6.1 Material culture

The basic issues of this subject area, including its methodologies and ethics, are succinctly expressed by John Moreland:

“Archaeologists must recognise that people in the historical past wove or constructed their identities, not just from the objects they created, possessed and lived within, but through texts as well. As products of human creativity, they too were created and distributed within social relationships, and were crucial weapons in attempts to reproduce or transform them. As such, the ‘silent majority’ [i.e. the ‘people without history’ with whom archaeologists are often said to engage], although illiterate, were deeply entangled in the webs created by writing. Equally, however, historians must recognise that their exclusive focus on the written sources provides them with access to only one thread in the fabric of human identity - hardly a reliable basis for the reconstruction of the whole” (Moreland 2001: 83f).

The inference of the intangible from the material is fundamental to any cognitive archaeology, but is also at the heart of the problems inherent in any attempt to recover the mentalities of past societies. By the same token, there is little argument that the world-views of ancient cultures are fundamental to their very nature, and that they cannot be fully understood in terms of material empiricism alone. In a sense, the mind-set of a culture as articulated in physical form is the sum of all material culture, in that the artefactual record is a reflection of a view of the world and the ways in which any given people interact with it. Suffice to say here that, again in the context of ethnicity and power-politics, one needs to be alert to variations in the material expressions of attitudes and ideas as much as the cruder imperatives of economic subsistence and prosperity. Of necessity the character of archaeology and of the Scottish evidence favours the study of early historic Scotland as a prehistoric period. The aim will be to complement documentary evidence, not to replicate it.

In order for material culture studies to grow and contribute to archaeological analysis it is vital that the potential of existing museum collections, excavated assemblages, and stray find material allocated through Scottish Treasure Trove is pursued. A huge amount of material in museum collections remains unstudied and would benefit from re-examination and re-interpretation (or in some cases examination and interpretation for the first time). This may be seen as a general rather than period-specific issue, although there are certainly period-specific dimensions which may need considered. Many non-National museums struggle to prioritise collections research but the allocation of Treasure Trove to museums can seem almost futile if they are not then studied and interpreted. This undoubtedly needs more museum-based archaeologists and additional resources to begin to effect a change but Perth Museum, for example, has been able to demonstrate some of the possibilities (e.g Hall et al. 1998; Hall et al. 2000; Bateson and Hall 2002; Hall 2002; Hall 2005a; Hall et al. 2005; Dickinson et al. 2006 and Hall 2007a and b).

An example is the re-evaluation of the assemblages from early excavations, and particularly examples where an early/medieval site type has been greatly affected by antiquarian excavation: for example crannogs. While the lack of archaeological context in these cases is a limitation, it is not sufficient justification for ignoring what information does exist. In many cases, antiquarian excavations provide a far broader sample of material than is available from recently excavated sites. The re-evaluation of some of the finds excavated by Munro from Lochspouts Crannog (Blackwell forthcoming) include a Christian jet pendant, possibly of early medieval origin, and what has been described as a rock crystal amulet which is very similar in shape and dimensions to the piece mounted on the base of the Ardagh Chalice. Previous work has not flagged up other possible early historic material from the site, making this is a new addition to the list of sites utilised during the early historic period. Beyond this, one can start looking at a range of questions including where these objects came from, how they might have been used, and where and how other similar pieces were used. More broadly, there is a constant need to re-evaluate objects in museum collections as has been demonstrated by Hall (including 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005b and 2007c and see Crone, Hall and Fawcett 2000) for a range of antiquarian and later found Medieval objects in the Perth Museum collections. Pooling expertise across institutions is another means by which collections can be re-evaluated, as the recent new analysis of the Lewis chessmen has shown (Caldwell, Hall and Wilkinson 2009).

It is vital to make the most of excavated assemblages when they are first published. Every object should have a comprehensive description by a specialist in that field, clear context/stratigraphic information, and ideally be illustrated. An example where this potential was missed is the Castle Park, Dunbar report where broken links between contexts and finds can make it difficult to reconstruct their find position. Some significant objects (including some Anglo-Saxon glass beads) were not identified or illustrated, and others, including the buckle which was used as the main dating evidence for Northumbrian activity, were only very briefly discussed. The Dundonald Castle report is another case in point, with links between the objects and their contexts in some cases completely lacking.

Three examples of these issues-in-action can be taken by examining three key groups of artefacts:

Early medieval glass beads: A relatively limited amount of work has been done on Scottish glass beads. As part of the Glenmorangie sponsored Early Historic Scotland Research Project, Blackwell has identified over 50 early historic imported glass beads from Scotland held in existing museum collections; the vast majority had just not been identified previously. Most of the small number that had previously been identified as imported were erroneous beads of later date. Once a body of material has been identified, it will be relevant to multiple different themes and interpretations – which in the case of these beads might include how they relate to other kinds of imports, the mechanisms for distribution and re-distribution, and the possible uses and social significance of them. The re-assessment of glass beads (or indeed other artefact categories) could be advanced under multiple thematic headings or via the outlining of research priorities for object types, and then over-arching priorities for groups of material. This second approach was adopted by the compilers of Understanding the British Iron Age: an agenda for action (2001) . Within that structure, their ‘Material culture’ section briefly reviewed general issues (data collection, need for basic studies of technology, dating etc), the production, distribution, use and deposition of material culture in the period, and research priorities by material type (glass, bone etc). Some aspects of the later ‘Processes of change’ section highlighted thematic priorities relating to material culture.

Figure 56: Remarkably only one medieval tile kiln has ever been located in Scotland in the grounds of North Berwick nunnery, the group of highly decorated tiles in this photograph were recovered from the 1929 excavations

Remarkably only one medieval tile kiln has ever been located in Scotland in the grounds of North Berwick nunnery, the group of highly decorated tiles in this photograph were recovered from the 1929 excavations. A recent Historic Scotland funded programme of chemical sourcing has suggested that tiles were being produced across medieval Scotland contrary to earlier views that the Scots imported all their floor tiles from the Low Countries ©National Museums Scotland.

Pottery: The manufacture of medieval pottery in Scotland appears to be a late phenomenon probably given impetus by the founding of burghs and thus the appearance of a ready captive market. The earliest identified industry is the Scottish Whiteware one, for several years this was thought to be concentrated on the Scottish East Coast but recent chemical sourcing has indicated that it was actually more widespread (Jones et al. 2004). Typological work has indicated that it is possible to assign regional vessel groupings to this industry but no more than three production sites have been definitely located and only one of them, Colstoun, has ever been properly investigated (Hall 2004). The Scottish Redware industry is the other major source of pottery excavated from our medieval burghs but again currently only two production sites are known: at Rattray (Aberdeenshire) and Stenhousemuir (Falkirk), although both sites have seen excavation (Murray and Murray 1993; Hall and Hunter 2001 and Hall 2007). Rattray is of interest as it may be indicative of a local industry which was only set up to supply the burgh and whose products did not travel any further afield. The production site at Stenhousemuir has always been thought to date to the 15th and 16th centuries - recent rescue excavation has located evidence for earlier production. Based on the style and decoration on some of the vessels, this site’s production has been linked with the Knights of St John at Torphichen Preceptory. Interestingly, land directly adjacent to the Colstoun production centre was also owned by that military order, hinting that suggestions of a monastic involvement or impetus to pottery manufacture in Scotland may not be so far away from the truth (Hall 2006). The frustrations of the lack of Scottish pottery production centres have been tempered in recent years by the arrival of Inductively Coupled Mass Spectroscopy (ICPMS). This technique essentially allows for the analysis of sherds of pottery in such a way that they can be compared with each other and an attempt made to identify the location of production sites. Of the two native industries, the Scottish Redware is the one that had produced the most consistent results, with the ability to separate groups of samples from sites that are often quite close to each other (Spynie/Elgin). Surprisingly, there is also the suggestion that redware pottery and tiles are being manufactured on different sites (Haggarty, Hall and Chenery 2011). Without a doubt the appearance of this technique has revolutionised the study of ceramics and it is important that samples are continued to be fed into the database.

Figure 57: The introduction of coinage by successive Scottish monarchs in the 12th century had considerable political, economic and social connotations.

The introduction of coinage by successive Scottish monarchs in the 12th century had considerable political, economic and social connotations. In spite of this, comparatively little is known about these early issues and this example of a penny of William the Lion is only one of five known from this striking. The increasing popularity of metal detecting has the potential to greatly increase our understanding of these issues, © S.Campbell.

Coins: Coins, or a wider study of numismatics, have to be considered a separate topic given the specialist nature of the work. The coins minted in Scotland from the 12th century to the beginning of the 18th century are generally well understood, but form only a small fraction of the currency in use. The use of English currency is a constant of the period from the 13th-17th centuries, with a smaller amount of continental issues also present. Since 1978, Donal Bateson and Nick Holmes have been keeping a record of pre 1700 coin finds from Scotland, which is published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The growth of metal detecting as a hobby has inevitably meant increasing numbers of discoveries which have added much needed nuance and detail to the use and distribution of coinage in Scotland, and has also allowed some rare or unknown specimens thus recovered to be claimed as Treasure Trove. With the notable exception of the major study by Gemmill and Mayhew in 1995 there has been little attempt to assess what money meant in practice, and surely a lot more could be done with coin distributions and study in terms of assessing the nature of the economy and regional trends. A significant, but hopefully short term, problem that has to be overcome is the lack of numismatists. National Museums Scotland (NMS) no longer has one, and the largest and best collection of Scottish coins is therefore closed, although NMS continues to acquire rare or significant specimens via the Treasure Trove process. There is a lack elsewhere of appropriate numismatic knowledge, either professional or amateur.

Arguably, it has been easy to label and dismiss ‘stray finds’ because of their lack of archaeological stratigraphic context. However, different types of context can of course be reconstructed. For instance the location of finds may inform on senses of landscape, particularly if deliberate deposition is a possibility. After Christianity individual finds are assumed to be accidental losses, but is this justified? Alternatives include disposal through manuring, and deliberate (votive) deposition in the landscape. When three brooches are found deliberate deposition is usually assumed (i.e. a hoard), but when it is only one brooch it is described as a casual loss. Distributions of types of object (e.g. penannular brooches), or material from a particular period can be very useful and potentially give a wider picture than that achieved by considering excavated sites alone. Stray finds may also indicate ‘productive’ sites, or what may otherwise be invisible sites, such as fairs or meeting places. Often new Treasure Trove finds are circulated to the small number of experts, and following this they are sometimes published. But this should not be seen as the job done – it is important to emphasise the importance of re-visiting material and subjecting it to multiple perspectives and interpretative frameworks.

In discussions of material culture one generally speaks of Archaeologists excavating phases and processes, but every so often particular events in time are uncovered. Obvious categories of these include: the deposition of hoards, shipwrecks, and battles. Archaeologists have often tended to be cautious about the identification of excavated features, for example burnt deposits in urban excavations, with recorded events - but where such a correlation is well founded there ought to be advantages in maximising what can be recovered from the archaeological record. A considerable element of serendipity is usual in the discovery of hoards and shipwrecks and it would therefore be difficult to draw up a research strategy which depended on their discovery. Hoards, in which the sole or main component is coins, are by no means unusual for the medieval period and have invariably been claimed as Treasure Trove to allow work to be done on them, although the bulk of their contents are not normally retained for the nation.

No medieval ship wrecks have been recovered from Scottish waters – at least ones of earlier date than the late 16th century. Indeed only 8 wreck sites have been designated in Scottish waters through the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, and a new Scottish Marine Act will probably not lead to a significant increase in designations or more money being poured into the discovery and research of new wreck sites. And yet, it surely has to be a major aim that medieval wrecks be discovered and researched. What is necessary is having the skills and resources to deal with hoards and ship wrecks when they come along. An issue that has to be addressed in the case of shipwrecks is our capacity to deal with water-logged finds and timbers. NMS is the only institution north of York that has a large freeze drier unit, but through staff changes has all but lost staff experienced in using it, and thanks to other major commitments over the next few years, conserving water-logged material will remain a very low priority. Until reasonable access to skilled conservation of water-logged material can be guaranteed it is difficult to see how a proactive programme to discover wrecks can be contemplated.

The other approach to medieval material culture (indeed to monuments and sites as well) that would benefit our understanding of the period (both as a period and as part of a much longer durée) is cultural biography. The value of this approach has certainly been demonstrated for the early medieval/protohistoric period, notably through its application to the understanding of Pictish sculpture, including Hilton of Cadboll (James et al 2008b) and St Madoes/Inchyra (Hall forthcoming). It requires an interdisciplinary outlook (see below) and the facility to recover the dynamics of human behaviour particularly with respect to appropriation and re-use, and in “real” past-time, i.e. not broken-up with hindsight inflected period determinants. For the later medieval period in Scotland little has been done in the way of cultural biography and yet there is a huge potential, not least – to take one example – with respect to the cult of saints’ relics.


Re the comments included in the report on the subject of wider studies of coin finds and their significance - the existence of the following paper should be noted: N.M.McQ. Holmes, 'The evidence of finds for the circulation and use of coins in medieval Scotland' in PSAS 134 (2004), at pages 241-80. Finds recorded since this paper was published have not changed the overall picture, and the distribution pattern may be seen as reflecting the areas where detectorists have searched most frequently.

Thanks! - we'll get that added in. What themes do you see emerging regarding research into Mediaeval coinage? What are the 'hot topics' and are they changing?

In the field of what may be described as 'pure numismatics', i.e. the study of the coins themselves, there is still work to be done on the details of some issues, involving fine tuning of dating, ordering of sub-types, the comparative output of different mints, etc.

Perhaps of greater importance in the context of ScARF is what may be described as 'applied numismatics', i.e. ways in which numismatic study may assist archaeology in general, beyond the traditional function of providing dates for contexts on a site. (Even this must be approached with caution when only one or two coins are found in a particular deposit.)

The evidence of coin finds can in theory provide information about both individual sites and wider geographical areas, but in Scotland so far there have been limits determined by the size and nature of numismatic assemblages. Very few mediaeval excavations in Scotland have produced enough finds to allow conclusions to be drawn about which areas of the site may have been more associated with the use of coinage. (This has occasionally been possible, as at Linlithgow Friary, where a concentration of low-value coins of the 15th century was found in one particular area of the site.) Where large numbers of coins have been found within well-defined areas. this has almost invariably been the result of metal-detecting, and even when the detectorists have kept detailed records of the location of individual finds, it has not been possible to link these with any underlying structural remains. Spreads of coin finds in fields outside burghs/settlements may result from no more than the deposition of night soil, and in the absence of other forms of evidence for the location of mediaeval fairs outside settlements, coin assemblages on their own can not provide this. As already stated, on a national level the pattern of finds reflects largely areas where detecting has been most concentrated, but it is clear that the use of coins was widespread across Scotland, including on at least some of the islands, from the late 12th century onwards (see Holmes 2004).

If numismatics is to make a significant contribution to archaeology in Scotland in future, beyond simply providing tpqs for soil deposits on individual sites, it must involve participation in one or more large-scale projects yielding evidence from structural remains, coins and other types of finds. Excavations of this nature seem unlikely to materialise in the near future, given financial constraints, but they should remain an eventual aim. In the shorter term, there could be some benefit in combining the study of large detected coin assemblages with other types of finds from the same locations. Assemblages from areas outside, for instance, Crail and Dornoch could be the subject of such studies.

That's really useful. Would you recommend any good studies (possibly from other countries?) where coins have been well integrated/interpreted from those types of large scale projects?

It might also be useful to add in a few references of work exploring the role of coinage in Medieval society more generally - what could Scottish evidence contribute to wider studies/understandings of the use of currency in the Medieval period?


I'm afraid I can't offhand suggest any examples of successful site/numismatic studies, although I know these are seen as the way forward in continental Europe. The first volume of a projected new journal - The Journal of Archaeological Numismatics - was published earlier this year in Brussels, and the introduction by Jean-Marc Doyen and the paper by Richard Reece set out how archaeology and numismatics can best be combined. The other papers are very much Roman-orientated in this first issue, but no doubt studies relating to the mediaeval period will appear in future. (Possibly someone who is currently working in mediaeval archaeology in Scotland and who keeps up-to-date with archaeological publications may already know of continental sites where numismatic evidence has been successfully intergrated with that of structural remains and other finds.)

As for the role of coinage in mediaeval society - I'll need to have a hunt for relevant publications. I'll suggest some if I find them!

Many thanks - any ideas for references much appreciated!


This book is worth quoting for discussion of the role of coins in society:


Medieval Money Matters, ed. Diana Wood, Oxbow, Oxford, 2004. 5 papers, by J.L. Bolton ('What is Money? What is a money economy? When did a money economy emerge in medieval England?'), R. Britnell ('Uses of money in medieval Britain'), M. Allen ('The English currency and the commercialization of England before the Black Death'), P. Nightingale ('Money and credit in the economy of late medieval England'), N.J Mayhew ('Coinage and money in England, 1086-c.1500').