Bronze Age Scotland: First Inhabitants, Settlements & Burial Sites

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Bronze Age looked a little different in every part of the world, and Britain is no exception. In this lesson, we'll explore the features of Bronze Age Scotland and see how new technologies changes their societies.

Scotland's Bronze Age

Northern Britain has a long history of engineering and technical innovation. A really, really long history. The technological history of Scotland begins over 12,000 years ago, when the region was first consistently occupied by Stone Age hunters and gathers. Then, around the 25th century BCE, ancient Scottish craftspeople started mining copper and produced their first metal tools. Finally, around 2,100 BCE they learned to mix that copper with tin to create a stronger metal called bronze.

The Scottish Bronze Age lasted from roughly 2,100-750 BCE. A lot changed in this time, and not just the fact that they had bronze tools at their disposal. Bronze Age Scotland became more populated as small Neolithic communities turned into larger villages and cities. Social organization became more complex, and trade routes grew in size and significance. It was a new era in Scotland, brought about by new technological innovations.

Dawn of the Bronze Age

There's a lot of debate about how exactly the Bronze Age began in Britain, which by the late Neolithic was tightly connected via trade routes and other forms of economic and social exchange. Some of the first evidence of metalworking comes from southern Britain, at the Mount Pleasant Henge, but the true introduction of Bronze is generally credited to the Beaker culture.

The Beaker people, named for their characteristic bell-shaped ceramic vessels, are something of an archeological mystery. Evidence of their culture is found across Britain and parts of Western Europe, but their exact origins are unclear. Regardless, their artifacts appeared in Britain in the 22nd century BCE, where they seem to have mined copper and tin along the coast as they moved north from modern-day England into Scotland, bringing bronze technology with them. Perhaps due to their metalworking knowledge, the Beaker people seem to have been accepted peacefully by British cultures; there's even evidence that Beaker craftspeople helped rebuild Stonehenge in this time.

Bronze and Ancient Scottish Cultures

The development of bronze was significant, letting ancient craftspeople create stronger and better tools. These tools led to advancements in building, pottery, other forms of metalworking, hunting, and warfare. Intriguingly, a few bronze weapons like spearheads have been found from this time period that were covered in gold. Not only are these rare artifacts extremely beautiful for their craftsmanship, but some of the most ancient Celtic myths tell stories of heroes whose weapons were defined by their brilliance and shine. That tradition may be referring to gold-plated weapons like those found in a few places across Britain and Ireland.

Carved stone balls like these are another ubiquitous feature of Bronze Age Scottish sites, but to this day archeologists have no idea what these were used for

Bronze Age Burials

In cultural terms, some of the most significant changes to come with the advent of the Bronze Age were burial practices, which became much more elaborate during the Bronze Age. This is likely an indicator of greater social organization, greater social hierarchies, and more standardized religious and ceremonial practices.

Scottish Bronze Age burials are generally identifiable by cists, stone boxes in the ground where the remains of the dead were interred. Very often, Bronze Age people of Scotland cremated their dead, and then deposited the urn inside the cist. Many cists are also associated with stone mounds called cairns and other forms of funerary monuments including stone circles and markers.

Cairnpapple Henge, a Bronze Age cairn site surrounded by funerary monuments

Bronze Age burials provide some of the bet evidence for the development of social hierarchies in this time period, since burials range in complexity. Some are relatively simple, while the biggest cairns or funerary monuments indicate a person of great importance. We can also see status differentiation in the grave goods found in Bronze Age cists. Wealth Bronze-Age Scots were buried with pottery, bronze weapons, prized stone knives, and bronze and gold jewelry. Some of the best evidence of this comes from the site of Kilmartin Glen, home to some of the most elaborate Bronze-Age burial sites in Scotland.

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