Book Reviews

“Archaeology and Early History of Angus” by A Dunwell, and I Ralston

Reviewed by Neil Wilkin FSAScot

A Dunwell, and I Ralston, 2008 “Archaeology and Early History of Angus”, Stroud: Tempus/The History Press, (pb) ISBN 978 0752441146, 188pp, 26 colour plates and 62 b&w figures. £17.99. Reviewed by Neil Wilkin, then University of Birmingham, PhD candidate, now British Museum

Archaeology and Early History of Angus

A Dunwell, and I Ralston, 2008

“Archaeology and Early History of Angus”

This study of Angus from the Mesolithic to the emergence of the Scots is a much needed and carefully executed volume that demonstrates many of the virtues of regional syntheses. Remarkably, it represents the first such overview since Herbert Coutts’s valuable, but relatively slim, ‘Tayside Before History’ (1971). This contribution has its origins in the ‘Angus and South Aberdeenshire Field School’ (1996-2000) and weaves the School’s findings with older and unpublished reports in order to construct an improved regional narrative. This is achieved in the clear language required of a Tempus/The History Press volume and is supported by a series of well-selected colour plates and illustrations that include twelve distribution maps that complement those compiled by Coutts (ibid, maps 1-4).  While it unfortunately lacks an in-text referencing system, it will be of considerable interest to students and researchers alike.

The book’s synopsis offers immediate forewarning that the period from the Late Bronze Age to the end of the first millennium AD forms its backbone. Indeed, these periods occupy some 122 pages (equivalent to c. 70% of its width) in contrast to only 30 pages on the millennia from the Mesolithic to the Middle Bronze Age. This must in-part be due to Angus having no (excavated) equivalent to the Balfarg and Forteviot ‘ceremonial complexes’ of Fife and Perthshire respectively. Nonetheless, the useful overview of the Mesolithic evidence (Chapter Two), demonstrates the importance of both new data collection and the analysis of pre-existing lithic collections, notably by Graeme Warren, in the emerging regional similarities and differences of Mesolithic Scotland.

For the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, Dunwell and Ralston note the absence of Recumbent Stone Circles in all but northern-most Angus, this is in-keeping with this class of monuments distribution in Aberdeenshire, and seemingly with the preference for ‘henge’ and ‘hengiform’ monuments to the south – in Angus and into Perthshire and Fife. The preference for Beaker and Food Vessel burials in Aberdeenshire and Angus respectively is also noted. While the chronologies of these various monument and artefact traditions remain relatively fluid, the importance of their mutually exclusive distributions is clear. Indeed, the approach of comparing the evidence from neighbouring regions provides a number of insights regarding what made Angus similar and/or different during prehistory. However, an attempt to interpret these similarities and differences in terms of social or ritual factors would have been helpful (cf Curtis and Wilkin in press).

The authors instead opt to explain the character of Angus’s Early Bronze Age funerary practices (landscape settings and ‘wealth’ of grave-goods) in terms of agricultural fertility. While long-term fertility is perhaps supported by the historic evidence (eg from the relevant Statistical Accounts of Scotland), the notion that funerary practices mirror agricultural output is problematic. Indeed, the brief discussion of Early Bronze Age metalwork (p 52), unfortunately does not reference recent work by Stuart Needham (2004; 2006, 280-81) on the distribution of Early Bronze Age metalwork (deposits/hoards and burials) and its significance for interpreting wider networks of trade, exchange and the formation/definition of regional boundaries (cf O’Connor 2004) based on economic and social/symbolic dimensions. Dunwell and Ralston would doubtless have provided a valuable commentary on Needham’s (2004) suggestion that communities in Angus controlled and prospered from the movement of copper and tin into a metalworking ‘hub’ of Buchan in Aberdeenshire.

The two central chapters discussing Angus’s Iron Age forts (Chapter Five) and settlement and soutterians (Chapter Six) are undoubtedly the strongest and most comprehensive. They provide a useful review of the typology, landscape setting and function of forts, as well as important insights from the Field School’s excavations at the Caterthuns forts. This includes the convincing argument that we should understand the White and Brown Caterthuns together, as two elements of a coherent architectural entity, providing a panoramic vantage for the communities who utilised them (p 78). Dunwell and Ralston also integrate recent theoretical thinking regarding the use and experience of architecture to discuss how forts controlled and restricted access and thus their employment in social strategies. Moving from interpretations of these monuments as purely defensive, their suggestion that promontory forts have analogous (albeit chronologically and culturally distinct) landscape setting to those chosen by Early Christian monks, raises the importance of space and architecture in ritual and religious practices (p 88) (cf Barrett 1994). The final result is therefore a no-nonsense account of Iron Age forts that nonetheless sets them convincingly within their social and ‘historic’ context.

On Iron Age settlement and farming practices, Dunwell and Ralston acknowledge the critical importance of aerial photography for ‘populating’ the Iron Age landscape of the ‘everyday’. The resulting recognition of a plethora of architectural house forms and their varying chronological spans are unfortunately not so successfully contextualised in terms of social factors, compared with their excellent treatment of forts. In the future, greater chronological resolution, and perhaps the use of statistics (eg Bayesian statistical analysis), may help to clarify the relationships of different elements of the settlement evidence and provide a firmer basis from which to interpret change and continuity in settlement patterns and the division of domestic space. The discussion of soutterians (remarkably densely distributed in Angus) is similarly driven by functional considerations at the expense of more engaging, interpretative approaches. Indeed, the authors descriptions of the two stone lamps found deposited at the entrance to the soutterian at Redcastle, excavated by the project’s Field School (p 121-23), and the curious ‘miniature’ curving soutterians at Dubton (p 123-4) (their size precluding all but a child entry – or perhaps precluding functional use), are evocative of alternative, more experiential and symbolic readings that might be posited for these winding, subterranean monuments. That said, the arguments presented by Dunwell and Ralston are certainly believable and form a rigorous basis to be reckoned with and worked from. Indeed, the author’s command of architectural function and biases of preservation in the archaeological record really comes into its own in the chapter on Early Historic houses. Their suggestion, that the transition from roundhouses to rectangular houses with few earth-fast timbers and elevated floors accounts for the poor survival of settlement evidence from this period, is a convincingly and skilfully argued reminder of what we lack (p 136-40).

The final chapters of the volume provide a break in the theme of settlement with a relatively brief overview of funerary practices during the first millennium AD, followed by an account of the relationship of different groups in Pictish and Early Historic Angus (‘Celts, Romans, Picts and Scots’). The former is a welcome account that draws out important differences in the distribution and size of barrow cemeteries and long-cist cemeteries in comparison to both Bronze Age (short-cist) burials and other regions of Eastern Scotland. This proves a productive approach, although, again, a further discussion of the possible social or ritual explanations for these similarities and differences would have been welcome. The volume closes with a description of key sites to visit and a thoughtful appendix regarding radiocarbon dating, although a list of key uncalibrated dates and laboratory codes would have been of greater value to students and researchers. Details of further reading are also provided in lieu of an in-text referencing system. Notably, no less than 30 (of c. 130) of these references are from the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the majority of which are freely available online through the Archaeology Data Service (, permitting further exploration of Angus’s archaeology by those without ready access to a university library.

Overall, Dunwell and Ralston stop short of fully embracing interpretative approaches which may have further illuminated their narrative in terms of changes and continuities of social organisation and traditions. However, the care taken to present only the most rigorous conclusions provides a refreshing break from many thematic and sometimes heavy-handed approaches based on symbolism and consciousness. Indeed, regional accounts which explore similarities and differences in terms of empirically verifiable dimensions (eg spatial patterning, (typo-) chronology and architectural construction sequences), pursued with regard to social organisation, identity and cultural transmission, are arguably among the most interesting and lasting contributions to contemporary archaeological research (eg Needham 2004; Garwood 2007; Barrowclough 2008). If Dunwell and Ralston do not always answer – or, indeed, explicitly pose – questions regarding the social and ritual dimensions that created particular patterning, they nonetheless provide an excellent, level-headed, basis from which such patterning can be explored. The end result is a book that succeeds in satisfying the needs and interests of a range of audiences.

Neil Wilkin


Barrett, J C 1994 Fragments from Antiquity: Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC, London: Blackwell.
Barrowclough, D A 2008 Prehistoric Lancashire. Stroud: The History Press.
Coutts, H 1971 Tayside Before History. A guide-catalogue of the collection of antiquities in Dundee Museum, Dundee: Dundee Museum and Art Gallery.
Curtis, N G W and Wilkin, N C A in press ‘The regionality of Beakers and bodies in the Chalcolithic of North-East Scotland’, The British Chalcolithic: People, Place and Polity in the Later 3rd Millennium, The Prehistoric Society/Oxbow Books.
Garwood, P 2007 ‘Before The Hills In Order Stood: chronology, time and history in the interpretation of Early Bronze Age round barrows’ In Last, J (ed) Beyond the Grave: new perspectives on barrows, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 30-52.
Needham, S 2004 ‘Migdale-Marnoch: sunburst of Scottish metallurgy’ In Shepherd, I A G and Barclay, G J (eds.) Scotland in Ancient Europe: The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of Scotland in their European Context, Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Needham, S 2006 ‘Bronze Makes a Bronze Age? Considering the Systemics of Bronze Age Metal Use and the Implications of Selective Deposition’ In Burgess, C, Topping, P & Lynch, F M (eds.), In the Shadow of the Age of Stonehenge: papers in honour of Colin Burgess, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 278-87.
O’Connor, B 2004 ‘The Early Bronze Age axe from Inchtuthil and its deposition’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 10, 54-7.

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