iron age

4.4 Making and using

This section focuses on use of the landscape as a resource for raw materials other than food (considered above). Thus its main focus is on the procurement, manufacture and aspects of the use of material culture. The overview provided in Haselgrove et al. (2001 14-22) remains a valid general treatment of the theme, while Hunter et al. (2006) provide a recent review of archaeometallurgy in Scotland. This section seeks to avoid mere repetition of the conclusions in these works, but will focus on key opportunities and issues in the Scottish material. As with the 'field to feast' approach for food resources, these other materials benefit from a life-cycle approach, considering their sourcing, manufacture, various uses and deposition.

Obtaining resources

A potential abundance of resources was available to the inhabitants of Iron Age Scotland, but these varied in their occurrence. Some, such as bone and hide, were universally available as byproducts of butchery, and the raw materials for everyday textile manufacture were likewise readily available from animal husbandry or by gathering plant resources. Stone for everyday tools was generally abundant, although particular stone types were regionally restricted (see below). Clay is widely accessible, so the rarity of ceramics in much of lowland Scotland is not due to a lack of raw material. Wood was common over most of the country, but scarce in the Northern and Western Isles, leading to its substitution by materials such as bone; this provides valuable insights through skeuomorphs of wooden objects (Clarke 1970).

Broad patterns of regional variation in resources are reflected in the predominant building materials in different areas, with roundhouses predominantly of timber in the south and east, and stone in the north and west. This bald statement conceals considerable variety; not only are there plentiful exceptions to these patterns, but timber would have been needed in all areas for roofing materials. Study of more recent vernacular architecture and consideration of a range of alternative roofing systems shows how timber resources could have been put to maximum use in areas of scarcity (Romankiewicz 2011, 131-141, 165-180), and there has been discussion of the use of driftwood as a resource, more commonly available in the Iron Age than today (e.g. Scott 1951; Church 2002, 67-75; Armit & Ralston 2003b, 50; Fojut 2005b). It is likely that timber was a carefully managed resource, especially given the evidence for its extensive clearance in lowland Scotland in the later Iron Age (Tipping 1997; Armit & Ralston 2003b, 50), and study of charcoal from house sites ought to provide insights into this in favourable circumstances (e.g. Barber 1997; Taylor 1999; Crone 1998; Church 2002, 72; Miller 2002). The other key but undervalued building resource was turf, well-attested in the vernacular tradition but often overlooked in studies of excavated house (Loveday 2006). The practicalities of turf construction, mechanically and in terms of resource use, turf quality and impact on grazing land, merit further work.

Other natural resources were more restricted or took more effort to obtain. Fairnell and Barrett (2007) have reviewed the limited evidence for the hunting of fur-bearing species. The gathering of shed antler (which seems to have been more common than hunting the deer) also required effort at particular times of year and knowledge of the animals' movement (see above). Other resources are more restricted in their natural occurrence, especially certain stone types: notable examples are steatite (used for vessels and ornaments), and a range of black, shiny organic-rich stones such as cannel coal, oil shale and lignite which were used for ornaments. Their restricted availability led to regionally distinctive patterns of supply and use (Forster 2009; Hunter forthcoming a).

Iron is often said to be widely available owing to the extensive distribution of bog ore (Tylecote 1986, 125). It is certainly more common than metals such as copper, but there has not been any systematic work on the availability of bog ore, and the relative rarity of iron for much of the Iron Age might suggest it was less accessible than might appear (see New Technologies below). For other metals, there is increasing circumstantial evidence for exploitation of Scottish copper sources, notably the ingots found at Edin's Hall (Scottish Borders), but this remains an area ripe for further study (Hunter et al 2006); the same problem remains in the Bronze Age. Proxy records such as pollution signatures from smelting or evidence of woodland management for charcoal from pollen records have considerable potential in approaching this problem (eg Mighall & Chambers 1997; Mighall et al 2009). The distribution and typology of gold ribbon torcs, now recognised as an Iron Age type (Warner 1993, 2003), suggests these may have been made in Scotland, but (again as in the Bronze Age) there is no clear understanding of how far Scottish gold sources were used at this time. Alloying elements (for copper alloys notably tin, but also zinc) were not apparently available locally, and imply broader contacts; the zinc represents the remelting of Roman objects (Dungworth 1996), and this is a useful reminder that recycling and reuse rather than primary manufacture was a key source of metals.

Henderson (1989) suggested that glass may have been made in Scotland, but this seems increasingly unlikely. Recent work on beads from north-east Scotland and on the manufacturing debris from Culduthel (Inverness) strongly indicates a reliance on imported ingots or recycled Mediterranean glass (Bertini et al 2011; Davis and Freestone forthcoming). However, the distribution of typologically-distinctive forms of glass bead and bangle indicates that glass was worked in Scotland (see below).

As the example of glass analysis shows, scientific work can be very valuable in developing pictures of resource supply. Some staples of procurement studies show little sign of complexity in a Scottish context. There is no evidence of salt production and distribution to date, although Iron Age briquetage from salt processing has recently been found at Berwick on Tweed (T Cowie, pers comm.). Petrological work to date indicates overwhelming use of local clays for pottery (eg MacSween 1990; Topping 1986, 1987) although there are examples of more distant sources being preferred; for instance, at Lairg talc for temper came from c. 30 km away, while potters at Tofts Ness on Sanday used dolerite from other islands (MacSween and Dixon 1998, 142-4; MacSween 2007, 277). In southern Britain, preferred rock sources for querns are found at relatively small exposures with extensive regional distributions such as Yorkshire Millstone Grits or Sussex Greensands (Heslop 2008, 28-42; Peacock 1987; see also Moore 2006, 183-90), but the prevailing hard rock geology in most of Scotland meant that stone fit for querns was readily available. However, the possibility of more localised distribution systems remains to be explored (McLaren and Hunter 2008, 106-7), and there are examples of quite large-scale quern quarries on the west coast which are undated (Mainland 2012).

There is considerable potential in using excavated data to study the use of the local landscape, and the procurement systems involved, although this is rarely done. There is also scope for consideration of how access to desirable sources of raw material was negotiated or controlled.


Crucibles from Culduthel, Inverness © Headland Archaeology Ltd and NMS

A wealth of evidence is available to study craft processes, especially for particular raw materials - iron (via slag), copper alloy (from moulds and crucibles), bone/antler and shale/cannel coal have particularly good evidence. Most have seen site-specific discussions but little broader synthesis. An exception is the evidence for non-ferrous metalworking, which has been addressed in a couple of PhD studies, as yet unpublished (Heald 2005; Sahlén 2011). These emphasise considerable regional and chronological variety in the evidence, apparently reflecting differences in the organisation of production. Following anthropological parallels (eg Budd and Taylor 1995), Heald (ibid) has stressed the role of the smith and the significance of the act of creation/fabrication as well as that of the product itself, while Sahlén considers the development of technological practices; the evidence is capable of multiple readings, and as more data become available (for instance, from recently-excavated workshop sites at Culduthel and Mine Howe) there is considerable scope for more research. The production of iron has seen much less study, with McDonnell's work in the Northern Isles a rare exception (e.g.  McDonnell 1998, McDonnell and Dockrill 2005); he stresses the social significance of control over iron production and manufacture, as a key raw material of the period. Recent excavations have greatly expanded the amount of data available from mainland Scotland; for instance, analysis of the iron-working debris from Culduthel (Inverness) has shown the advanced skills of the smiths, who were producing steel (Dungworth & McLaren forthcoming), while appraisal of published Western Isles assemblages has noted a dominance of smithing rather than smelting evidence, raising questions about the source of raw material (McLaren forthcoming). There is great potential for synthetic study of the nature of iron-smelting and smithing; a current PhD project should provide initial models for further testing (Cruickshanks in prep).

Despite this wealth of evidence, broad overviews of production have been rather dismissive of Scottish evidence, characterised with a broad brush as "domestic" (Morris 1994, 1996). This downplays the regional variety and the considerable variation encompassed in the "domestic" label (see Hunter forthcoming a). Some crafts could have been carried out readily by all or most people, but the inevitable variety in individual skill levels probably led to some degree of specialisation, at least for more complex objects - for instance, everyone may be able to make a bone point, but a long-handled comb required more precision and access to a saw. Crafts involving control of pyrotechnology - potting, metal- and glass-working - are likely to have been more specialist, but the nature and social implications of any such specialisation are not clear. The nature of craft processes and development and transfer of skills are key questions. There are very few examples of dedicated workshop areas, suggesting that most crafts were practised as occasional elements within a broader routine. The publication of recently excavated workshop sites (notably Mine Howe and Culduthel) should shed considerable light on manufacturing practice and process and enable debate on the nature of these unusual specialised sites.

Occurrence and use

Studies have tended to focus on the glamorous rather than the mundane objects, although the latter are more representative of daily life and have much to reveal, Yet the function of many items remains surprisingly obscure. This is particularly true of many bone/antler objects and coarse stone tools (especially cobble tools) - with the latter, wear patterns demonstrate varying kinds and intensities of use, but the correlation of this with function is not clear. Here there is great scope for sustained experimental work and for the application of scientific analysis, particularly the potential for residue analysis on stone tools. This is a key element in unlocking the stories which the everyday finds from Iron Age sites can tell us.

While regional and chronological differences in object use are a key feature of some material studies (notably pottery), they have been little-explored in others such as bone/antler or stone tools; this is a key area for further work (see also chronology). Wooden artefacts have seen recent synthesis (Earwood 1993), but many other finds categories have either never been synthesised (e.g. iron objects), have received valuable but site-specific treatments (e.g. bone and antler; Hallén 1994, or have studies which are now rather dated (e.g glass beads, Guido 1978).

The issue of struck lithic use in the Iron Age is a contentious one, with some specialists arguing that the finds are residual (eg Saville 1981) and others interpreting the rather erratic range of material often found as evidence of expedient lithic use continuing through the first millennium BC (e.g. Young and Humphrey 1999). Ballin (2010, 101-3) has identified early Iron Age quartz traditions in Shetland which represent more than expedient use, and tt is a topic which merits continued attention with an open mind.

The wider issue is what these finds tell of life in the Iron Age. Here there is a great need for more comparative studies - to understand the finds from one site, it must be compared to others to get a sense of how normal or unusual the assemblage is. Work in the Roman period has made great strides in showing how the comparison of assemblages between different areas of a site or different sites can reveal the range of activities taking place, through the categorisation of finds by function and the statistical analysis of this data through correspondence analysis (eg Cool and Baxter 1999, 2002). Similar techniques should be applied to the understanding of Iron Age material culture (see theme 7).

The issue of resource procurement is one where scientific work has not been exploited to the full.

  1. Petrological work on the geological sourcing of rock types occurring as filler in ceramics should be continued and expanded, especially in developing detailed pictures of local supply systems.
  2. Attempts to fingerprint Scottish copper sources by the analysis of copper alloys (successful in identifying the reuse of Roman metal) would benefit from wider application to examine the possibility of regional variation, and also from more work on trace elements to look for pre-Roman circulation pools, as has proved possible in Bronze Age contexts (Cowie et al. 1998).

Direct evidence of mining remains elusive, and proxy records (such as pollution signatures in peat bogs) offer considerable potential.

The study of evidence for woodland exploitation for the differential provision of material for building, different types of artefacts and, of course, fuel is an area of considerable potential especially given the numbers of waterlogged sites, notably crannogs. Valuable work has been done on this (e.g. Miller 2002) but it remains a resource where the Scottish record exhibits considerable potential.

Many resources were locally available, but this is too often seen as ‘obvious’ and therefore without  interest. The detail of localised procurement systems is of interest in terms of the exploitation of the local landscape, with the potential detailed pictures of routes of access and areas of avoidance affecting views of landscape use beyond the site.

Existing assemblages contain a great deal of raw material which merits study or re-examination to allow rethinking and modelling production and procurement systems and the nature of craft processes could be undertaken. The data from antiquarian excavations are a valuable resource, compensating in geographical breadth for what they lack in contextual detail. Regional case studies for particular crafts would be a valuable way forward


  1. Iron (through both study of slag and metallographic work on the products) is an obvious, urgent and often ignored subject of such study.
  2. Cannel coal / oil shale, and jet are often insufficiently differentiated and possibly contain the means for even more precision in origination. They are also prime candidates for technological study of patterns of craft practice.
  3. Bone/antler show evidence of regional or chronological variation in manufacturing techniques, but this has not seen detailed synthesis. There are also hints of varied access to resources, e.g. cetacean bone or marine ivory, which merit more work.

Sites with good manufacturing evidence, excavated and published to modern standards, remain rare; future discoveries should be a priority for careful excavation and detailed post-excavation programmes.

Studies of technology can benefit substantially from professional craftsmen's help in elucidation of processes, 'short cuts' and techniques.

The use of certain categories of objects remains obscure. Notable examples are coarse stone tools and bone tools. A combination of scientific analysis (of wear patterns and residues) and experimental work would be of value.

4.3 Cooking and Consumption

More is known about how things were cooked and served than is known about the details of cuisine, although more could undoubtedly be gleaned from a detailed study. A variety of means of preparing food is represented in the Iron Age record. Hearths are present in many domestic structures. As well as providing heat and light, they would have been the principal cooking and smoking resource; a hearth allows a variety of different cooking options, from bubbling cauldrons or spits over the flame or cooking pots set on the hearth to grilling on the stones or baking in the ashes. Rare oven-like structures have also been identified such as the one at Old Scatness (Dockrill et al. forthcoming); a study of hearths and ovens is currently being undertaken by J.R. Summers (in prep) as part of his PhD research. An alternative to hearths is cooking pits (e.g. Rideout 1995), and in some areas and periods they are locally abundant. This variation between the hearth and the pit as the dominant means of cooking merits a detailed study, as it represents very different traditions of cooking and thus styles of cuisine. While burnt mounds are primarily a Bronze Age habit, the presence of fire-cracked stone in abundance on Iron Age sites indicates that hot stone cooking technology remained a key feature (Barber 1990), but now on-site rather than off-site as in the Bronze Age. The presence of stone-lined tanks or cists at several sites has been interpreted as food (or water) storage or processing features (MacGregor 1974; Dickson and Dickson 1984; Dickson 1994). The whole area of cooking apparatus merits detailed research on a regional or national level.

Reconstruction of diet, and the balance between meat and plant resources, is very difficult. More direct evidence comes from rare evidence of coprolites. Some of the coprolites found at Howe were thought to be of human origin but it was not possible to analyse their contents (Ballin Smith 1994). A collection of human coprolites from the well at Warebeth broch (Dickson 1989) gave surprising results as they contained a large proportion of meat, plant remains being much scarcer than expected. As a result they were interpreted as being the result of atypical meals, possibly from a time of cereal shortage, and were thought unlikely to be representative of the everyday diet of the inhabitants of the site (although diet probably varied seasonally). Another direct (and relatively new) method of determining aspects of diet is the examination of starch granules trapped in dental calculus. In a pilot study Hardy et al. (2009) identified cereal starch in dental calculus of skeletons from Pictish Tarbat.

Stable isotope studies are also useful dietary indicators. At early medieval Newark Bay in Orkney, Richards et al. (2006) found there was higher than expected marine input into the diet and considerable variation between individuals. In contrast, in Iron Age East Lothian, Jay (2005, 242-243; Jay & Richards 2007) found slight variation between sites but a great deal of homogeneity at any one site and no indication of a significant proportion of marine input into the diet. There was also little indication of diversity between individuals in terms of diet, but the topic is worth pursuing as more skeletal data becomes available.

Such studies give an idea of the ratio of different elements in the diet, but say little about cuisine: there are many ways to cook a pig. In favourable circumstances, the animal bone assemblage can give some idea of how meals were prepared - for instance, whether bones were charred, or affected by boiling. Likewise butchery styles and bone representation can give some idea of the cuts of meat used; for instance, at the Dürrnberg (Austria), the evidence suggested stews were the main dish, as these extract maximum value from poor meat (Stöllner 2003, esp. 170).

Artefactual evidence, specifically pottery, ought to give insights into the preparation, storage and consumption of food, though in Scotland it is rarely interpreted in such terms. The tendency has been to look on pottery primarily as a dating tool, at least in the Atlantic regions where it is commonplace, or to bemoan its absence in other areas. Yet these two very different situations of pottery use also ought to inform us about people's cooking and eating habits. While pottery sequences have been studied in terms of typological development (eg Young 1966; Campbell 2002), there has been less concern over functional development and diversification. A valuable piece of research would be an overview of a region's ceramics (and indeed other vessels) in terms of vessel capacity and form, the latter interpreted in terms of likely function. Work in southern England on vessel size, form, and the analysis of context groups in terms of function, provides models for such studies (Woodward 1997; Hill 2002; Morris 2002), although the generally fragmentary nature of Scottish assemblages does limit the potential somewhat (A MacSween, pers comm.) Campbell (1991) provides a rare attempt to interpret potential meanings behind the decoration of pottery (see more generally Woodward 2002).

The other area of investigation is the rarity of pottery in much of the lowlands. As Willis (1999, 83-90) has shown in the analogous case of northern England, the area was not aceramic but pottery was uncommon. The implication must be that vessels in a range of other media were used. Of these, there are rare survivals of wooden vessels in a diversity of forms, from cups to massive buckets, and suggestions of other materials such as birch bark containers which could readily fulfil the consumer end of the spectrum (Earwood 1993). The form of some vessels resembles bread troughs in more recent times, for kneading dough, though while a number were found to contain have actually been recovered with "bog butter", a generic term for a range of animal products, some dairy, and some representing products such as tallow (Hunter 1997, 128-9; Berstan et al 2004). This serves as a valuable reminder of the range of secondary products available from animals - milk, butter, cream, blood, sinew, gut and so forth.

Selection of Iron Age pottery from Orkney, © NMS

Pottery and wood were not the only options for vessels, but evidence for other materials has not been fully studied. The occurrence of vessels in other materials is less certain. Leather vessels are likely, though near-impossible to prove; wicker vessels are known (eg from Howe; Dickson 1994, illus 82), but their form constrains their use. Stone "cups" from northern Scotland are more likely lamps (Stevenson 1966, 28), but various forms of stone bowl are known, including rare steatite examples in the Northern Isles (Forster 2009). Copper-alloy vessels were also used, from cups to cauldrons (MacGregor 1976, 147-152), although their while the original incidence of copper alloy vessels such as tankards or original prevalence cauldrons is hard to assess. Occasional pottery skeuomorphs of bronze vessels indicate the latter's perceived value: examples include the burnished carinated early Iron Age pottery known from Clickhimin, Shetland or a small cup with bosses imitating rivets from the Howe (Hamilton 1968, fig 19.1-5; Ballin Smith 1994, 248).

The social context of consumption is also elusive and tends to be dominated by exceptional circumstances. At some sites deposits of animal bone material have been interpreted as having a special function i.e. they are not part of the everyday domestic refuse but may have been involved in some form of special event. These may be sacrificial or ritual deposits or the remains of feasting. A series of examples may illustrate the phenomenon. High Pasture Cave had an unusual species distribution compared to many sites and a number of examples of articulated animal remains (Drew 2006). An array of ritual pits containing articulated and cremated animal remains wasere excavated at Sollas in North Uist (Campbell 1991), while Davis (2000) identified a deposit made up mostly of calf hind leg elements in close association with human cist burials at An Corran, Boreray. and Cussans and Bond (forthcoming) interpreted a deposit of prime meat age cattle and prime joints of pork and lamb making up the primary ditch deposit at *** as the remains of a community feasting event. A perceived significance to animals is seen also in other phenomena, such as the use of cattle metapodia to define a hearth at Bornais, S Uist, or deer jawbones at A'Cheardach Bheag (Mulville et al. 2003; Mulville & Thoms 2005, 241).

There has been little detailed interpretation of the meaning of such events - contrast the innovative work of Jones (2007) on social interpretations of the pit deposits at Danebury, or Hill (1995) on deposits in Wessex, which offer exciting prospects of what could be obtained from such data. Campbell's (2000) structuralist interpretation of the Sollas deposits, drawing together a range of sources of evidence, is an enlightened example of recognising the patterns which lurk in such data, offering models for debate about meaning.

An area which has seen little detailed study is the question of alcohol, although the evidence would only survive in very favourable circumstances, such as burials or hoards where vessels could be sampled. It is likely that beer was a staple drink, and possible also that fruit wines were made although hard evidence is elusive.

There is a poor understanding of the nature of cooking practices and cuisine in the Iron Age, although much raw evidence exists. Specific examples include: patterns in preference for hearths rather than pits as cooking devices; interrogation of animal remains for information on cooking practices (butchery, charring etc); size, form and thus function of pottery and other vessels

A range of scientific approaches have considerable potential for the study of food, cooking practices and cuisine: organic residue analysis of pottery; isotopic study of human bones in terms of diet and the balance of arable and pastoral resources, and animal bones in terms of mobility; coprolites

Patterns in the deposition of animal bone can provide important information on social habits such as feasting and insights into beliefs, but this remains an area ripe for detailed research, with only a few pioneering studies so far.