Knobbed Spearbutts of the British and Irish Iron Age: New Examples and New Thoughts. (News & Notes)

By Heald, Andrew | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Knobbed Spearbutts of the British and Irish Iron Age: New Examples and New Thoughts. (News & Notes)


Heald, Andrew, Antiquity


Introduction

Knobbed spearbutts have an important place in British and Irish Iron Age archaeology. They are seen as being part of the second largest category of La Tene finds in Ireland (Mallory 1992, 138; Raftery 1982, 75) and the most extensive indication of interaction between Ireland and Scotland in the opening centuries AD (Raftery forthcoming). Two decades ago two sub-types were recognized, Lisnacrogher and Doorknob spearbutts. Although many are stray finds there is a general consensus, based largely on the numerical preponderance of the type in Ireland, that both types originated and developed in Ireland. Recent discoveries of other Irish examples seem to support this claim (Ramsey et al. 1992; Bourke & Crone 1993; Raftery 1998). Similarly, vague though their chronology is, they are believed to date to the few centuries either side of the birth of Christ (see Raftery 1982; 1998 for overview).

This note highlights new finds and aspects of on-going research which question these conventional understandings. In the last few years many doorknob spearbutts have been found in England. Further, a significant number of moulds used in the manufacture of doorknob spearbutts have been found in Scotland. As well as broadening the distribution markedly, artefactual associations and radiocarbon dates suggest that doorknob spearbutts were made and used three centuries later than previously thought. The result is that we can no longer view doorknob spearbutts as a distinctly Irish object developed around the turn of the century AD. We must also reassess our interpretations of the cultural significance attached to these objects. Indeed, doorknob spearbutts may actually provide one of the few insights into contacts between Ireland, Scotland and England during the middle centuries of the 1st millennium AD.

Non-ferrous metalworking at Loch na Beirgh, Lewis

Excavations at the complex Atlantic roundhouse at Loch na Beirgh, Lewis produced evidence for non-ferrous metalworking in the form of crucibles and moulds recovered from two cellular structures, cells 7 & 8, built in the broch interior. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the debris was deposited sometime between the mid 3rd and 5th centuries AD (Harding & Gilmour 2000: 62-3, table 2). This fits with our understandings of the date of cellular structures, argued to be current during the mid 1st millennium AD (Armit 1992: 73-87; 1996: 159-86; Gilmour 2000: 161-7). Although hearths were found no specific metalworking area was recovered. The existence of joins between mould fragments found in different cells indicates that the deposits were broadly contemporary.

Seventeen crucible fragments were recovered: all diagnostic pieces are of the triangular type common in Iron Age Scotland (Lane 1987: 557). X-ray fluorescence indicates that all were used for melting copper alloys, typically with lead, zinc and tin. One crucible was also used for working silver. Associated with the crucibles were 33 fragments of two-piece moulds which illustrate that doorknob spearbutts and handpins were manufactured (FIGURE 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The Beirgh doorknob spearbutt moulds are some of the few recovered from modern excavations. As noted, despite the dearth of contextual and chronological information a floruit around the first few centuries AD has been suggested for the type (Raftery 1982: 83-5).

Handpins are found throughout Ireland, Scotland and western England (Stevenson 1955; Laing 1975: 322-3; Youngs 1989: 22). The Beirgh mould fragment originally had five fingers and an undecorated and unpierced semi-circular palm. This is unusual as undecorated pins are rare, particularly in copper alloy, although there is an example from Moresby, Cumbria (Kilbride-Jones 1980: figure 68, 5; Laing 1993: 77). Few handpins have been recovered from stratified contexts and art-historical interpretation places them in the 5th to 7th centuries AD. …

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