Artefacts and the Iron Age of Atlantic Scotland: Past, Present and Future

Article excerpt


This paper is concerned with the Iron Age of Atlantic Scotland, a period running from approximately 600 BC until the onset of Viking colonization and influence around AD 800. The definition of Atlantic Scotland for the purposes of this paper is taken to include the north and west of Scotland and its coastline and archipelagos including Shetland, Orkney and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. This area is also defined by the distribution of a particular kind of drystone monumental architecture, variously termed brochs, duns or more recently Atlantic roundhouses (Armit & Ralston 1997: 183-7). These structures are often well preserved, in the case of some standing as towers 10 m in height, and are thus highly visible in the landscape. In Orkney and Shetland brochs and other Iron Age houses often form only one part of a large and complex settlement mound, with both earlier and later settlement and activity dating over millennia on the same site, as at Howe and Pool (Ballin Smith 1994; Hunter et al. 1993). This type of monument is in extreme contrast with the archaeology of lowland Scotland, of the south and east of the country, where timber was used for building rather than stone, and intensive agricultural activity has reduced most sites to cropmarks. Here acid soils and physical damage from ploughing conspire to ensure that preservation of artefacts and environmental remains is generally poor. The enormous impact of 2000-year-old structures still standing to two storeys and more cannot be overemphasized and has led to an obsession with the minute details of the architecture and its classification. The dominance of architectural sequences and details in discussions of the Iron Age of Atlantic Scotland has not been healthy for the discipline of archaeology in this area, and has meant that material assemblages tend to be overshadowed. There is also a general perception, voiced at recent seminars and conferences, that the study of artefacts is failing to make progress, and has not kept pace with other developments in Scottish Iron Age studies. While there is nothing archaeologists enjoy more than detailed and lengthy critical analysis of the work of others, the purpose of this paper is not to lay blame at any particular door, nor is the author in any position to cast the first stone herself. The purpose of this paper is to review our performance in excavating, publishing and discussing artefacts, and to look forward and examine where we can take artefact studies in the future. Some of the points relating to the supply, training and survival of artefact specialists which this author had intended to make, and has made in the past to meetings of the 1st Millennia Study Group and the Scottish Museum Archaeologists, are expressed much more coherently in the recently published British Iron Age research agenda (Haselgrove et al. 2001: 17), and will therefore not be rehearsed again in detail here.

Past (1800-1945)

For antiquarians, particularly in the early to mid 19th century, standing drystone structures such as brochs and duns formed an irresistible temptation. Their very form, with well-defined wails and cells, made it easy for the structures to be quickly emptied of `rubbish', often without too much tedious supervision of labourers, who could be safely left to reveal the hard features. The gradual emergence of a broch from the surrounding flimsy structures and remains, and the inspection of the interior once freed of rubbish, would have provided some entertainment over the summer period and a satisfying return on a moderate outlay for a gentleman estate owner and his friends. The quality of these excavations varied enormously, and some were far more advanced in their techniques than others. The treatment of artefacts varied accordingly, with some assemblages disappearing altogether, and others being passed on to museums relatively intact. Hedges (1987b: 130-52) has written a short history of broch studies in Orkney which provides a useful insight into antiquarianism in Orkney, beginning in the 1840s when the Broch of Burgar Pictish silver treasure was allegedly thrown into the sea `lest the Crown claim it' (see Saville, this volume). …