved northwards up through Spain, the west of France, the Irish Sea, arriving in Galloway, Argyll and as far north as Orkney and Shetland. These were the 'long-headed' people who built the remarkable chambered cairns, vaults for multiple graves.

Later, about 1800 BC, from the east, 'round-headed' tribes arrived from mainland Europe. Their archaeological evidence comes from the eastern borders and the coastal plain of the Forth and Tay estuaries and as far north as the Moray Firth. The dead were, in contrast buried individually, in stone boxes, cists which were so short that bodies were put into a crouched position. The grave was covered by a smaller round mound or barrow.

Because the body was accompanied by a pottery vessel containing food and drink for the after-life, these folk have come to be known as the 'beaker' people. They, like their neighbours in the west, were farmers, but as time passed, there were momentous changes because some groups of the beaker people show evidence of the use of metals like copper and gold. The transition to a new 'age' had begun.

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