Tracing Lines (both Metaphorical and Actual) in Neolithic Aberdeenshire

Mike Copper from the University of Bradford tells us about a current project he is working on that made use of the University Museums’ collections.

During the Late Neolithic, roughly between 3000BC and 2450BC, communities across Britain and Ireland became increasingly interconnected, a process reflected in the sharing of distinctive types of monuments and artefacts. The former include timber and stone circles and new forms of funerary and domestic architecture, while the latter include stone maceheads, new forms of flint arrowhead and a novel type of pottery known as Grooved Ware. The Historic Environment Scotland-funded project ‘Tracing the Lines: Uncovering Grooved Ware Trajectories in Neolithic Scotland’ aims to improve our understanding of the changes that occurred at this time by investigating the nature and timing of the spread and subsequent development of Grooved Ware pottery following its appearance in Orkney in the last couple of centuries of the 4th millennium BC.

Photo 1As part of this project I was able to spend a couple of days in the Collections Centre in Marischal College to examine several important assemblages of Grooved Ware. This kind of pottery is characterised – unsurprisingly – by its incised decoration, although applied decoration is not uncommon. Unlike earlier types of pot, Grooved Ware has flat bases. These are not as well suited to cooking on open fires as pots with rounded bases as their shape means that they are more likely to crack when heated. This could suggest that the look of the pots was more important than their ability to stand up to prolonged use. If so, then it is possible they were associated with feasts or other similar events where display was significant. Perhaps they even provide our first good evidence for the use of tables!

Aberdeenshire seems to have been a significant place in the Neolithic, being associated in particular with a series of often beautifully decorated carved stone balls whose purpose remains a mystery to this day. For a long time it was believed that Grooved Ware was not made in this region, but over recent years an increasing number of sites in the northwest have started to produce assemblages of this type of pottery. Neolithic pottery is often found in shallow pits whose purpose is not entirely clear, and two significant multi-pit sites have recently been excavated close to each other near to Kintore. These produced Grooved Ware of contrasting styles and it will be interested to see if they are of different dates. The nearby site of Greenbogs, near Monymusk, produced just a couple of fragments of Grooved Ware, but these were found very close to two mysterious circular wooden structures containing square settings of posts. These closely resemble a number of other square-within-circle timber structures found across Britain and Ireland that have also been dated to the Late Neolithic. What was their purpose, and what role might Grooved Ware have played at such sites?

Photo 2Although current evidence indicates that Grooved Ware pottery originated in Orkney, the reasons why it was adopted elsewhere are hard to explain. It is possible that societies in certain regions were becoming less egalitarian and that emergent elite groups were increasingly interacting with each other. In such a situation new fashions, ideas and beliefs could spread over long distances much as foreign travel today has increased the popularity of once-exotic foods. However, potsherds had been carefully deposited in pits in Aberdeenshire long before Grooved Ware appeared, so not everything was new. Perhaps the novel ideas and artefacts existed alongside, or became mixed up with, existing practices?

Photo 3Recent analysis of ancient DNA from skeletons dating to the Early Bronze Age strongly suggests that there was a large-scale movement of people into Britain and Ireland from the continent at the end of the Neolithic. These people brought with them new artefacts and ideas including new pots known as Beakers. There does not appear to have been a long overlap in the use of Beakers and Grooved Ware and the latter soon disappears from the archaeological record. Dating the demise of Grooved Ware will therefore be a significant part of Tracing the Lines and may perhaps help us to better understand what happened to the pre-Beaker population of Britain and Ireland.

The Grooved Ware in the University collections constitutes an important archaeological resource and I am very grateful to have been allowed to examine it at first-hand. Funding permitting, we hope to have new dates for the Aberdeenshire Grooved Ware at some point next year so watch this space!

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World Wars Warrior

Hello! We are Amanda, Emily and Miranda of the 20th Century and World Wars team. We were given the task of looking at the last sub-topic of the exhibition. Similarly to other groups, we had to prioritise which portions of the time period we would look at. We decided to focus our attention on the First and Second World Wars because these conflicts show a clear picture of what it meant to be Scottish in the British Army. Within this time period, we have looked at three subthemes: the soldier, women & civilians.


From both the University’s collection and the objects we have been loaned from the Gordon Highlanders, we have discovered a number of interesting objects.

Amanda’s favourite is the piece of barbed wire from a trench during the First World War. Emily found the civil defence booklet and ARP wardens badge with certificate donated by J. Barclay to be very important in demonstrating the civilian contributions on the home front during the Second World War. Finally, Miranda’s favourite object is the kilt, which was worn during the Battle of the Somme by an Aberdeen alumnus.

2One object we felt deserved a special mention, which is not in our case but is still from the First World War, is the jacket, which forms part of the uniform that can be seen in the ‘Overseas Soldier’ case. This jacket belonged to ‘The Blind VC’, or Captain Sir Ernest Beachcroft Beckwith Towse.  Blinded in South Africa during the Boer War, Towse was awarded the Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria herself. Even though he was blinded, he insisted on serving during the First World War. This is the jacket Towse wore to reenlist for duty, despite his blindness, at the onset of the First World War. It shows the various medals he received from fighting in battles overseas. His set of the three ‘Pip, Squeak, and Wilfred’ medals (1914-15 Star, War Medal, and Victory Medal) are visible by his Victoria Cross. Towse set up field hospitals for the duration of the First World War, having a special interest in treating and working with soldiers who had been blinded in battle, a very common injury due to the gas used in WWI. He was known to personally assist those recovering soldiers with writing letters home to their families.

As well as learning about the objects, this experience taught us the importance of being flexible and able to come up with new solutions as problems arose during the exhibition process. Only a few weeks before installation was due to start, we discovered that our kilt could not be displayed in the way we had originally planned. This meant that a last-minute reshuffle of our layout had to happen. Luckily, we managed to come up with a new layout that everyone was happy with and that showed off the kilt well on its new mount.


This concludes our behind the scenes look at each of the five subtopics. Make sure to check them all out at the now open Scottish Warrior exhibition!



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Overseas Warrior

Jo, Michael and Robert tackled the topic of the ‘Overseas Soldier’ which chronologically was tightly wedged between the Jacobite topic and that of the World Wars. It was clear from the outset that this would guide the direction of the interpretation for the case, providing a natural bridge between the two topics.

After briefly flirting with the concept of the mercenary soldier, we decided instead to explore the experience of those recruited into the service of Britain: the imperial soldier. While recognising some men did carve our careers in foreign service, the group focussed on the disproportionate number of Scots who joined Scots or Highland Regiments for the service of the British Empire.


General Gordon v General Gordon: Thomas Gordon (left) was a General for the Portuguese, while George Gordon (right) was a British General.

The challenge the group faced was trying to represent such a complex story of 200 years worth of changing loyalty and identity into one case. Given the rich and diverse collections held by the University of Aberdeen it was a difficult task to choose the ten or so objects that would tell the story of the period. Indeed, many objects we would have liked to display had to go.

os2We decided to stick to three main interpretative aims in the case. First – off the back of the Jacobites – we aimed to explore the transition from Jacobite rebel to imperial soldier. Secondly, we set out to contrast the imperial soldier against the ‘primitive savages’ they were sent overseas to ‘civilise’. This again was a nod to both the Prehistoric sub-topic, and indeed the Jacobites. Lastly how this overseas service to the empire was the only practical experience professional soldiers had gained in the lead up to the First World War.

The dominant feature of the case is a map of the world which pin points the footsteps of the Scottish Regiments oversea. It became clear very early on that this was a must have for the group, working as a striking visual showing the remarkable impact of the Scots soldier overseas. It helps to enforce the idea of the Scottish warrior as the exported muscle of the British Empire.

#UoAScottish Warrior

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The Jacobite Warrior

Katie, Kelcy, and Leston joined forces to focus on the Jacobite section of the exhibition. The period from 1688 to 1745 that encompasses the Jacobite uprisings was a pivotal point in Scottish history and had huge ramifications for future depictions of the ‘Scottish Warrior’. The three of us had a lot to learn if we wanted to do justice to the topic and explore how nineteenth-century Romantic artists and writers latched onto the Jacobites for inspiration.

1We all sought to read a wide variety of books – from folk stories about Jacobite heroes to serious monographs. One of the favorites was Damn’ Rebel Bitches by Maggie Craig, an Aberdonian author, which focused on women during the Jacobite risings. Unfortunately, we found ourselves unable to focus on female Jacobites because of the lack of related objects in the University’s collection and our focus on the nineteenth-century romanticisation of the Jacobites. That turned out to be a common theme for us, having to exclude information we thought was interesting but that turned out not to be super relevant to the exhibition.

2As a group, we were able to visit Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre, a trip we wrote a previous blog post about. We also took a trip down to Marischal College to view the items we wanted to include in our case. This was an opportunity for us to handle the targe and also a carved ostrich egg that we ended up not including. Working on the exhibition has provided each of us with challenges, whether it was deciding what information and objects to include, figuring out how to make everything fit in the case, or designing the overall look of the case. But we’ve greatly enjoyed our work and are excited for you to see the finished product!

Come check out our exhibition ‘The Scottish Warrior’ and keep an eye out for more behind the scenes posts on the blog! #UoAScottishWarrior

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The Medieval Warrior

1Hello from Alanna, Laura and Kieran! As part of the exhibition we have been working on researching and curating the display case for the medieval Scottish Warrior. We have been faced with a broad time period ranging from 1200 to 1600, which included the Early Medieval period through to the start of the Renaissance and the Union of the Scottish and English crown in 1603. Coming into this topic, we were faced with the enormous challenge of having to select a focus for our text panel, and with only 300 words to sum up the main argument for our section, we had some difficult decisions to make.

When we began thinking about what we wanted to focus on for this time period our attention was immediately drawn to the ‘warrior’ figures of the period, such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce who both have statues in Aberdeen. This got the team thinking – why is it that figures such as these great warrior are remembered and celebrated while all else seems to pale in comparison? We knew this was something we wanted to address; after all, this period was the age of Renaissance Princes and Kings. While Scotland did gain much of its identity on the battlefield, it also prospered during times of peace, seen through the developing trade routes and diplomatic links with Europe during this period. It was these links that allowed Renaissance ideas to take hold and flourish, bringing new forms of art, architecture and literature. It also saw the foundation of universities, including the University of Aberdeen in 1495.

2The Medieval period proved difficult to condense. So, as a team we had to carefully consider the story we wanted to tell and decide if we had the objects and evidence to support it. We were faced with questions such as should we focus on the stereotypical Scottish warrior with a sword and kilt? Could we consider the role of child monarchs? How would we balance the image of Scotland as a nation at war against the flourishing influence of the Renaissance? Through the process we moved away from just considering the ‘Scottish Warrior’ to considering Medieval Scotland as a whole and re-named out theme to Medieval Scotland: Barbarity or Renaissance? We have spent many hours poring over books, looking through the museum’s catalogue and visiting the stores to view our objects. The team has been writing texts and object labels and considering how everything will fit into our display case, including a claymore and rather large portrait! Keep an eye out for our team’s largest display challenges which involved finding a way to mount the claymore on open display!

3Our exhibition ‘The Scottish Warrior’ is open now until May 2018 so why not come along and see the case for yourself. If you do visit be sure to use our hashtage and let us know what you think at #UoAScottishWarrior. As always keep an eye out on the blog and social media for more behind the scenes posts.

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The Prehistoric Scottish Warrior

1Hello from Sophie, Vic and Ellen; the prehistory team!

Our experience working with the theme of the prehistoric Scottish warrior has been challenging, particularly as it is a time period that spans thousands of years which makes it difficult for us to focus on any particular area. Furthermore, we found that much of the literature on prehistory is very conflicting, which gave us frequent headaches! However, our final focus looks at the bias and stereotyping that has been impressed upon Scottish prehistory and the idea of the prehistoric Scottish warrior in more recent history. This blog will offer you a bit of insight into what each of us got up to during the process of creating our section of the exhibition.

Ellen: Object Selection and Installation

2Selecting objects for the Prehistoric group has really opened my eyes to a period of time that I’ve not previously explored. We’ve all heard of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages but looking at the people in Scotland who lived through these times has been an exciting project! As our narrative is about the creation of prehistory, choosing objects which were previously owned by 19th century antiquarians was of interest to us and finding part of the collection of Sir Alexander Ogston was fantastic. It gave me a real thrill to see one object in particular in Sir Ogston’s own records; the re-shafted jadeite Axe. Delving into the history of objects has been a fascinating experience and it has really shone a light on how ideas of prehistory have evolved. One of the most satisfying parts of the exhibition process for me was creating the narrative through the objects. Making the stories behind each object link together to create a cohesive narrative, was by no means an easy task. Deciding to cut many interesting objects because they didn’t fit well into the narrative was particularly difficult. However, selecting objects has still been an amazing task that was integral to telling our story of the ‘Prehistoric Savage’!

Sophie: Interpretation and Editing
As the interpretation and editing member of the group my main focus was to ensure that our narrative was clear and cohesive. This included our two text panels and the object labels. We decided early that we would have two panels, one focusing on problematic interpretations of Scottish prehistory and the other on the lasting myth surround the Picts. For me the text panels were the most challenging part; having to keep them clear and informative whilst working within a restricted word count. It was also important that our narrative fit within the exhibition’s overall narrative and constantly having to keep an eye on this, combined with the many redrafts required, was sometimes frustrating! We all worked together on the early drafts and in the final edits I was there to make sure the text sounded unified, tightened up our narrative, and checked spelling and grammar. Writing the object labels was a similar process, where we wrote collaboratively at the start, and then I undertook the task of editing the words down, keeping the information clear and relevant and then checking spelling and grammar. The biggest challenge here was not including information about the objects that, despite being very interesting, was irrelevant to the exhibition’s theme and narrative.

Vic: Design and Marketing
As our design and marketing member, I was responsible for choosing the colour scheme and design of our text panels, ours being brown for prehistory and blue for Picts. This was done collaboratively with the whole design and marketing team who devised a tartan for the exhibition made from the different colours used in each text panel. The panels look absolutely fantastic, their most striking feature being the individual silhouettes of warriors on each panel, relevant to the time period it discusses. Choosing a design that really conveys the message of the exhibition was a particularly tricky task, but the end result shows that is has definitely paid off!

3From the experience we have learnt that communication within our group is absolutely essential, as with so many different tasks needing to be completed it is easy to forget who is doing what, and when for, and things can get stressful very quickly! Despite the ups and downs however, we feel that we managed to pull together as a team, and we are all completely ecstatic with the final product, which is looking great!

Make sure you visit the exhibition and tell us what you think! #UoAScottishWarrior

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Museum Marketing

This weeks blog follows students as they give us an insight into marketing an exhibition:

‘It was important for us to develop a marketing strategy so that we could attract as many people as possible to visit our exhibition, which we have been working on tirelessly this semester. King’s Museum is uniquely placed to attract a number of different audiences including university students and staff, local residents and visiting tourists. So, we decided to use a range of strategies to market our exhibition including social media, local businesses and involving the public in the exhibition prior to its launch.

One of the key tasks for the marketing team was the poster. After putting a lot of effort into the design process, we are very proud of how the final product came out! It was exciting to see the poster printed out of the first time and we had fun putting it up around campus and the city. We also sent it out to local business and heritage sites to display.

Our marketing campaign also has an online component, such as this blog. This has been a great way to tell our story of putting together the exhibition and has given everyone in the class the chance to write about their involvement in the team.

We decided a fun and easy way to spread the message was to make badges for ourselves and to give away to visitors. Additionally, the badges can be found around the campus, for example, in the University’s Sir Duncan Rice Library. We used the poster design as a starting point and simplified it to put it on a badge. The whole class plans to wear the badge and hand them out during the opening of the exhibition. So keep an eye out of #UoAScottishWarrior to see where our badges end up as visitors and students go on their travels!

You can get involved with the Scottish Warrior exhibition too! Part of the exhibition is an interactive area where all ages can think about and share what the term ‘Scottish Warrior’ means to them. We have already had a lot of great entries from local schools and individuals. These ideas will be displayed in the exhibition and throughout social media.

A group of the marketing students will be doing a castle tour wearing ‘Scottish Warrior’ t-shirts, which were designed for the exhibition, and you can find photographs of the trips on our Instagram and Facebook pages @uoamuseums so keep an eye out!


Come along and visit the exhibition yourself and share your interpretation of the Scottish Warrior with the hashtag #UoAScottishWarrior!

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