The Bronze Age

“Archaeological remains from the Bronze Age are less visible than some types of monuments from other periods, and our encounter with and experience of those monuments and the modern landscape has undoubtedly coloured the way in which we perceive the character of the societies that created and inhabited the landscape.”
Professor Jane Downes. Cremation Practice in Bronze Age Orkney

Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain saw new ideas arrive from the European continent. Foremost among these was the introduction of metalworking, specifically copper and bronze. But although this had a major impact on life elsewhere in Britain, the effect on Orkney seems somewhat diluted.

When it comes to early Bronze Age Britain, two artefact types can be said to be typical of the period – metalworking and a style of pottery known as beaker.

Bronze Age Beaker Pot
Bronze Age Beaker Pot

Beaker pottery – so called because they were once thought to be drinking vessels – was a distinctly-shaped, highly decorated ceramic style commonly associated with burials.

Beakers and metalwork spread throughout Europe from around 2500BC, but in Orkney both are incredibly rare.

While it could be argued that the dearth of metal artefacts might mean we’ve just not found them, their absence, together with the lack of beaker ceramics, suggests something else was afoot.

Did Orkney reject these new ideas from Europe? Or is there another reason?

One tenacious suggestion relates to an apocalyptic scenario in which climatic deterioration left Bronze Age Orkney crippled, with a dwindling population and isolated from the rest of the British Isles.

Prehistoric recession debunked

This doomsday vision persisted for decades and although is still sometimes cited today, environmental work around Orkney has shown it to be incorrect.

Although Orkney’s climate did become wetter, there is no evidence for a population drop in the Bronze Age. In fact, there seems to have been a slight increase in human activity.

So if there was no plummeting population, why has Orkney’s Bronze Age been described as a “prehistoric recession” – a “dull time” that has “not left many monuments at which to marvel”?

The Orcadian Bronze Age has long been regarded as a poor relation to the islands’ Neolithic and Iron Age – both periods where highly visual monuments were commonplace.

Despite the wealth of archaeological sites in Orkney, there are few excavated non-funerary Bronze Age sites and most of these cannot be considered in any way “monumental”. But rather than assume that this represents a decrease in Bronze Age activity, we must remember that hundreds, if not thousands, of potential site were destroyed during the agricultural improvements of the 19th century and beyond.

In addition, the antiquarians of the past had their sights firmly set on the visible, and easy to access, monuments of the Neolithic and Iron Age – the brochs and chambered cairns. This led to a bias in Orkney’s archaeology and the perceived lack of Bronze Age sites is now seen as a failure to recognise them than any actual lack of Bronze Age activity.

Bronze Age rarities

If we can discount the Bronze Age recession theory in Orkney, why are we not seeing metalwork and beaker pottery in the same quantities as the rest of Britain?

The answer might be that the people of Orkney spurned these new ideas. Or do we have a situation where only sections of society – perhaps the upper echelons – were able to, or wanted to, embrace the new?

Socketed bronze axe
A Late Bronze Age socketed axe found in the Orkney parish of Orphir in 2006 – one of less than 20 examples of bronze metalwork found in Orkney to date. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Examples of Bronze Age metalworking in Orkney are notable by their scarcity. The mere handful – less than 20 – we have are considered rare elsewhere in Britain so were perhaps high-status items prized by a few.

The paucity of metal items in Orkney hints that they remained objects of prestige. What their presence confirms beyond doubt is that sections of the population remained part of networks connecting the islands to the wider world.

Although copper can be found in Orkney, there is no indication it was mined and only circumstantial evidence of Bronze Age metalworking in the islands to date.

What few examples of metalwork we have must therefore have been brought to Orkney – which no doubt added to their rarity and value.

Throughout Bronze and Iron Age Europe, there is abundant evidence of precious items being deposited into watery places such as rivers, pools and marshes. Why? There could be numerous reasons, from simple expressions of gratitude, pleas for divine aid or simply the veneration of the spirits or gods of the place.

The fact that most of Orkney’s few examples of bronzework were recovered from peat bogs suggests their value went beyond their material worth.

They were perhaps held in high regard by their owners – maybe curated for prolonged periods of time – and therefore seen as fitting objects to be used as votive offerings.

Changing times

But although the material trappings of the Bronze Age are lacking in Orkney, change did occur.

Although some Neolithic settlement sites continued to be used right through the Bronze Age, there seems to have been a shift into smaller, more-dispersed farmsteads – probably a factor in the difficulty in spotting Bronze Age settlement sites in Orkney.

Burial cist at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (Sigurd Towrie)
Burial cist at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

A major change appears to be the manner in which the dead were interred – with bodies or cremated remains placed in stone cists or underneath earth barrows.

With Bronze Age burials, however, we must be very careful claiming they were a complete departure from the Neolithic. It is often, for example, said that the collective burials of the Neolithic were replaced by individual burials in the Bronze Age – but this is too simplistic on a number of levels.

Firstly, we cannot look at Neolithic chambered tombs as being representative of everyday burial practice.

We know that only a fraction of the Neolithic dead were placed within these monumental structures and the big question remains – what happened to the rest? Were they being buried elsewhere? Cremated? Disposed of at sea?

Secondly, although single burials in stone cists are found in Bronze Age Orkney, a high proportion either involved multiple people at once or burials added over time. The treatment of the Bronze Age dead varied – some bodies were interred, some cremated and, in some cases, a mix of the two.

Cists are stone boxes, built on or cut into the ground, into which the remains were placed and although they are seen to be typical of the Bronze Age are known to have been used in the Late Neolithic. Sometimes the cist was covered by a burial mound, other times left apparently unmarked.

After 2000BC, cremation became more common and the focus of burial shifted to barrow cemeteries.

These were clusters of large mounds into which the remains of the dead were inserted over time. These cemeteries, and their constituent barrows, were probably raised by family groups and may have served to highlight the status of individuals or family groups.

Fine examples of Orkney barrow burials can be found around the Ring of Brodgar and at the Knowes of Trotty.

Two of the barrows at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (Sigurd Towrie)
Two of the barrows at the Knowes of Trotty barrow cemetery. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The Knowes of Trotty is one of the biggest Bronze Age cemeteries between Orkney and southern England. In use from approximately 2000-1600BC, the site is made up of as many as 20 barrows arranged in two rows.

Probably unknown outside Orkney, the Knowes of Trotty is renowned for producing one of the most spectacular finds in Orkney’s archaeological history.

In 1858, a stone cist containing four exquisitely crafted gold “sun” discs was discovered, along with 27 amber beads and burnt human bones.

The gold discs were made from paper-thin sheets of gold, decorated with concentric circles of zig-zags and lines. The largest of the undamaged discs had a diameter of 76mm and was holed in the middle.

They are thought to be covers for decorative “buttons”, similar to those found in Wessex, in southern England.

The style, however, is different enough to suggest that it was made by a craftsman attempting to copy the Wessex style. This appears to tie in with other Scottish Bronze Age finds suggesting that the Wessex style was prized by the elite and powerful people of the time.

A section of the Knowes of Trotty Barrow Cemetery. (Sigurd Towrie)
A section of the Knowes of Trotty Barrow Cemetery. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Links to the past

It is clear that Bronze Age construction moved away from the large monumental stone structures favoured in the Neolithic – although we know they continued to use them.

The Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by Bronze Age burials. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by Bronze Age burials. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The fact that many Bronze Age burials took place around Neolithic monumental sites, the Ring of Brodgar, for example, suggests they retained some significance. 

That this was the case with chambered tombs is beyond doubt. Radiocarbon dating has shown these continued to be a focus of attention well into the Bronze Age.

Some were remodelled, some saw deposits of human and animal remains as well as pottery and artefacts.

While this could simply represent the opportunistic reuse of a site, the fact that burials also clustered around monuments such as Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar suggests instead a clear desire to link to the past – a phenomenon that continued right through into the Iron Age.

With the arrival of the Bronze Age, it could be argued that Orkney lost its place in a network that once spanned the British Isles.

Northern connections

Orkney and Shetland Map

While the Orcadians appear to have been reluctant to embrace new technologies, the places it had contact with in the Neolithic – i.e. Scotland, Ireland and England – embraced them. New networks had been forged, linked to the importance of metal technology, and which does not appear to include Orkney.

So instead of looking south, it seems the people of Orkney turned their gaze northwards instead – towards Shetland.

Although Beakers are commonly found in Bronze Age burials elsewhere in Britain, in Orkney they are not. Instead, we see urns made from steatite – soapstone – the nearest source of which is Shetland.

A lack of waste steatite fragments suggests these urns were manufactured in Shetland and imported. They highlight a clear connection to our northern neighbours that appears to gain importance and strengthen from the Late Neolithic onwards. These links are also apparent in elements of architecture found in Orkney.

The use of steatite funerary urns over Beaker vessels points to a deliberate choice that has been suggested represented a rejection of outside influences and a means of visibly expressing a specific identity.

Orkney, it seems, wanted to stand out from the crowd. But Orkney’s role as a place of influence throughout the Neolithic had long gone.

So the question is, did the crowd even notice?

Further reading