Ritual and Remembrance at a Prehistoric Ceremonial Complex in Central Scotland: Excavations at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross

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The Perthshire village of Forteviot in central Scotland has been cited since the seventeenth century as the location of a ninth-eleventh century AD royal palace and a fine collection of Pictish carved stones and crosses (Alcock & Alcock 1992; Aitchison 2006). However, it took aerial archaeology to reveal the deeper, prehistoric significance of this place to the extent that, although 3000 years apart, the early medieval and Late Neolithic can now be regarded as representing two periods when the area flourished as a centre of power, perhaps both sacred and secular. Forteviot lies on a prominent routeway across the Scottish peninsula, connecting the Firth of Tay with the Western Isles. Its prehistoric role may thus be evaluated in the light of the later role of the valley in confronting the historic Scots and Picts (Figure 1). Its prehistoric character has now been defined in more detail by the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project (Driscoll et al. 2010), which has revealed it as one of the most intensively developed prehistoric ceremonial landscapes in Britain. Discoveries include a later Neolithic cremation cemetery, a series of earth and timber monuments and a spectacular Bronze Age burial (Figure 2).



Discovery and investigation

Monuments were first identified from the air as cropmarks just to the south of the village of Forteviot in 1970 (St Joseph 1976) (Figure 3). The largest was a massive palisaded enclosure of later Neolithic type (2800-2500 cal BC) some 265m across and enclosing an area approximately 6ha in size (Gibson 2002: 18; Noble & Brophy 2011) (Figure 2). Cropmark evidence also indicated an earth henge monument within the palisaded enclosure, surrounded by a timber circle some 45m in diameter (Figure 2, centre left). Outside the palisaded enclosure lay another possible henge with two entrances and a circular ditched feature that may be a barrow or a reworked henge, and another enclosure containing a possible post-built roundhouse (Figure 2, top). All of these monuments, with the exception of the later prehistoric settlement enclosure, are likely to date to the third millennium cal BC. Reconnaissance since the 1970s has confirmed the scale and form of this complex, and also revealed the cropmarks of an early medieval cemetery in the vicinity (Alcock & Alcock 1992; Driscoll et al. 2010). As part of the SERF project, we carried out excavations in 2007-2009 on two elements of the Forteviot prehistoric cropmark complex: the palisaded enclosure entrance avenue and the timber circle or henge within this enclosure (for interim accounts see Noble & Brophy 2008, 2009; Brophy & Noble 2010).


Cremation cemetery

Amongst the earliest activity was a series of cremation deposits, part of an extensive and unusual cremation cemetery dating to the start of the third millennium cal BC: 3090-2638 cal BC (Figure 4) (Tables 1 & 2). These were found in the western half of the henge monument within the palisaded enclosure, although they pre-dated the henge by at least three centuries. Nine discrete cremation deposits were excavated in 2009 and extensive spreads of more dispersed cremated material was found within silty spreads across the henge interior. The particular disposition of these burials suggests they had originally been placed within flat-based wooden vessels. The cremated material includes the remains of adults and young children as well as small amounts of animal bone; some deposits may have represented at least two individuals (Arabaolaza 2010).

The area in which the burials were found has only been sampled to date but based on this sample it is likely that many more burials are present. The excavated cremations tended to be associated with cut features, from shallow scoops with single deposits to a large round pit some 1. …