iron age

1. Introduction

The Iron Age has long been dominated by the archaeology of settlement and settlement design - the brochs, duns, wheelhouses, timber and stone-built roundhouse settlements, unenclosed platform settlements, crannogs, enclosed farmsteads and hillforts that are familiar and, often, so impressive. Uniquely, in the British context, such sites in northern and western Scotland have offered deep stratified sequences of development that have given the opportunity to observe developments, socially, culturally and architecturally over time in considerable detail. However, a broader vision of Iron Age society is coming into focus, including increasing funerary evidence, hitherto almost absent, that reveals more about the population itself.

It is, of course, the people of the Iron Age that lie at the root of study. Personal identities can be explored, as expressed through identifiers of ranking, role, gender and age. The structure of society as revealed through its material remains shows evidence of segregation, differentiation and regional patterning. The question of regional identities and idiosyncracies as well as wider links to communities elsewhere in Britain and in Europe, and their variation over time, is an important area of enquiry. It has long been argued that the people of Iron Age Scotland were far from isolated and this has been dramatically demonstrated by the discovery of a burial accompanied by an assembled chariot located at Newbridge, west of Edinburgh, where dating and form show links with the Continent, but the technological details show insular origins. It is increasingly apparent that materials, goods and ideas were being moved for a variety of reasons over very wide areas. Key research questions revolve around these contacts and the role and extent of mobile people and groups. The role of warfare and violence cannot be under-estimated in this process, with the need for greater precision and interrogation of the archaeological evidence in order to specify its modi operandum.

Important work has taken place in the elucidation of environmental change at this period. Further effort is needed to add detail, precision and clarity to the chronology of farming development, its nature, its place within the landscape, its productivity and its demographic outcomes. Ultimately, the nature of society remains the fundamental question. In tackling this, modern scholarhip must learn how to break free from simple models, often reflecting partial and patronising views  of tribes and elites transmitted to us fragmentarily by classical writers, and develop richer, more rounded understandings of life in the Iron Age as it was lived by prehistoric peoples.

The Iron Age panel was set up to incorporate the study of the Roman impact on what is now Scotland and it is important to consider the relationship that Iron Age peoples of this zone had with Rome and the wider world of Empire. This interaction with a literate society for the first time, and what impact the Romans had on local communities, and in turn, what impact these peoples had on the rest of the Roman Empire, are all important issues for exploration. Traditionally, work has focused on aspects of military history. More recently there has been a more diverse appreciation of other aspects of enquiry including the organisation and nature of supply, the diversity of peoples among soldiers and civilians in the frontier zone, and a more subtle understanding of interactions with the local population. Roman Scotland is central to discussions relating to ethnicity and identity in the past and has a considerable voice to add to European and wider debates on frontier life. What happened when the Romans “left”? Did they all leave?  What counted as ‘Roman’ at this time? How did the longer-term influence of the Roman world and its legacy influence the formation, nature and organisation of the Pictish and other emergent kingdoms? All of these issues form critical research areas to explore.

For all its outwardly domestic character, evidence for ritual and belief is a key feature of Iron Age study. Can the apparently straightforward and intuitively interpreted evidence for the domestic sphere as retrieved from ‘simple’ settlement sites, be satisfactorily compared with ‘special’ or unusual sites such as Mine Howe, Orkney or High Pasture Cave, Isle of Skye, with their evidence for activities such as feasting, sacrifice, deposition, hoarding, or metal-working? Natural, wet/boggy or isolated places may also feature as ritual foci, with artefacts and other items being deposited, providing a rich resource in terms of craftsmanship, raw materials and the production and consumption of goods.

The quality of evidence from the Scottish Iron Age represents considerable research strength. Drystone architecture provides detailed and still-standing information on the Iron Age built environment. Deep man-made soils contain proxy data that may indicate  how people used the landscape, and how this changed over time. Wetland archaeology can provide the kind of immediacy of view of life in the past, through the unusueal preservation of organic materials, that is more generally associated with shipwrecks. The long history of research into the Iron Age has provided an important archive that merits study.

Understanding the nature of settlement, landscape and subsistence remains a key research area and traditional focus of the Scottish Iron Age. Combining work on artefacts, with buildings and environmental work will lead to a far more sharply defined view of the Iron Age in the future. Building on these strengths through incorporating the  opportunities offered by human remains, wetland preservation, deeply stratified sites and environmental work are important future areas of Iron Age research.


Distribution map of sites mentioned in the text © RCAHMS. Site lists and this distribution map can be downloaded from here.

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Periods 6 & 7: Late Bronze Age, c 12th –8th C BC and Early Iron Age transition

Post-built structures became a feature of Later Bronze Age lowland landscapes along the east coast and, by the 12t century BC, were increasingly large and circular suggesting larger households. Settlement on the western mainland was predominantly coastal and focussed south of the Firth of Lorn.

After 1000 BC, settlement became even more coastal, with inland areas only really occupied around the Forth: in Perthshire, Lothian and the Borders. Although unenclosed platform settlements saw occupation across the 2nd millennium BC, a C-14 gap is found in the 10th century BC, and it remains possible that upland settlement instead moved into palisaded enclosures at this time. Instead, the 10th century BC dates are from lowland ring-banks and post-built structures. Settlement continued in many 2nd millennium BC lowland landscapes – as at Kintore, Aberdeenshire and at the Upper Forth Crossing – with the re-facing of older coastal structures as at Upper Suisgill and Cùl a’Bhaile. By the 9th century BC, there was an apparent return to ancestral unenclosed platform settlements (Green Knowe, Kilearnan Hill). Platforms were again utilised as people began occupying ring-banks at very high altitudes (Carn Dubh and Eildon Hill North at 405 m) in high visibility/highly visible locations, in common with suspected Late Bronze Age occupation of landmark, hilltop sites such as Traprain Law.

Crannogs such as  Oakbank Crannog, Loch Tay are a feature of this period. Two burnt mounds in Orkney, Liddle and Beaquoy, date to the late Bronze Age and have distinctive complex internal arrangements of tanks and drains (Hedges 1975).

Towards the end of the Bronze Age there is a period of disruption in the settlement record, beginning after 850 BC (Pope forthcoming). First is an apparent decline in occupation of the western mainland: the last upland date from Balloch Hill, Argyll at c 800 BC, slightly later in the western lowlands at Aird Quarry (Dumfries and Galloway) and Ednie (Aberdeenshire). Meanwhile in the eastern lowlands, by 800BC, traditional post-built houses and ring-banks disappear. An apparent ‘re-organisation’ of lowland settlement takes place in favour of turf-walled ring-ditch structures, a type which had by this time been absent for two centuries. These structures occupy the east coast after c. 780 BC at Kintore, (Aberdeenshire) Douglasmuir (Angus) and Dryburn Bridge (East Lothian). Meanwhile occupation declined in the eastern uplands by c. 750 BC (Eildon Hill North, Selkirk and Kilearnan Hill, Highland), after which no dated upland houses are known until the 5th century BC at Carn Dubh. Settlement contracted to the east coast, as these arguably more sedentary ring-ditch households engaging in mixed pastoralism came to characterise the Early Iron Age. This LBA-EIA ‘re-organisation of settlement’ utilises traditional sites and familiar landscapes, as well as an indigenous ring-groove house type.

LBA sword hoard, Grosvenor Crescent, Edinburgh ©NMS This hoard from the West End of Edinburgh forms part of a group of sword finds in Mid- and East Lothian.  Deposition of seven complete swords is significant on a European scale.

Forts and Enclosures in the Late Bronze Age

Syntheses of settlement have always struggled with the chronologies of forts and other settlement enclosures. For 19th century antiquaries it was the general lack of artefacts, which made excavation such an unrewarding prospect, but despite some limited work by David Christison following up his exhaustive district surveys, and in the 1930s excavations by Gordon Childe (see Ralston 2009, 73-5, note 39), no real progress was made until the excavations of the Piggotts in the late 1940s and 50s. The chronology that emerged, however, familiarly known as the Hownam Sequence after the fort of Hownam Rings excavated by Mrs C M Piggott (1948) in the northern Cheviots, was severely compressed, and remained so despite Stuart Piggott’s best efforts (1966) until the first application of radiocarbon dating to forts at Craigmarloch Wood in Renfrewshire, Finavon in Angus (Mackie 1969), and Huckhoe in Northumberland (Jobey 1968). While Jobey discussed the possibility that some of the palisaded enclosures of Northumberland and southern Scotland might be Late Bronze Age in date rather than Early Iron Age, the plateau in the calibration curve effectively prevented any precise resolution, and the main thrust of his own work concentrated on unenclosed round-houses to push the settlement record back into the Bronze Age.

Nevertheless, Jobey was well aware of the assemblage of bronze tools from Traprain Law (Jobey 1976), which at the very least seemed to attest a Late Bronze Age occupation if not a fortification, and radiocarbon dates from his excavation of the ramparts at Burnswark in Dumfriesshire also hinted that some of the other large forts known as minor oppidda might well have their origins in the Late Bronze Age (Jobey 1978). More recent work at Eildon Hill North (Owen 1992) and Edinburgh Castle (Driscoll and Yeoman 1997) has also uncovered evidence of Late Bronze Age occupation, but in neither case can it be demonstrated that there are contemporary defences. More recently still in East Lothian, however, Colin Haselgrove obtained a series of Late Bronze Age radiocarbon dates from enclosures at Standingstone and Whittingehame; two comparable dates were also obtained from an evaluation of a fort at East Linton (Haselgrove 2009); while the taphonomy of some of the samples is not without its problems (see Sharples 2011 review), at face value these dates relate to phases of enclosure.

The bulk of the settlement enclosures that contribute to the regional character of the archaeology of south-eastern Scotland are almost certainly Iron Age in date, but it seems likely that the origins of this regional character originate in the Late Bronze Age. Whether this holds more generally for the forts that are found across the rest of Scotland has yet to be tested. By far the majority of these latter are minor works, but amongst them there is a series of larger enclosures, often occupying prominent topographical features in the manner that is familiar from Traprain Law, Eildon Hill North and Burnswark (see Halliday and Ralston forthcoming); it would be surprising if some of these were not occupied in the Late Bronze Age.

Only with the Ewart Park assemblage (named after the sword find close to the Scottish Border) did the swords and socketed axes that traditionally define the Late Bronze Age become common in Scotland. Hoards also became common again only at this time. Alongside Scottish axe types (Highfield type, etc) occur types more common in northern England (notably Yorkshire type). Irish axes also occur (though thorough study of Eogan’s corpus is still required to distinguish these from similar Scottish types).

Bronze ornaments distinguish Scottish hoards from those in southern Britain. Penannular bracelets are most characteristic. Pins probably derive from Ireland. Gold ornaments also became common, though many appear to have been imports. Bracelets of British form are found in southern Scotland, while Irish forms are numerous in the west and north, like Irish dress fasteners.

Most types characteristic of Carp’s Tongue (including copper ingots) or Broadward hoards in southern Britain are rare or absent from Scotland. One iron object belongs to this phase, a small ring in the Balmashanner hoard, consistent with the few small iron objects from probable Ewart Park contexts in northern England.

Only two Scottish hoards (Poolewe (Ross), Lamancha (Peebles)) can be attributed to the Llyn Fawr assemblage, but moulds (Rosskeen (Ross), Dunagoil (Bute)) indicate that Sompting axes were being made in Scotland and Gündlingen swords also occur. The sword from the Clyde near Renfrew has recently been identified as a rare import from continental Europe in Scotland. No iron objects appear to be associated with bronzes of this phase.

Evidence is emerging for a variety of different monuments attributable to the Late Bronze Age. A type of henge monument identified by Richard Bradley, of which two examples have been excavated (Bradley 2011). Late Bronze Age dates have been ascertained from an earth house at Ness Breck, Mainland Orkney (Carruthers and Lee forthcoming). Burial evidence from the period is however, as in the Early Iron Age, scarce.

Key features / research questions:

  1. Re-use of ancient monuments, especially recumbent stone circles; continuing construction of kerb cairns. Cremation remains the main funerary practice, but at Covesea cave children’s heads apparently used in ceremonial manner. (This is notwithstanding that the vertebrae with cut-marks have been found to be of Iron Age date.)
  2. Small, slightly oval stone circles being built early 1st millennium BC (as suggested at Croft Moraig).
  3. The emergence of hilltop enclosed settlements and other enclosed settlements; more roundhouses found from developer-funded excavations. This also includes Cladh Hallan with its distinctive practice of using preserved ancestral remains as foundation deposits.
  4. Further debate is required regarding the possible effects of further climate shift towards cooler, wetter conditions.
  5. What happened around 1000BC to revive metalworking in Scotland?

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