Iron Age & Roman
When people first came to Scotland they would have been faced by an alien landscape, recently released from thousands of years beneath the ice sheets. They would have travelled by sea, or walked over the dry land that is now the North Sea. They were hunters and fishers, gathering resources from the great forests or collecting them from the shore. We find traces of them across the length and breadth of Scotland: the tools that they made, the places they lived and the resources they collected.
People adapted natural objects – like antler and bone – to create new tools for hunting and fishing.
One of the fastest and most effective methods of travelling was by water. Early canoes, fashioned out of tree trunks, have been discovered throughout Britain.
People used flint tools for a variety of tasks: they were a multi-use tool a bit like a Swiss army knife. They are found across the length and breadth of Scotland.
As farming was introduced to Scotland, so were new ideas and ways of life. For the first time, people used domesticated animals and cereals – cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, and wheat, barley and flax - and all of these must have been imported from outside Britain. All this meant that the forest had to be cleared and the tending of fields meant that people had to stay in the same place. People also made pottery and built big monuments out of stone, timber or earth.
Over 400 beautifully carved stone balls have been found, mainly from North East Scotland. There are lots of ideas about what they were used for but no-one knows for sure.
As well as an essential tool for clearing land and making buildings, the axe came to be an important symbol. Polished axes, made of green stone from the Alps, became prestige items.
Pottery is one of the new forms of technology used in the Neolithic period. It allowed storage of food and could be heavily decorated.
The nature of the new technology of working copper and copper alloys for the manufacture of tools, ornaments and weapons meant that Scotland was to become part of an international network trading raw materials and finished products with communities across Ireland, England and Europe. New ideas and ways of doing things accompanied this movement of people and things. People lived in big settlements of roundhouses and used metal as jewellery and decoration. When people died they were buried individually and with their possessions. Society was becoming more stratified.
Only a few of these beautifully decorated gold neck ornaments have been found in Scotland. Although made out of the most precious of metals, the decoration on them is similar to that found on pottery.
The Bronze Age saw humanity’s first arms race. Sophisticated weaponry made from bronze began to appear. However, because of their high value, carrying a bronze sword or spear was as much about prestige as it was about combat.
Shields were made, often hammered out of a single piece of bronze and decorated with elaborate scenes of battles or hunting. Three particularly fine examples, from around 3,00 years ago, were found in a peat bog in Yetholm in Roxburghshire in 1837.
Iron Age & Roman
The new technology of iron-working used local raw materials. Landscapes were dominated by the house: whether the stone-built brochs and duns of the west or the massive timber roundhouses of the east. Hillforts and crannogs dotted the peaks and lochs of the landscape. The Roman Empire arrived and turned this world upside-down. They only stayed for a few generations but brought new ideas, religions like Christianity, legal codes, writing, coinage and new technology. They also brought warfare and built the Antonine Wall.
Iron Age beliefs are difficult to reconstruct. The Balachullish ‘goddess’ was found buried face down in a bog beside a dangerous stretch of river and may have been a shrine for safe passage.
Hobnail boots – known today in Scotland as 'tackety boots' - would have been worn by soldiers, their hardwearing soles perfect for marching long distances. Yet women and children's shoes have also been discovered at Roman forts.
The carnyx was a wind instrument of the Iron Age Celts, used between c. 200 BC and c. AD 200. It was a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated S shape. The bell was styled in the shape of an open-mouthed boar's, or other animal's, head.
After the Romans had left, Scotland became a patchwork of kingdoms competing for power. Pictish kingdoms in the east erected stones covered with mysterious symbols. In the west, Gaels and Scots were closely connected with Ireland and had power centres at places like Dunadd. The Britons and the Angles carved out kingdoms in the south. Kings were crowned and Christianity was introduced in the west of Scotland and quickly spread throughout the country. Early churches and monasteries appeared and writing was re-introduced. Craftspeople were employed to make amazing objects for the church and for powerful rulers.
Beautiful works of craftsmanship were commissioned by powerful leaders and by the church. The Hunterston brooch was an amazing example of exquisite craftsmanship, drawing on Irish, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon designs. Around 200 years after it was made, the brooch was inscribed with Viking runes.
Standing stones decorated with a recurring set of symbols are found across northern and eastern Scotland. They were probably used to mark the territories of the Pictish kingdoms. Several depict historical events, and some were later converted into Christian crosses.
Depictions of thrones can be seen carved into Pictish stones, though no throne itself has survived.
Despite their popular image as Viking marauders, Scandinavians came to Scotland not just to raid and plunder, but also to settle and farm. They built longhouses and established homes in the Northern and Western Isles. Sometimes they raided settlements and destroyed churches, but other times they landed in peace to trade at beachmarkets. Eventually they became rulers in their own right, establishing kingdoms across the Western Seaboard of Scotland.
In death, important Norse people would often be buried in a boat, surrounded by their weapons and treasure. In Orkney, one Norseman was discovered buried with a piece of whalebone carved into the shape of two dragon heads – known as the Scar Dragon Plaque.
As well as warriors and raiders, the Norse were settlers and traders. They used scales to weigh and measure material such as precious metals.
If it wasn’t for chess, perhaps we would still all be playing hnefatafl. This was the name of an earlier game, also played on a chequered board, which was replaced by its newer and more sophisticated cousin. Chess became hugely popular, and beautifully carved sets – like the pieces discovered on Lewis in the Western Isles – were a sign of high status.
Various kingdoms were drawn together under one king, and Scotland began to take on its modern shape. Burghs – or towns – appeared and there were the beginnings of a new, urban way of life. The landscape was managed for the first time as a property and an asset, and coins were minted to introduce standard currency for trade. The church became increasingly dominant in society – funding the construction of many large stone buildings for worship – and the first universities started to appear.
Beautifully carved and decorated 'high crosses' emphasised the importance of the church. They were often associated with religious buildings and would have been impressive – and perhaps domineering – sights in the landscape.
By mixing sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre, the people of the late medieval period revolutionised warfare. 'Gunpowder' allowed weapons to fire projectiles over large distances at great velocity. The 15th century Scottish cannon Mons Meg, could fire a 150kg stone up to two miles.
Coins were introduced in the 12th century. They were marked with images of the Scottish monarchs and, by standardising currency, they helped revolutionise trade and economics.
Our modern age has witnessed the rise and rise of the city. For the first time in Scotland's history, more people now live in the urban environment than in the rural. The industrial and agricultural revolutions transformed Scotland's landscapes into centres for intensive production. Canals, roads and railways were built as high speed links between communities. Technological and social changes developed at an unprecedented pace. And major upheavals – from world wars to economic crashes - all left their modern archaeological traces in the Scottish landscape.
Scotland was a powerful force in a truly global system – the British Empire. In a simple, everyday item like the teapot – which could be found in every home - there is a story of travel, trade, colonialism and imperial warfare.
Every period has had its different vices. Like the cigarette today, the clay pipe was a tool used for the hugely popular pastime of tobacco smoking. Pipes were mass-produced and the makers names were often found engraved on the sides.
A sign, in the nineteenth century, of trade in a distant land of the narcotic opium, the poppy in the modern world has come to signify the poignancy of lives lost in the first major, worldwide, mechanised conflict. The wars of the twentieth century left an incredible physical impact on the landscape.