The Bronze Age covers the period from 2300 BC to 700 BC. This was a time of social change, illustrated by the emergence of hierarchical tribal societies dominated by an elite of chieftains and warriors.
By 1500 BC the climate was some 2 degrees centigrade warmer than it is today. This meant that crops could be grown in areas at a higher altitude than is now possible and many upland areas of south-west Scotland were being farmed. An agricultural surplus, plus control of natural resources like copper or and gold, created a degree of wealth which was used to support the area's elite. These people expressed their personal power through the purchase and display of high status objects such as metal weapons and exotic stone tools.
The climate got worse around 1100 BC and the upland margins were abandoned. As people were forced into a smaller area tension and conflict ensued. The period from 1100 BC to 200 BC saw the development of hilltop forts and defended settlements, as well as the development of specialised weapons, such as the sword.
The most common surviving Bronze Age monuments in south-west
Scotland are the circular earth mounds and stone cairns where local
communities buried their dead. Such mounds and cairns were built to
cover a single burial, often placed within a stone box or cist and
accompanied with pots and stone and metal tools. This commemoration
of the individual is in direct contrast to the communal burial
tradition of the preceding Neolithic and demonstrated a degree of
social division. Most earth-built burial mounds have long-since
been ploughed away but stone burial cairns are still a common
feature of the uplands. In some places, such as New Luce area of
Wigtownshire Moors, burial cairns can be found close to small
settlements - usually circular stone-built houses or 'hut circles'
- associated with stock enclosures, field systems and agricultural
clearance mounds; in these areas we can see and begin to
reconstruct a complete Bronze Age landscape.
Stone circles are another type of Bronze Age monument. Most circles in south-west Scotland are fairly small, typically 20 to 30 meters in diameter, and comprise a single ring of frees-standing stones such as the Machrie Moor circles on Arran or the Girdle Stanes, Eskdalemuir. Two of the circles in the Galloway hills, Glenquicken and Claughreid have a central stone while the Torhousekie circle near Wigtown has a central setting of recumbent slabs. Stone circles had a ritual function, probably connected with rites of passage, death and burial.
Standing stones are another type of ceremonial monument from this period. Generally sited in dramatic locations, standing stones appear to have marked divisions in the landscape, especially boundaries between the everyday world of the living and the spirit world of the ancestors. Many standing stones are associated with burials. Standing stones are found throughout the region but particularly impressive examples can be seen at Machrie Moor, Arran and at Drumtroddan near Port William.
The Bronze Age is, of course, the period when see the first use of metal. Before 2000 BC most metal tools in our area were made of copper. These tended to be large, flat axes. Most were probably made in Ireland and traded into our area but some may have used local copper resources. Bronze - an alloy of copper and tin - is more common after 1800 BC and a range of tools and weapons were in circulation including knives and razors, axes, spears, rapiers and daggers. A peculiarity of this period is the amount of metalwork found buried in hoards or discovered in bogs and other watery places; these were probably votive offerings made to local gods or ancestor spirits. Large hoards have been found at Kilkerran, Ayrshire and Glentrool, Galloway and votive offerings are known from Dowalton, Wigtownshire and from Colvend in The Stewartry.
Stone and flint continued to be used long after the introduction of bronze tools. Delicately made barbed and tanged flint arrowheads are a hallmark of Bronze Age material culture and are a common find. Another distinctive Bronze Age tool is the battle-axe, a small, ground and polished stone implement with a central perforation or shaft-hole for a handle. A huge amount of time and energy was invested in the production of battle-axes and they were probably high status display objects. Axe-hammers are similar but much simpler shaft-hole tools, probably used for a variety of tasks. Large numbers of axe-hammers have been found in Nithsdale and again in the Wigtownshire Machars but they are less common elsewhere in the south-west. Does this indicate a local preference for this type of multipurpose tool within our region?
There was also a distinctive range of Bronze Age pottery including highly decorated beakers and urns. Most examples have been recovered from burials but similar pots were used for everyday activities. The types of pots used in south-west Scotland belong to a tradition found throughout Britain Ireland and show that our region was in contact with the rest of the country and beyond.