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  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

Beaker Culture and the Transformation of Society in the Northern Isles

Evidence for an abrupt transformation in society of the Northern Isles in the late Neolithic is unmistakable. Whilst in Orkney social and power structures continued building in complexity during the period until sudden collapse and reorganization, for Shetland the material record indicates social change was less pronounced or more readily accommodated. Settlement here had always been and remained dispersed, architecture changed little and use of the underlying substrate of material culture persevered. Some of what is being observed is undoubtedly a case of research bias as much greater attention and resources have been applied to an understanding of Neolithic Orkney. Nonetheless, the upheaval in both locations with the coming of Beaker culture is yet to be fully understood. Frequently downplayed as having a more incidental role in what is being detected archaeologically, the effect on society of this new arrival could be more dramatic and directly responsible for social transformation in both island groups during the late Neolithic and into the very early Bronze Age than we currently believe.

Neolithic Orkney

The trajectory of social development during the early and middle Neolithic of Orkney appears to have been consolidation. The current base of knowledge shows that from the modest beginnings of farmsteads, such as the two houses at the Knap of Howar dated to 3600 BC and occupied for about 500 years (Ritchie 1995:22), the scale of architecture and complexity of ritual development quickly escalated. The massive Structure 8 at Barnhouse was built sometime around 3000 BC (Richards et al. 2016) as was Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar (Card et al. 2018). The Stones of Stenness was erected followed by the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, the latter perhaps by 2800 BC (Ritchie 1995: 55). Before the appearance of these impressive structures, nucleated settlements had developed around Barnhouse (Richards et al. 2016: 193), the Ness of Brodgar (Card et al. 2018: 217) and at Skara Brae (Ritchie 1995: 32). The progression of

communal living and monumental architecture indicates a growing population,

increasing sophistication and the probable development of a hierarchical system of organization around shared cultural experience and expression (Bayliss et al. 2017: 1185) perhaps reaching a terminus following the tentatively dated construction of the Ring of Brodgar (above) around 2500 BC (Ibid; Ritchie 1995: 79).

In the latter half of the 3rd millennium the situation deteriorated. Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar went out of use around 2500 BC (Card et al. 2018), nucleated settlement appears to have been abandoned in the 24th century BC (Bayliss et al. 2017: 1185) and a period of what Ritchie (1995: 86) terms a recession began. This may have resulted from the breakdown of hierarchical power where largescale projects became untenable (Clarke et al. 2017: 82) and power centres shifted, perhaps out with Orkney (Bayliss et al. 2017: 1186). Patrick Ashmore speculates the previous system may have made collapse of society almost inevitable because “complex systems have the seeds of chaos built into them” (1996: 85). Small decisions or even disease can instigate a ripple effect through the organizing principles of the social system rendering the whole susceptible to disintegration. The labour estimates involved with the building of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, where just the ditch may have taken as much as 80,000 man-hours (Ritchie 1995: 79), could indicate the ability to organize sufficiently around shared ideals or the mitigation of conflict were lost at this time.  

Neolithic Shetland

The entirety of the Neolithic in Shetland appears to have been one of continuity extending deep into the Bronze Age. Houses remained modest with few known attempts at more extravagant domestic structures (Fojut 1986: 4-6; Turner 1998: 34-5), the sites of Stanydale Temple (fig. 2, right) and Burwick notwithstanding. Although the topography of Shetland with deep, continuously occupied valleys and steep-sided hills may have obliterated evidence of more monumental architecture, the absence of nucleated settlement outside the possibility of Pinhoulland (Mahler 2012: 43-4) indicates what some believe a more egalitarian society than that found in Orkney (Ballin 2012: 76; Sheridan 2012: 30). Megalithic monuments are nonexistent and the few standing stones, difficult to date, appear to have little else in the landscape associated with them (Turner 1998: 47-8). Population density was likely quite low throughout most of the period (Sheridan 2012: 30) which, in addition to hampering efforts to organize largescale building projects, may have afforded ample space and freedom from obvious forms of competition whilst encouraging the development of unique cultural expression. Felsite knives and axes are an excellent example of this where an almost wholly insular network developed which may have crafted the polished stone tools to be symbolic rather than functional (Ballin 2012: 71). In this way, a material object could be standing in for monumental practice.

The common perception of a Shetland in blissful solitude during this period can be misleading. Although suggestions of resource control (Ballin 2016: 8) and isolation (Ballin 2012: 62; Kaul 2012: 118; Megarry et al. 2016: 2) are used to explain the near complete absence of Shetland’s refined felsite objects elsewhere, there may simply have been no need where superior stone or local traditions prevailed. That Shetland experienced periods of isolation is undeniable, perhaps Flemming Kaul (2012) demonstrating this rather uniquely with his compelling approach to the typical Shetland heel-shaped cairn as an unfinished product due to its lack of final modification to long cairn as seen in Caithness. This can be balanced, however, with evidence of expanded contacts such as the find of seven cushioned maceheads, which had wide currency during the Neolithic (Sheridan 2012: 22), or what Val Turner (1998: 43) describes as the uncanny resemblance between Stanydale Temple (below right) and House 8 at Skara Brae (below left). Moreover, the almost myopic concentration on brochs and Viking heritage has obscured the view of a broader context for Shetland in the Neolithic where resources for archaeological investigation of this period have been difficult to procure (Mahler 2012: 48; Sheridan 2012: 6). For this reason, an understanding of the nature and quality of contacts with the wider world and social development in Shetland during the Neolithic is incomplete.

The Arrival of Beaker Culture

he social collapse of the late 3rd millennium attested through the cessation in monumental activity and abandonment of nucleated settlement in Orkney coincides with a period where contacts with the wider world also appear to break down (Clarke et al. 2017: 83). Drawing on connections in monument and architectural styles with mainland Britain, this abandonment of sites and divergence in subsequent developments might explain the extraordinary feasting deposits at the Ness of Brodgar and the deposition of the red deer heap at the Links of Noltland as closing ritual (Ibid) or, in the case of the former, a reverential look back to the old order (Card et al. 2018: 256). It also correlates quite strongly with the arrival of Beaker culture sometime around 2500 BC. Coming perhaps from areas in what is now the Netherlands and Germany (Ashmore 1996: 75-7; Ritchie 1995: 86), it brought new technologies including metalworking and weaponry with novel forms of pottery and short cist burials.

Determining how widespread the materiality of the Beaker culture becomes in Orkney and Shetland is challenging. Both have very limited evidence of Beaker pottery. In the case of Shetland, much of what is found is expressed as “Beaker-like” by Alison Sheridan (2013: 52 referencing Gibson 1982: 45) where the archipelago continued the perceived “adoption and adaptation” model for the whole of the Neolithic (Ibid: 59). Evidence of metalworking is scant. Although in Orkney bronze objects do appear prior to 2000 BC, evidence of its working has been more elusive (Ritchie 1995: 88). In Shetland this certainly only occurs after 1500 BC (Sheridan 2013: 67) and, as an oddity, they appear to mimic bronze axe shapes rendered instead using stone around the turn of the 2nd millennium (Turner 1995: 51). Funerary traditions also become equally difficult to define. The Muckle Heog burial on the island of Unst (above) in Shetland is two short cists containing several individuals beneath a heel-shaped cairn (Sheridan 2013: 65). The short cist at Sand Fiold in Orkney contained both cremation and inhumation recalling the earlier practice of chambered tombs (Ritchie 1995: 90-1) rather than the more straightforward short cist burials associated with Beaker culture.

Whether the new culture upended the existing social order and local traditions has long been a source of contention among archaeologists. Ashmore (1996: 84-86) succinctly describes what many believe is simply an unexplained collapse of the centralized structures of society throughout Scotland in the middle of the 3rd millennium followed by the willing embrace of new ideas in what was otherwise a void. Ritchie (1995: 86-87) acknowledges some movement of people along with the new culture but regards it as limited, instead attributing, for instance, differences in the physique of bodies found in early Beaker graves a result of changes in the existing population rather than displacement. However, a recent DNA sequencing study comparing 37 Beaker with 118 other Neolithic population burials in Britain indicates an approximately 90% replacement of the native gene pool within a few hundred years after 2450 BC (Reich and Olalde 2018). If the conclusions are borne out by further study, the transformation of the material culture is clearly being driven by a change in the population. For the Northern Isles this can be difficult to define. The study had no Shetland resource and, though they used several burials from Orkney as contextually representative of the older Neolithic population, only one burial can be said to be from a timeframe associated with Beaker culture and is rather exceptionally late with dates from 2000 to 1500 BC (Ibid: 207). The closest distinctly Beaker burial comes from Caithness and the remarkable Achavanich cist where a young woman directly descended from continental immigrants was buried between 2300 and 2145 BC (Hoole et al. 2017: 106-7).  

Perhaps the significance to social change in the Northern Isles with the arrival of Beaker culture is less about who they are than where. The proximity of the Achavanich burial to Orkney and the sudden increase of population in Shetland during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (Sheridan 2012: 30) may point to something nearly as dramatic as population replacement. If a distinct people can be associated with Beaker culture moving up into the north of Scotland, then local population displacement may have been the larger issue if it created a surge in migration ever further northward. This would necessarily have destabilized social and power structures in Orkney. A distinct fracture between tradition and Beaker culture can be seen elsewhere, such as southern England, and may readily explain perceived resistance and lack of new technology acquisition in the Northern Isles (Ritchie 1995: 87). Increased contacts between Shetland and Orkney at this time (Ibid: 28; Turner 1998: 43) may argue for some flow continuing north. However, the links are rather tenuous so if there is a larger diaspora it may have come from the north of Scotland and simply passed through or around Orkney. This would have been equally destabilizing if for no other reason than mainland contacts were lost. Within such a scenario, the massive feasting seen at the Ness of Brodgar could be evidence of conflict mitigation either with the arrival of a small population with whom they were already familiar or to address general social instability in the way former megalithic monument constructions might have done.

There could be evidence for this proposed series of events on the ground in Shetland. During the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, homesteads pushed up the hillsides and penetrated with greater density further into the north mainland occupying the more marginal lands yet to be cultivated. Explaining it solely on natural population growth is less satisfactory when no concerted improvement to the soils resulting in increased agricultural yields is in evidence until the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age (Guttmann et al. 2008: 820-1; Simpson et al. 1998: 122-4). Further, palaeoecological studies, limited in number though they are, show an increase in the clearance of forests and an expansion of grazing animals in the later Neolithic and very early Bronze Age (Bennett et al. 1992: 266; Hulme and Shirriffs 1994: 83), particularly in the east and north mainland. Rather than a population growing and internally on the move, this could be incoming groups settling on the margins.

Although there are few indicators of conflict, the relative poverty of these new homesteads and the appearance of stone clubs, battleaxes and barbed and tanged arrowheads (left, from Bressay, Shetland) (Fojut 1986: 22; Turner 1998: 32-33, 51) could signal uneasy accommodation. Noell Fojut (1986: 20-1) has hypothesized the inhabitants of Neolithic and Bronze Age Shetland may have been generally hostile toward incomers due to marginal existence and assumptions of a conservative nature explained through lack of change in material culture. The appearance of these new weapons would argue in favour of this suggestion. Although the club could have easily had a more functional purpose in the running of a homestead, the new battleaxes and arrowheads would surely have been used against other people because it can be argued neither of these have a practical domestic purpose. This is especially true of the arrowheads where no wild game in Shetland of this period would warrant its necessity.


The role of Beaker culture in the transformation of society in the Northern Isles in the latter half of the 3rd millennium may be more direct than has hitherto been recognized. The apparent collapse in earlier social and power structures in Orkney as evident through the abandonment of nucleated settlement and monumental architecture may have been the result of population movement from the north of Scotland and subsequent loss of traditional contacts upon the arrival of Beaker-associated people. Shetland’s subsistent and largely insular existence was upset as it might possibly have absorbed an outsized portion of this northern diaspora. Sudden changes in land management strategies and pollen analysis does support the idea of a growing population making use of land in the even more marginal uplands and northern areas of the mainland. Though both regions appear to adopt Beaker culture on their own terms by incorporating local traditions in its limited use, the appearance of what could only be considered weapons in Shetland raises the spectre of sometimes violent social instability as new groups reached its shores. More nuanced here due to the relative paucity of resources devoted to understanding the Neolithic, it nonetheless points toward a tumultuous Shetland in flux as it approached a damp and colder Bronze Age where these same marginal areas would become ever more unsustainable.


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List of Figures


Figure 2 (left): ‘Skara Brae House 8’ © Available from <

Figure 2 (right): ‘Stanydale Temple’ © Hamish Fenton. Available from <>

Figure 3: ‘Draft ink plan of cairn showing 'traces of third cist’’ © RCAHMS. Available from <

Figure 4: ‘Bressay Quartz Arrowhead’ © Shetland Museum & Archives. Licensor Available from <>


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