The Radiocarbon Dating Programmes of the National Museums of Scotland

By Sheridan, Alison | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Radiocarbon Dating Programmes of the National Museums of Scotland


Sheridan, Alison, Antiquity


Since 1991, the Archaeology Department of the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) has been undertaking programmes of AMS radiocarbon dating of organic items in its collections, particularly wetland finds. This work was initially stimulated by the success of Caroline Earwood's research on dating bog butter containers and other wooden vessels from the National collections (Earwood 1990; 1993a; 1993b; 1997), which demonstrated among other things that the practice of bog butter deposition in Scotland extended at least as far back as the early centuries AD.

Preparations for the Museum of Scotland (which opened in 1998) involved the commissioning of numerous dates for our display items; and since then, the project has continued and diversified, latterly with the assistance of sponsorship from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SAS). The latest development has been the initiation of a nationwide programme of dating cremated human bone, taking advantage of the recently developed technique at the University of Groningen (Aerts et al. 2001; Lanting & Brindley 1998; Lanting et al. in press). For this programme, part-funding by SAS has allowed us to date bones from non-NMS collections as well as NMS specimens. In addition to these NMS-initiated programmes, there have been other dating projects featuring NMS material, such as Tolan-Smith and Bonsall's NERC-sponsored Bone Artefact Dating Programme, targeting Mesolithic artefacts from the collections (Bonsall et al. 1995).

To date, over 100 items have been dated, and the NMS programmes are planned to continue, funding permitting. Most of the artefactual dates have been obtained from the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and the University of Groningen, with others arranged through the Scottish Universities Research & Reactor Centre, the Queen's University of Belfast and Beta-Analytic.

As shown in TABLE 1, the artefactual material ranges from a fragment of birch-bark coffin cover from an Early Bronze Age log-coffin, found near Oban, to a Late Iron Age woven woollen child's hood from Orkney; and from an Early Historic horizontal mill-wheel paddle from Bankhead Farm to a Neolithic pit-fall trap from Mye Plantation. Among the themed suites of dates have been prehistoric handles, hafts and shafts (e.g. a Bronze Age side-looped spearhead shaft from Arnicle Farm; cf. Needham et al. 1997 on a similar programme), and containers and other hollowed wooden objects--including several unfinished carved bowls, which had probably been deposited in wetlands to keep the wood soft for carving (e.g. a bowl from Airds). The programme has produced interesting results, not least a series of dates for the earliest bow, wheel and ox yoke in Britain and Ireland (from Rotten Bottom, Blair Drummond and Loch Nell respectively). It has also been possible, not only through the artefactual dating programme but also through the Dating Cremated Bones programme, to shed important new light on Early and Middle Bronze Age developments. For example, a date from a wooden core of a tubular bronze bead from the hoard at Migdale helps us to date the `Migdale' metalworking phase; while various dates inform our understanding of so-called `Wessex I' and `Wessex II' artifacts--especially important given the paucity of relevant dates from the south of England. These include a date, just received, relating to the `Wessex I'-style gold discs from Barnhill. Similarly, several dates obtained from faience-associated cremations--in connection with another current NMS project on faience in northwest Europe--allow us to place the period of its use within the range c. 1875-c. 1500/1450 BC. (These complement dates obtained for Irish faience-related bones by Lanting and Brindley.) If any proof were needed of the fallacy of traditional ideas about the importation of faience from Egypt around 1400-1300 BC, it is offered by these determinations.

As regards the Dating Cremated Bones programme, this has been targeting particular types of Bronze Age urn and specific artefactual associations, and the scheme will continue and diversify to include late Bronze Age and Neolithic cremations. …

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