By Adrián Maldonado Ramírez
PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2011
Abstract: This work studies religious change through the archaeology of death and burial. In the period after the fall of Rome and before the Vikings, Scotland became a Christian society, but there are few historical documents to help understand how this happened. The process of conversion to Christianity in Scotland has long been a contentious issue, but until recent years, there was simply not enough reliable archaeological evidence to test the accepted narrative of conversion by missionaries from Ireland and Gaul. A number of key excavations over the last two decades have created the opportunity to reassess the evidence and test existing models. The earliest inhumation cemeteries in Scotland emerge in the period c. AD 400-650, and a large number of radiocarbon dates from these sites now provide a sturdy chronological framework for studying the effects of the conversion to Christianity. This is the first full-length study of the early medieval burial evidence from Scotland, and the first comprehensive revision of the archaeological evidence for early Christianity since the work of Charles Thomas in 1971.
A review of the latest historical research suggests that Christianity arrived in Scotland from at least the 5th century AD, which coincides with the emergence of inhumation cemeteries. In order to contextualise this material, a database of all burial evidence from Scotland in the first millennium AD was constructed to trace changes in ritual practice over the long term. A multiscalar analysis of this data – from individual graves, to ‘family plots’, to entire cemeteries – revealed new insights into funerary rituals and significant corrections of previous studies. Covering all of Scotland but keeping this in its wider northwestern European context, the theoretical framework adopted here follows the latest research on Anglo-Saxon England and early medieval Ireland, and analyses the material for what it can tell us about people’s memories, hopes and fears rather than the usual political and economic narratives.
The Scottish burial evidence takes on a wide variety of forms, from long cists and log coffins to square barrows and cairns, generally placed away from settlement. New radiocarbon dates show conclusively that these burial rites predate Christianity in Scotland, and this study includes a crucial new review of pre-Christian funerary practices. Sequences of radiocarbon-dated burials from early Christian sites of the 5-7 th centuries provide new evidence for what can and cannot be construed as a ‘Christian’ burial. Throughout the radical changes taking place in this period, including the origins of the Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons, funerary rituals helped create new social relationships, and mediated the tensions these could create, during times of upheaval. Rather than reflecting the arrival of Christianity, this complex network of social practices reveals the way Christianity was accommodated within Iron Age societies, and the way it was continually reinvented throughout the early medieval period into the Viking Age.
In adapting the new religion to existing lifeways, Christianity itself was ‘converted’, and this is the key to understanding changes in the archaeological record in Scotland and beyond. The Scottish evidence should now be seen as a crucial dataset for the study of the wider transformations of the post-Roman world. Recommendations for further research were proposed, including the need to expand research beyond the modern Scottish border. To promote continuing research, the burial database will be made available online.