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The Neolithic in Britain and Ireland spans 1500 years or about 60 generations. Measured in years, from around 4000 BC to around 2500 BC, it is an almost unimaginable length of time. But measured in generations, the Neolithic becomes easier to grasp, and it becomes possible to place individual lives within the timeline. It also spans a wide range of different regions and landscapes, with distinct cultural traditions shaped and shared between them.

In The Bare Bones we concentrate on only a few generations living in one particular region, and focus upon the distinctive monuments that they built. The descendants of the early Neolithic pioneers who arrived in the Atlantic-facing areas of south-west Scotland and the north of Ireland in the centuries after 4000 BC built megalithic monuments known as Clyde cairns and court tombs respectively. Their architecture suggests their use both as a place for the dead, where people placed the deceased within the chambers inside the cairn; and as a place for the living, where people could pay their respects within the forecourt outside the cairn. They remain an important connection between people and land – places to remember, then and now. Telling even just the bare bones of their story involved adventure and exploration, new drone photography, modern laser scan survey, creative archaeological visualisation, a daring mountain-top mission and the re-evaluation of several unpublished excavations.

The Bare Bones cover with stones and two early people

The ‘Bone Detectives’ activity puts learners in the role of osteoarchaeologists examining the bones found within a Neolithic chambered cairn. The twenty four bone cards that make up one of four different assemblages are placed as a jumble of bones within a model cairn. The aim is to analyse the assemblage to work out how many individuals were buried and what the bones can tell us about their lives and deaths. Along the way, learners will be following a similar process to the osteoarchaeologist, offering an insight into an archaeological career pathway, and demonstrating the problem solving and critical thinking skills that lie at the heart of all archaeological work.

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Explore the Early Neolithic chambered cairns of the North Channel, and learn about the science of osteoarchaeology

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Listen to our Archaeologist, Matt Ritchie, discuss the learning resource and how we present and preserve archaeology and the historic environment on Scotland's national forests and land. 

This recorded talk took place on Saturday 27th May 2023, at Augustine United Church and was chaired by Sam Mills, Council Member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.