Aerial photography

Traces of the homes and burial sites of Scotland’s prehistoric peoples can be hard to find on East Lothian’s fertile plain, where early peoples built their houses and tombs mainly of timber, turf and earth. Later on, as structures fell down and disintegrated through the centuries that followed, they rotted away and were ploughed flat. Today most of these sites are invisible on the ground surface but, in the right conditions, the outlines of buildings and field divisions can be seen as cropmarks from the air. In dry weather, for example, the cereal crop grows taller and stays green over the top of an ancient ditch, because its fill is different from the surrounding subsoil and holds water better. At the right time of year in a dry season, the ditch shows up from the air as a green line of higher plants against the background of the ripe golden crop. From the 1970s, aerial photography revolutionised our understanding of prehistoric lowland Scotland. The truncated remains of hundreds of ancient sites are preserved below the ploughed fields of East Lothian. The impact of aerial photography can be gauged from looking at the list of nationally important prehistoric sites in East Lothian, protected by law as scheduled ancient monuments. Of around 230 scheduled prehistoric sites, around 80% are cropmarks discovered in the last 30 years by aerial photography. Before 1970, relatively few prehistoric monuments were known in East Lothian; even so, we are still probably only seeing a fraction of the settlements present originally. Aerial photography can detect sites where substantial ditches, pits and post-holes have been dug in the past, but not shallow pits or ditches, or structures erected entirely on the ground surface.

There are few traces in the archaeological record of East Lothian’s first farmers, but aerial photography has produced evidence of their presence in the form of religious or ritual sites. The modern distinction between daily and spiritual life would have been incomprehensible to a Neolithic or Bronze Age farmer – and indeed to most of Scotland’s prehistoric inhabitants. Instead, almost every aspect of life would have had a spiritual dimension, with ceremonies and rituals marking the natural and human order of things. In Neolithic times, tombs and ritual sites were essentially communal, built by and for the whole community, implying a communal society in which individual needs, wishes and differences were of secondary importance.

At Drylawhill, East Linton, a cursus – an important ritual monument dating from about 5,000 years ago – was identified from the air in 1993. Cursus monuments comprise two parallel ditches or rows of pits, which can run for considerable distances: one kilometre is not uncommon. The full length of the Drylawhill cursus does not survive, but its parallel ditches are visible for 300 metres and are about 60 metres apart. This ceremonial enclosure defined an area within which prehistoric rituals were enacted; when excavated elsewhere, burials and pits containing pottery have been found within and around cursus ditches. Cursus monuments occur in various parts of Britain, including around Stonehenge, but only three are known in southeast Scotland: another example occurs just south of Inveresk.

We can now add the cursus monuments to the several small stone circles and burial cairns in the Lammermuirs, and individual standing stones on the plain, which date from roughly the same period. On Kingside Hill, between Gifford and Cranshaws, a circle of about 30 low stones has a small burial cairn at its centre; two additional stones were uncovered when it was cleared of debris in 1986. Similar circles lie nearby: Nine Stone Rig and the Crow Stones; and a much larger cairn, almost 20 metres in diameter, survives on Whitekirk Hill. Again, these monuments are ceremonial and funerary in nature. Stone circles and alignments are laid out with reference to the cycles of the sun, though not with the astronomical complexity that has sometimes been claimed for them. A single large standing stone stands sentinel at Standingstane Farm, Traprain; while the standing stone at Easter Broomhouse, Dunbar is about three metres high and has cupmarks carved into one side. Cup-and-ring marks occur on standing stones and natural rock outcrops and are characteristic of ritual landscapes. Their meaning and purpose is mysterious to us, but was obviously understood by the contemporary population.