Neolithic Isolation

Farm at Gallow Hill
The Farmstead at Gallow Hill in Shetland. This panorama gives an idea of the remarkable preservation of the site which sits on the surface at present ground level. The main house structure lies at the centre (with modern disturbance), while the remains of clearance cairns and field walls may be seen all around it. The complex also includes substantial outlying burial monuments.

I seem to be travelling a lot just now and it makes me think about the ease of mobility today and the way in which it transcends not just distance but also culture. We are all accustomed to the presence of items in our homes, often everyday items, which reflect a way of life very different to our own.

One of my journeys led me north to the island chain of Shetland. It is a great place with amazing archaeology and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to spend three days there, discussing the archaeology with colleagues, and visiting some of the lesser known (but as it turned out no less spectacular), sites. Much of our discussion focussed on the introduction of farming to Shetland and development of the Neolithic there. The interesting element about this for me is that, although farming was certainly introduced by boat, there is little evidence that people, once settled there, kept up frequent contacts with communities further south. Repeated evidence for contact between Shetland and places such as Orkney does not appear until later in the Neolithic.

Alison Sheridan’s recent research suggests that, on the grounds of tomb types, the early farming communities may have come from the west coast of Scotland. We do not know for certain whether or not there were pre-existing Mesolithic communities here, but tantalizing hints of the use of coastal resources at an early date come from the site of West Voe in the south of the islands, where a team from Bradford has excavated a site dating to 3700 – 3600 BC. The finds from West Voe included both cattle and sheep bones and seem to indicate a community with both Mesolithic and Neolithic traits. This is, of itself, particularly exciting because, as I have argued before, it is particularly difficult for archaeologists to recognise the ‘blurred’ episodes that lay between our carefully defined periods. West Voe, it seems, is exactly this. Was this one of the first farming communities to settle in Shetland, or do the remains relate to a Mesolithic (or Neolithic) community that chose to adopt the ‘useful bits’ from their new neighbours? At the moment, we just don’t know.

Farming soon spread across Shetland and it is likely that agricultural land may have been more plentiful than today. Shetland, like Orkney, has been subject to rising relative sea-levels since the end of the last Ice Age meaning that coastal lands have been lost. We don’t yet have precise measurements for this but it is possible that relative sea-level was as much as 10m lower around 4000 BC which would mean that the topography of the islands was very different to that of today. As yet, there are few sites that date to this earliest farming period: perhaps a reflection of the loss of coastal settlements to inundation; or of our inability to recognise the earliest sites, particularly if they reflected the hybridity of West Voe; or maybe just confirmation that population levels at this time were, indeed, low.

The interesting thing is that the resources that we find on the Neolithic sites were all very local. And, despite the production in Shetland of stunning and apparently high status objects such as beautiful polished axes and knives of local felsite, we don’t get much evidence of Shetland-style products leaving the islands. Even in Orkney, where the islanders were, apparently, seriously into the production and acquisition of elaborate showy goods like Grooved Ware pottery, only two, possible, artifacts of Shetland felsite have been found. There is no evidence either that pottery such as Grooved Ware, or even architecture such as that of the Stone Circles, or the buildings at Ness of Brodgar and Barnhouse came north to Shetland. And, while research on the Orkney Vole and its possible Neolithic origins on the Continent may still be be controversial, there is no evidence for the spread of Orkney Voles into Shetland.

So, the available evidence suggests that the Neolithic islanders of Shetland did not look south for cultural connections. And the Neolithic islanders of Orkney seem to have been too preoccupied with their own southern networking to explore the possibility that there was benefit to be obtained from looking north. Only later, as economic and cultural horizons in the south of Britain shifted to the Continent and Ireland with the introduction of metal, did Orcadian communities apparently become aware of the availability of raw materials to the north.

I find this seeming isolation of Neolithic Shetland fascinating. Just how many groups of incomers made the lengthy journey north? How many people were needed to settle the islands? You’d not need that many breeding cattle and sheep, though the voyage cannot have been an easy one. Are the difficulties of the voyage reflected in the fact that there is so little evidence for return trips? Does the development of connections between the island groups of Orkney and Shetland in the later third millennium BC (when, for example, we see the export of steatite vessels from Shetland to Orkney) reflect improvements in sea-going craft as well as the possible decline of Orcadian connections further south?

Nevertheless, isolation did not equate with lack of success. The population of Neolithic Shetland may not have been large for the first few centuries, but communities survived. Work by Janet Montgomery of Durham University and her colleagues, suggests that there were, indeed, times of famine, but houses and elaborate tombs were built, and communities developed. With time, Shetland would become more a part of mainstream Britain. For now, it seems to me that the earliest farmers in Shetland may have adapted to their northern homeland by broadening their resource base and leaving an archaeological record that is both less clearly ‘Neolithic’ and, most likely, largely underwater.


The Invention of Tradition

Galley burning
Up Helly Aa is an impressive spectacle that lifts onlookers far away from a cold, wet northern winter. The culmination of the ceremonies takes place as the galley starts to burn.

I woke to a panel discussion on Radio Scotland the other day regarding the current popularity of archaeology. It was nice to hear them praise the recent Orkney television series, but what really interested me was the link they made between living in uncertain times and the need to reinforce ideas of heritage.

At the end of January I travelled to Shetland to watch the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival. It was an amazing experience, and quite apart from letting my hair down, it got me thinking. Continue reading The Invention of Tradition