4.5 New technologies

The Iron Age saw the introduction of new materials - notably iron, but also the first widespread use of glass. It also saw new technologies, notably rotary technologies - the rotary quern, the lathe and the potter's wheel.

Iron remains one of the big questions in the European Iron Age more generally, in terms of the motives behind its introduction (e.g. Needham 2007; see also the Bronze Age ScARF report), the chronology and speed of uptake. A direct functional correlation between the decline of bronze and the increase of iron seems increasingly unlikely; the hoard evidence suggests that bronze circulation declined very rapidly, while the adoption of iron was an altogether slower, more protracted process. For instance, there are suggestions that iron manufacture was present in at least parts of Britain by the late Bronze Age (e.g. Collard et al 2006), and some iron objects were certainly available, such as the iron ring from the Balmashanner (Angus) hoard (Anderson 1892). The problem has not been considered from a Scottish perspective for over thirty years (MacKie 1979); it will not be solved from the Scottish evidence, but it needs to be seen within the wider European picture.

Pair of furnaces from Birnie, Moray © F. Hunter

The question of the uptake of iron is one where a Scottish study would be very valuable. Evidence of iron is rare in this period; this is partly due to its poor survival, and a PhD study is underway to assess the value of production evidence and proxy records (such as toolmarks on bone, or the frequency of whetstones) to reconstruct the availability and use of iron more reliably (Cruickshanks in prep). In southern Britain and on the Continent, evidence seems to suggest that iron only became widely available from the second century BC onwards (Ehrenreich 1985; Pleiner 2000, 34). McDonnell has modelled the organisation of iron production in the Northern Isles (McDonnell 1998; McDonnell & Dockrill 2005), and there is scope for testing this more widely, especially through the study of slag, but there are clear signs of regional as well as chronological variation in iron production which merit further attention. For instance, furnaces are now known from several sites along the Moray Firth coast, but only one is yet known in East Lothian despite extensive excavation. Yet this one furnace, from Broxmouth, also shows the information which can come from such finds, as it demonstrates high-quailty iron production as early as the fifth century BC (McDonnell forthcoming). The symbolism of production has attracted a lot of attention (e.g Hingley 1997, 2006; Giles 2007), perhaps to the detriment of detailed regional studies into the practicalities of iron production and use (c.f. Halkon 2007, 2008).

While glass was not a new material, its first widespread use in Scotland was in the Iron age. Glass beads were present in the later Bronze Age, but they are rare: by the later Iron Age glass beads were much more common, although a detailed chronology of this is lacking. Guido's (1978) synthesis remains key, but her dating was constrained by a diffusionist perspective and a reliance of Roman associations which is only gradually being replaced as examples come from independently-dated contexts (e.g. from Loch Glashan (Argyll), Dun Bharabhat (Lewis) and Culduthel (Inverness), all with firmly pre-Roman Iron Age dates; DES 2005, 166; Harding and Dixon 2000, 28; Hunter forthcoming b; Henderson and Gilmour forthcoming). Recent programmes of analysis in north-east Scotland have cast important light on bead-making technology in the area, with Bertini's analysis indicating the use of glass from the Mediterranean in the manufacture of class 13 and 14 beads, and the work of Freestone and Davis (forthcoming) on the Culduthel glass-working debris indicating the use of small numbers of imported ingots. It would be very valuable to apply similar analysis to the glass bangles of southern Scotland, and test whether these are made from recycled Roman glass, or whether some could represent an earlier Iron Age tradition.

Glass bead from Loch Spouts crannog, Ayrshire © NMS

Rotary technologies are one of the noteworthy features of the European Iron Age, but their uptake in Scotland was variable. The date of introduction of the rotary quern is still not clear (see theme 9.3) ; examples from Howe and Dun Mor Vaul suggests an early date around the fourth century BC, consistent with its adoption elsewhere in Britain (McLaren and Hunter 2008, 105), although neither is entirely secure (MacKie 1998, 28-9). MacKie (1971, 1987) has discussed a series of important issues surrounding this new technology, such as whether it was a restricted status technology to begin with, when did it become widespread, and why are there regional variations in quern type (with bun- and beehive-shaped querns the main type in southern Scotland, while the Atlantic and north-eastern areas used adjustable disc querns) as well as hybrid forms (e.g. MacKie 1998, 29-30). There is an important avenue of research in this topic, along with issues of stone source, wear patterns, fragmentation and deposition; the work of Heslop (2008) in north Yorkshire provides a model.

The uptake of other rotary technologies was much more variable. There is no wheel-thrown pottery (though some may have been finished on a slow wheel; Campbell 1991, 150), and no use of the lathe to make shale armlets, in contrast to traditions in southern England in the late Iron Age. However, evidence from Oakbank Crannog (Perthshire) suggest that wood-turning was practised in the early Iron Age, while finds from Pict's Knowe (Dumfriesshire) are Roman Iron Age in date (Crone et al 2007, 111-3; British Archaeology 30 (1997), 4). This difference in uptake of technological innovation is an area meriting more research on a broad geographical front.

Rotary quern from Balmaclallan, Dumfries and Galloway © NMS

The other rotary technology worth mentioning is the wheel itself. Work on the chariot burial from Newbridge (Midlothian) showed advanced wheel-making technology in the fifth century BC, with notable technological differences from what was typical on the Continent at this time, suggesting that groups in Scotland were at the forefront of innovation in this technically-demanded craft at the time (Carter et al 2010). This serves as a valuable reminder of the regional variation in these skills across the European Iron Age which cannot readily be subsumed in a core-periphery view.

The introduction and uptake of iron remains a topic where understanding is limited in a Scottish context

Recent research has cast doubt on glass manufacture in Scotland, but the nature of glass-working (particularly in the case of glass bangles) remains obscure

Rotary querns have enormous potential for detailed regional study in terms of different types and their adoption, chronology, use-lives, geological sources, fragmentation and deposition