Insular networks: An exploration of material distribution, insularity and island identity on the edge of Europe in the Shetland Neolithic

William P. Megarry, Mik Markham, Bernard Gilhooley, Brendan O'Neill, Gabriel Cooney

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Shortly after arriving in the Shetland archipelago early in the 4th millennium BC, communities began to quarry and make stone tools from riebeckite felsite, quarried from the Northmavine region of North Mainland. The effort expended traveling to the quarry sites, extracting, making and crafting tools was considerable indicating the importance of felsite to Neolithic communities. Results from the North Roe Felsite Project are presented in this paper. The quarrying and distribution of felsite in Shetland can tell us much about insularity, choice, and island identities on a wider scale. The geospatial distribution of 416 felsite tools from across the archipelago was explored. Felsite is used to make tools for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes and, with two exceptions compromising 0.33% of the total dataset, no tools can be securely provenanced outside of Shetland. At a time of increasing communications elsewhere in the Neolithic world, communities in Shetland appear to become focused on the archipelago. This insularity is also evident in contemporary material culture including pottery and funerary structures which do not follow mainland or Orcadian styles, strongly suggesting an island-focused society during this period. Recent radiocarbon dates suggest that these dynamics were established in the Early Neolithic, before 3500 BC. Felsite, therefore, allows us to explore the otherwise elusive early prehistory of the islands. The distribution network of tools from the quarry complex around the archipelago strongly indicates a preference for maritime travel and transportation, even where terrestrial routes are available. The patterns also suggest settlement and activity across Shetland with important foci at previously understudied locations across North and West Mainland. The study has considerable implications for understanding movement, choice, and identity in past island societies and their relationship to material culture.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology
Early online date30 Aug 2021
Publication statusEarly online date - 30 Aug 2021


  • Shetland Islands; stone tool distribution patterns; geospatial modeling; polished stone tools; insularity; Neolithic


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