Searching for the Long Iron Age
16 Dec 2011
Excavations at Clarkly Hill, Burghead, Moray 2011 by Dr Fraser Hunter, National Museums Scotland
Thanks to funding from the Antiquaries and other sources, two weeks of digging have cast new light on the development of Iron Age societies on the Moray coastal plain. Clarkly Hill is part of a prominent ridge close to the famous Pictish fort of Burghead. Metal-detecting over several years has produced a wide range of finds, including a cluster of later prehistoric and Roman items from a terrace overlooking the now-drained loch of Roseisle. This includes a piece of late Bronze Age "ring money", while Iron Age and Roman finds include brooches, pieces of horse harness, and a scatter of Roman silver coins (denarii) from a dispersed hoard, the latest coins dating to the 190s AD. Aerial photography records a wealth of later prehistoric settlements in the area, while geophysical survey of the terrace by Dr Tessa Poller (Glasgow University) revealed the typical traces of later prehistoric roundhouses.
The overall aim of the project was to compare and contrast the site with the results of our long-running excavations at Birnie, some 12 km away. Was Clarkly Hill a comparable site, and what can this tell us about the frequency and nature of these apparent power centres on the Moray littoral? It also provided a further chance to investigate the setting of a denarius hoard, and help to put these rare finds into context. There is also the intriguing prospect that Clarkly Hill's proximity to the Pictish centre at Burghead means it has a different post-Iron Age history from Birnie, and can cast light on developments into the Pictish period. Three trenches were excavated this season to investigate the setting of the hoard, to confirm that the circular structures were indeed roundhouses, and to investigate a highly magnetic linear anomaly on the northern edge of the site.
Work around the coin hoard showed that it had been scattered in antiquity. A post-medieval sand-blown layer sealed an old plough-soil which contained the coins. This soil also covered a series of stone features: a slab-built floor with remains of a hearth, and a U-shaped setting which probably represents one end of a building. Radiocarbon dates will be needed, but it is likely that these are late Iron Age or Pictish buildings, with no substantial earthfast foundations. They overlay deposits and features which produced Iron Age finds. The sequence is a complex one, and more time is needed to disentangle the setting of the hoard.
These stone-founded buildings are probably part of a larger settlement. A similar but more substantial building overlay a much earlier roundhouse in the second trench. Here a rectangular stone platform, 5.6 x 4.4 m, was surrounded by an extensive cobbled yard surface. No finds were recovered to give a clue of date or function, but a cup-marked stone had been reused in one of a pair of post-settings on one edge.
This later building overlay a large Iron Age ring-ditch roundhouse about 12.5 m in diameter. The earliest levels were only sampled, as there was a complex sequence of later activity. It seems that the old house stance became a focus of activity, with standing stones erected around its edges, and some small cist-like structures inserted in it. An unusual series of artefacts suggest deliberate deposits: two stone lamps, one placed on top of a whetstone, and a dagger buried in its sheath. It suggests the old house site may have been reused for ritual purposes; we hope to return to find out more.
On the northern edge of the site, geophysical survey had revealed a major magnetic anomaly (c. 20 x 10 m). A trench across this exposed charcoal-rich soils full of iron-smelting slag. In the small area excavated, there were also two or three large stone-built hearths and a clay spread suggesting an industrial feature. Other finds included crucible fragments from non-ferrous metalworking. It seems this is a dedicated industrial area for the smelting of iron and the casting of copper alloys; finds suggest an Iron Age date, but radiocarbon dates are needed.
Metal-detecting revealed a range of pre-Medieval finds, notably a Romano-British trumpet brooch, a range of Iron Age metalwork including a massive-style finger ring, a double-headed trumpet mount, the loop of a button-and-loop fastener, and an iron reaping hook.
The 2011 work showed that Clarkly Hill was a major later prehistoric and early historic site. Survival is excellent, a consequence of post-medieval sand-blows sealing the remains and subsequent deep topsoil development. There are at least two major phases, a later prehistoric roundhouse settlement (probably with associated craft activities) and a later settlement of stone buildings lacking earthfast foundations. The dating of these later buildings remains uncertain at present, but they are sealed by the ancient ploughsoil which is in turn sealed by the post-Medieval wind-blown sand layer; thus they are medieval at earliest, and may in fact date to the later first millennium AD.
The good survival has also allowed a glimpse of a complex post-occupation sequence of the roundhouse; there are indications of unusual activities, such as the erection of orthostats, which point to some monumentalisation of the site. Such activity has only been seen in fragmentary form on other sites, and merits detailed examination.
The large magnetic anomaly is an industrial zone on the edge of the settlement, most likely of Iron Age date. Finds indicate both iron smelting and bronze casting, and this seems to be a dedicated industrial area, of considerable potential.
The work to date has confirmed initial suspicions that this is a significant Iron Age site, analogous to Birnie but with notable differences as well. A second season of fieldwork is planned to try to obtain more detail of the site sequence.
Funding came from the Society, the National Museums Scotland, the late Ian Keillar and the Moray Field Club, with considerable support in kind from an enthusiastic volunteer workforce. I am grateful to Rod Pimm of Hopeman Christmas Trees for his enthusiastic support in enabling the project.