Case Study: Kintore, Aberdeenshire: shining light into a black hole

The later prehistoric and early medieval settlement record of Aberdeenshire has until recently been poorly understood. The Aberdeenshire Iron Age has been described as a black hole (Haselgrove et al 2001, 25) and portrayed as a blank (Cunliffe 2005, 599; Bradley 2007, 287); the Early Medieval Period dismissed as lacking in centralized authority (Alcock 2000, 8; RCAHMS 2007, 116; Fraser 2009, 66). In large this part is connected with an absence of any tradition of excavation (Ralston et al 1983, 149). The settlement record was usually characterized as unenclosed (Macinnes 1982), despite the presence of a discrete cluster of hillforts mapped since the late 19th century (Christison 1898, pull out map; Feachem 1966; Harding 1976, 361-2; Ralston et al 1983; Armit & Ralston (2003, 181. It was put into a six-fold classification by RCAHMS (2007, 100-1); none of the hillforts had been excavated, and they were routinely considered to be Iron Age (Armit & Ralston 2003, 172).

This situation dramatically changed between 1996 and 2006 when a series of mitigation excavations covering 50ha were undertaken around Kintore (Rees 1996; Glendinning 1998; Alexander 2000; Cook & Dunbar 2008; Cook et al forthcoming). These excavations identified an unenclosed settlement sequence running from 1800 BC to AD 1000, including 47 unenclosed roundhouses. Further rescue work in Kintore's immediate environs identified a further nineteen roundhouses (Johnson 2004; Murray & Murray 2006; Roy 2006; White & Richardson 2010; Cook et al 2011; Cook et al forthcoming), bringing the total to 64. This is the largest discrete assemblage of roundhouses ever excavated in Scotland (Pope 2003).

In order to integrate the unenclosed sequence with that of the hillforts the author proposed to excavate one example from each of the RCAHMS scheme; this took place between 2005 and 2010 (Cook 2010a; Cook 2010b; Cook 2011; Cook in press a; Cook in press b). This exercise indicated that of the roughly twenty hillforts in Donside, seven dated to the Middle Iron Age and nine to the early medieval period, with the balance dating to either the Late Bronze Age or the Early Iron Age. A summary of the integrated settlement sequence (Cook forthcoming) is as follows:

Middle Bronze Age (1800-1300 BC): no hillforts. Isolated roundhouses with a variety of entrance orientations, all with pits and ring-ditches in their interiors. The ring-ditch was located within the post-ring in the northern half of the site. At the end of a structure's use, there is evidence for both ritual enrichment and destruction by fire.

Late Bronze Age (1300-800 BC): large scale enclosures with slight defences (Hill of New Leslie, Tap o'Noth outer enclosure). Isolated unenclosed roundhouses with entrances tending to be focused on the south; more pits dug within the structure than in the MBA. Ring-ditches are still located within the ring-ditch in the northern half of the structure. There is still evidence for ritual enrichment and destruction by fire.

Early Iron Age (800-400 BC): hillforts with multiple entrances (Hill of Barra and Barmekin of Echt outer enclosures). Roundhouses are still isolated, entrances tend to focus on the south. Fewer pits dug in the interior; ring-ditch now located outside the post-ring in the northern half. There is no evidence of ritual enrichment, although there is still destruction by fire.

Middle Iron Age (400-50 BC): a variety of hillforts and enclosures (Hill of Barra, Barmekin of Echt outer enclosures; Bruce's Camp, Tillymuick, Dunnideer outer enclosure; Dunnideer and Tap o'Noth inner enclosures, Wester Fintray and Suttie cropmark enclosures), some with multiple entrances, some with none; some appear to contain nucleated settlement. This suggests an active role in warfare, conspicuous consumption and social competition. No hillforts are constructed de novo after c 250-200 BC. Roundhouses become clustered, with ring-ditches outside the post-ring; few pits dug within the interior and no ritual enrichment, although destruction by fire still occurs. There is also an increase in pits dug outside roundhouses, coinciding with a wider trend for the deposition of high status metalwork in pits (Hunter 1997; 2001; 2010)

Late Iron Age a (50 BC to AD 250): no hillforts or enclosures. Roundhouses are isolated, and while souterains are known none at present are associated with roundhouses in Donside. Few pits are dug in roundhouses; ring-ditches still in the north of houses, which are still destroyed by fire.

Late Iron Age b (AD 250 to AD 400): potential evidence for hillforts (Hill of Barra refortification) from the end of this period but no evidence for unenclosed settlement, merely a series of pits and ovens. This break in settlement appears to coincide with a drop in Roman imports in the North-East (Hunter 2007, 49).

Early Medieval a (AD 400-650): no evidence for unenclosed structures in this period, but a series of forts suggest an active role in warfare, conspicuous consumption and social competition (Hill of Barra refortification, Maiden Castle and Cairnmore).

Early Medieval b (AD 650-1000): no de novo hillforts are constructed. Unenclosed settlement returns and is associated with underground storage and corn-drying kilns.


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