- Neolithic Scotland: Timber, Stone, Earth and Fire
As Gordon Noble states in his introduction, this is an exciting era for Neolithic studies and this volume is a very readable review of the Neolithic period in Scotland and a synthesis of current research for those with an interest in the subject. Dated between 4000 and 2500 BC, the Neolithic is defined by the adoption of new lifeways and their distinctive material expression in the archaeological record. Economies are based on domesticated plants and animals rather than wild resources as in the preceding Mesolithic; novel technologies such as pottery are adopted and there are also shifts in the character of stonecraft and lithic technology. One of the most salient changes is the emergence of timber and stone monumentality with regional trends in monumental architecture a dominate motif that changes through time.
Divided into eight chapters, this volume charts the origins of Neolithic society and the transition from the preceding Mesolithic period through to the adoption of metallurgy that signals the onset of the Early Bronze Age. Different aspects of Neolithic Scotland are explored in each of the eight chapters. The two key underlying themes are regionality and materiality. The particular geographical character of Scotland and the contrasts between the island archipelagos of the Atlantic west and eastern lowland Scotland are outlined in the first chapter and form the backdrop to the rest of the volume. The second chapter deals with the elusive evidence of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition and the neglected consideration of the role of seafaring in this process. The core of the book addresses the contrasting traditions of monument construction between east and west corresponding with preferences for timber and stone respectively. Chapter 3 focuses on the construction and destruction of timber structures and the role of their deliberate conflagration in the creation of memories. Wood is also the focus on the next chapter in relation to earlier Neolithic funerary monuments and the symbolic role of trees. Stone as a construction material is then considered in relation to megalithic architecture in the Atlantic west and two chapters explore the emergence of monument complexes and architectural landscapes in the later Neolithic period.
This volume is an ambitious synthesis of the Scottish Neolithic and at times the amount of material appears overwhelming to the author as well as the reader, especially as selected comparisons are made with England, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Interpretative discussion of the wider meaning of this mosaic of monumentality and the materiality of the sites themselves tends to be compressed which is unfortunate. For a period traditionally dominated by the rich Orcadian and Western Isles sites, it does provide a good counterbalance with much attention given to the cropmark record of eastern Scotland, although other aspects of Neolithic material culture is poorer served. For those looking for an introductory text this will be a challenging read, but for those with a vested interest there is much to mine from its pages. The reader also needs a solid working familiarity with the geography of Neolithic places for, [End Page 332] disappointingly, there are no general site location maps. Copiously illustrated with site plans and diagrams, the most disappointing and irritating aspect of this volume is the poor quality of the illustrations. Equally, you should definitely not judge this book by the cover which is an aerial photograph of the Fintray cursus juxtaposed with a landscape view, it definitely does not do justice to the rich wealth of archaeological gems within.