David Strachan, David Sneddon, and Richard Tipping
Archaeopress, $40
ISBN 978-1789693157
Review Piers Dixon

I can strongly recommend this handsomely produced monograph to all those archaeologists with an interest in the early medieval period, a period that is seeing new research that is changing our understanding of settlement in Scotland at this time. This report brings together the results of a research project on the enigmatic Pitcarmick-type buildings of highland Perthshire.

These buildings came to widespread knowledge in the 1980s with the rapid survey conducted by the Royal Commission on the Ancient Historical Monuments of Scotland in north-east Perthshire. The characteristic elongated sub-rectangular structures – up to 30m long with bowed sides, rounded ends, and with one end narrower than the other – are situated amongst prehistoric roundhouses in the uplands of Perthshire and differed from structures found in post-medieval townships. An initial test excavation at Cultalonie by John Barrett and Jane Downes that produced early medieval radiocarbon dates was finally published in 2012 by Martin Carver.

This project set out to put flesh on these bones, posing a series of research questions that are laid out in the Introduction. An interdisciplinary approach was adopted, bringing together a team that included environmental and place-name specialists as well as the archaeologists from Northlight Heritage, PKHT, and elsewhere. It also made use of 3D modelling using ALS data to place the buildings in a landscape context, carried out by archaeologists from Historic Environment Scotland. The report describes the results of excavations, radiocarbon dating that uses Bayesian modelling, and environmental sampling from sites close by, followed by a chapter on the finds. All this is discussed in a chapter that is something of a tour de force, synthesising the various strands of evidence, and setting the site in a local, regional, and international context.

Through radiocarbon dating, it was established that the settlement began in the 7th century and ended in the 10th century, confirming the dating from Cultalonie. The elongated sub-rectangular turf buildings are placed in an international context that encompassed the North Sea littoral from the Netherlands to Jutland, which Carver had suggested back in 2012, including possible Anglian influences from southern Scotland. Furthermore, it is argued that the elongated architectural form was either introduced or adopted by the inhabitants of this part of Scotland during the migration period, replacing the Iron Age roundhouse tradition. This is an important shift in our understanding of settlement at this time.

The excavators also see a connection between the establishment of these mixed farming settlements and 7th-century climate amelioration. This is based on palaeo-environmental data from a range of sites across Scotland, and the results from the excavation and local environmental sampling. The argument that the improved climate provided suitable conditions for the repopulation of the uplands at Lair – and by inference the rest of upland Perthshire and Angus – is well made. It begs certain questions, however, such as why early medieval buildings have not been recognised elsewhere in the uplands of Scotland. Occasional elongated structures have been spotted in other locations, but nothing to match this part of Scotland. One might also expect that the Southern Uplands, where there was Anglian settlement, would produce such structures, but as yet has failed to do so. Upland Perthshire and Angus still appears to be something of a unique environment.

Future research questions are discussed in a final chapter. I agree that the lack of visible evidence for contemporary cultivation is an urgent one, and characterising the signature of this would help, and there are sites that may offer this possibility. Finally, the coincidence of the end of local cereal cultivation with the abandonment of the site indicates there is another change in the settlement pattern at the turn of the 2nd millennium AD.

This review appeared in CA 361. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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