The 'Obanian Iron Age': Human Remains from the Oban Cave Sites, Argyll, Scotland

By Saville, Alan; Hallen, Ywonne | Antiquity, December 1994 | Go to article overview
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The 'Obanian Iron Age': Human Remains from the Oban Cave Sites, Argyll, Scotland


Saville, Alan, Hallen, Ywonne, Antiquity


While the caves round Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, are famous for their Mesolithic artefacts, they have also produced Bronze Age finds and numerous burials. Radiocarbon dates on human bones from one cave show these to be Iron Age, suggesting the Obanian assemblages are composites accumulated over millennia.

Background

Among the best-known early prehistoric sites in Scotland are the caves and rock-shelters of Oban, Argyll (FIGURE 1). Distinctive Mesolithic artefact assemblages were recovered at the end of the 19th century (Anderson 1895; 1898; Turner 1895), when the urban expansion of Oban led to the discovery, cursory exploration and, usually, destruction of these sites (Lacaille 1954; RCAHMS 1975). The Mesolithic artefacts have been much discussed, both before and since the term 'Obanian' was coined by Movius (1940: 76; 1942: 180), as evident from the recent overviews by Mellars (1987), Pollard (1990) and Woodman (1989).

Four Mesolithic artefacts from Oban have direct age determinations (Bonsall & Smith 1990; Hedges et al. 1993; Smith & Bonsall 1991): a uniserially barbed bone point from Druimvargie rock-shelter (OXA-1948: 7810 [+ or -] 90 b.p.); a biserially barbed antler point from MacArthur Cave (OXA-1949: 6700 [+ or -] 80 b.p.); and two bevel-ended tools from Carding Mill Bay I, one of antler (OXA-3740: 5190 [+ or -] 85 b.p.), the other of bone (OXA-3739: 4765 [+ or -] 65 bp). Falling within this wide age-range are the determinations for a carbonized hazelnut shell from an open-air Mesolithic site at Lon Mor (AA-8793: 7385 [+ or -]60 b.p.; Boneall et al. 1993) and for charcoal (GU-2796: 5060 [+ or -] 50 b.p.; GU-2797: 4980 [+ or -] 50 b.p.) and marine shell (GU-2898: 5410 [+ or -] 60 b.p.; GU-2899: 5440 [+ or -] 50 b.p.) from Carding Mill Bay I (Conneck et al. 1992).

That many of the Oban caves and shelters saw human use at various periods subsequent to the Mesolithic has never really been in doubt, and would be entirely typical of cave occupation in Scotland (Leitch 1987; Martin 1984: 122-7) and elsewhere in Britain (Branigan & Dearne 1992), with the difference that the sealing of the Oban sites beneath talus precluded their modern use, apparently from at least the early historic period until their rediscovery in the 19th century.

A wall sherd and a rim fragment of undecorated prehistoric pottery from the Gas Works Cave (Turner 1985: 417) were described by Henshall (1983: 20) as probably from Bronze Age cinerary urns, and the rim is almost certainly from a cordoned urn (T.G. Cowie pers. comm.). The Carding Mill Bay I site has produced a fragmentary Bronze Age food vessel, possibly in direct association with human burials (Connock et al. 1992).

Direct radiocarbon assay of the antler spatula from Distillery Cave (Turner 1895: 420), which always had an equivocal place in the Obanian toolkit, has shown it to be Early Bronze Age (OXA-4509: 3780 [+ or -] 60 b.p.; full publication forthcoming) and thereby comparable to other bone and antler spatulae from Beaker funerary contexts (Clarke 1970: 203).

The circumstances of the discovery and recording of human remains from Distillery, Gas Works, MacArthur and Mackay caves (Turner 1895) were such that little can be said concerning their context, mode of deposition, or their relationship, if any, to the artefacts from the same sites. There is no prima facie reason for dismissing the possibility of Mesolithic burials, but equally no reason to discount the coincidental occurrence of later burials overlying Mesolithic deposits, as at Carding Mill Bay I (Connock et al. 1992: 30), or of later burials intrusive within Mesolithic horizons.

Recent work at Mesolithic cave and shelter sites at Oban has confirmed the recurrent association of human burials: over 20 individuals are reported from Raschoille Cave (Connock 1985: 5); at least five from Carding Mill Bay I (Connock et al. 1992: 29); and further human remains have come from Carding Mill Bay II (Bonsall pers.

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