4.4 Making and using

This section focuses on use of the landscape as a resource for raw materials other than food (considered above). Thus its main focus is on the procurement, manufacture and aspects of the use of material culture. The overview provided in Haselgrove et al. (2001 14-22) remains a valid general treatment of the theme, while Hunter et al. (2006) provide a recent review of archaeometallurgy in Scotland. This section seeks to avoid mere repetition of the conclusions in these works, but will focus on key opportunities and issues in the Scottish material. As with the ‘field to feast’ approach for food resources, these other materials benefit from a life-cycle approach, considering their sourcing, manufacture, various uses and deposition.

Obtaining resources

A potential abundance of resources was available to the inhabitants of Iron Age Scotland, but these varied in their occurrence. Some, such as bone and hide, were universally available as byproducts of butchery, and the raw materials for everyday textile manufacture were likewise readily available from animal husbandry or by gathering plant resources. Stone for everyday tools was generally abundant, although particular stone types were regionally restricted (see below). Clay is widely accessible, so the rarity of ceramics in much of lowland Scotland is not due to a lack of raw material. Wood was common over most of the country, but scarce in the Northern and Western Isles, leading to its substitution by materials such as bone; this provides valuable insights through skeuomorphs of wooden objects (Clarke 1970).

Broad patterns of regional variation in resources are reflected in the predominant building materials in different areas, with roundhouses predominantly of timber in the south and east, and stone in the north and west. This bald statement conceals considerable variety; not only are there plentiful exceptions to these patterns, but timber would have been needed in all areas for roofing materials. Study of more recent vernacular architecture and consideration of a range of alternative roofing systems shows how timber resources could have been put to maximum use in areas of scarcity (Romankiewicz 2011, 131-141, 165-180), and there has been discussion of the use of driftwood as a resource, more commonly available in the Iron Age than today (e.g. Scott 1951; Church 2002, 67-75; Armit & Ralston 2003b, 50; Fojut 2005b). It is likely that timber was a carefully managed resource, especially given the evidence for its extensive clearance in lowland Scotland in the later Iron Age (Tipping 1997; Armit & Ralston 2003b, 50), and study of charcoal from house sites ought to provide insights into this in favourable circumstances (e.g. Barber 1997; Taylor 1999; Crone 1998; Church 2002, 72; Miller 2002). The other key but undervalued building resource was turf, well-attested in the vernacular tradition but often overlooked in studies of excavated house (Loveday 2006). The practicalities of turf construction, mechanically and in terms of resource use, turf quality and impact on grazing land, merit further work.

Other natural resources were more restricted or took more effort to obtain. Fairnell and Barrett (2007) have reviewed the limited evidence for the hunting of fur-bearing species. The gathering of shed antler (which seems to have been more common than hunting the deer) also required effort at particular times of year and knowledge of the animals’ movement (see above). Other resources are more restricted in their natural occurrence, especially certain stone types: notable examples are steatite (used for vessels and ornaments), and a range of black, shiny organic-rich stones such as cannel coal, oil shale and lignite which were used for ornaments. Their restricted availability led to regionally distinctive patterns of supply and use (Forster 2009; Hunter forthcoming a).

Iron is often said to be widely available owing to the extensive distribution of bog ore (Tylecote 1986, 125). It is certainly more common than metals such as copper, but there has not been any systematic work on the availability of bog ore, and the relative rarity of iron for much of the Iron Age might suggest it was less accessible than might appear (see New Technologies below). For other metals, there is increasing circumstantial evidence for exploitation of Scottish copper sources, notably the ingots found at Edin’s Hall (Scottish Borders), but this remains an area ripe for further study (Hunter et al 2006); the same problem remains in the Bronze Age. Proxy records such as pollution signatures from smelting or evidence of woodland management for charcoal from pollen records have considerable potential in approaching this problem (eg Mighall & Chambers 1997; Mighall et al 2009). The distribution and typology of gold ribbon torcs, now recognised as an Iron Age type (Warner 1993, 2003), suggests these may have been made in Scotland, but (again as in the Bronze Age) there is no clear understanding of how far Scottish gold sources were used at this time. Alloying elements (for copper alloys notably tin, but also zinc) were not apparently available locally, and imply broader contacts; the zinc represents the remelting of Roman objects (Dungworth 1996), and this is a useful reminder that recycling and reuse rather than primary manufacture was a key source of metals.

Henderson (1989) suggested that glass may have been made in Scotland, but this seems increasingly unlikely. Recent work on beads from north-east Scotland and on the manufacturing debris from Culduthel (Inverness) strongly indicates a reliance on imported ingots or recycled Mediterranean glass (Bertini et al 2011; Davis and Freestone forthcoming). However, the distribution of typologically-distinctive forms of glass bead and bangle indicates that glass was worked in Scotland (see below).

As the example of glass analysis shows, scientific work can be very valuable in developing pictures of resource supply. Some staples of procurement studies show little sign of complexity in a Scottish context. There is no evidence of salt production and distribution to date, although Iron Age briquetage from salt processing has recently been found at Berwick on Tweed (T Cowie, pers comm.). Petrological work to date indicates overwhelming use of local clays for pottery (eg MacSween 1990; Topping 1986, 1987) although there are examples of more distant sources being preferred; for instance, at Lairg talc for temper came from c. 30 km away, while potters at Tofts Ness on Sanday used dolerite from other islands (MacSween and Dixon 1998, 142-4; MacSween 2007, 277). In southern Britain, preferred rock sources for querns are found at relatively small exposures with extensive regional distributions such as Yorkshire Millstone Grits or Sussex Greensands (Heslop 2008, 28-42; Peacock 1987; see also Moore 2006, 183-90), but the prevailing hard rock geology in most of Scotland meant that stone fit for querns was readily available. However, the possibility of more localised distribution systems remains to be explored (McLaren and Hunter 2008, 106-7), and there are examples of quite large-scale quern quarries on the west coast which are undated (Mainland 2012).

There is considerable potential in using excavated data to study the use of the local landscape, and the procurement systems involved, although this is rarely done. There is also scope for consideration of how access to desirable sources of raw material was negotiated or controlled.


A wealth of evidence is available to study craft processes, especially for particular raw materials – iron (via slag), copper alloy (from moulds and crucibles), bone/antler and shale/cannel coal have particularly good evidence. Most have seen site-specific discussions but little broader synthesis. An exception is the evidence for non-ferrous metalworking, which has been addressed in a couple of PhD studies, as yet unpublished (Heald 2005; Sahlén 2011). These emphasise considerable regional and chronological variety in the evidence, apparently reflecting differences in the organisation of production. Following anthropological parallels (eg Budd and Taylor 1995), Heald (ibid) has stressed the role of the smith and the significance of the act of creation/fabrication as well as that of the product itself, while Sahlén considers the development of technological practices; the evidence is capable of multiple readings, and as more data become available (for instance, from recently-excavated workshop sites at Culduthel and Mine Howe) there is considerable scope for more research. The production of iron has seen much less study, with McDonnell’s work in the Northern Isles a rare exception (e.g.  McDonnell 1998, McDonnell and Dockrill 2005); he stresses the social significance of control over iron production and manufacture, as a key raw material of the period. Recent excavations have greatly expanded the amount of data available from mainland Scotland; for instance, analysis of the iron-working debris from Culduthel (Inverness) has shown the advanced skills of the smiths, who were producing steel (Dungworth & McLaren forthcoming), while appraisal of published Western Isles assemblages has noted a dominance of smithing rather than smelting evidence, raising questions about the source of raw material (McLaren forthcoming). There is great potential for synthetic study of the nature of iron-smelting and smithing; a current PhD project should provide initial models for further testing (Cruickshanks in prep).

A photograph of four clay vessel sherds

Crucibles from Culduthel, Inverness © Headland Archaeology Ltd and NMS

Despite this wealth of evidence, broad overviews of production have been rather dismissive of Scottish evidence, characterised with a broad brush as “domestic” (Morris 1994, 1996). This downplays the regional variety and the considerable variation encompassed in the “domestic” label (see Hunter forthcoming a). Some crafts could have been carried out readily by all or most people, but the inevitable variety in individual skill levels probably led to some degree of specialisation, at least for more complex objects – for instance, everyone may be able to make a bone point, but a long-handled comb required more precision and access to a saw. Crafts involving control of pyrotechnology – potting, metal- and glass-working – are likely to have been more specialist, but the nature and social implications of any such specialisation are not clear. The nature of craft processes and development and transfer of skills are key questions. There are very few examples of dedicated workshop areas, suggesting that most crafts were practised as occasional elements within a broader routine. The publication of recently excavated workshop sites (notably Mine Howe and Culduthel) should shed considerable light on manufacturing practice and process and enable debate on the nature of these unusual specialised sites.

Occurrence and use

Studies have tended to focus on the glamorous rather than the mundane objects, although the latter are more representative of daily life and have much to reveal, Yet the function of many items remains surprisingly obscure. This is particularly true of many bone/antler objects and coarse stone tools (especially cobble tools) – with the latter, wear patterns demonstrate varying kinds and intensities of use, but the correlation of this with function is not clear. Here there is great scope for sustained experimental work and for the application of scientific analysis, particularly the potential for residue analysis on stone tools. This is a key element in unlocking the stories which the everyday finds from Iron Age sites can tell us.

While regional and chronological differences in object use are a key feature of some material studies (notably pottery), they have been little-explored in others such as bone/antler or stone tools; this is a key area for further work (see also chronology). Wooden artefacts have seen recent synthesis (Earwood 1993), but many other finds categories have either never been synthesised (e.g. iron objects), have received valuable but site-specific treatments (e.g. bone and antler; Hallén 1994, or have studies which are now rather dated (e.g glass beads, Guido 1978).

The issue of struck lithic use in the Iron Age is a contentious one, with some specialists arguing that the finds are residual (eg Saville 1981) and others interpreting the rather erratic range of material often found as evidence of expedient lithic use continuing through the first millennium BC (e.g. Young and Humphrey 1999). Ballin (2010, 101-3) has identified early Iron Age quartz traditions in Shetland which represent more than expedient use, and tt is a topic which merits continued attention with an open mind.

The wider issue is what these finds tell of life in the Iron Age. Here there is a great need for more comparative studies – to understand the finds from one site, it must be compared to others to get a sense of how normal or unusual the assemblage is. Work in the Roman period has made great strides in showing how the comparison of assemblages between different areas of a site or different sites can reveal the range of activities taking place, through the categorisation of finds by function and the statistical analysis of this data through correspondence analysis (eg Cool and Baxter 1999, 2002). Similar techniques should be applied to the understanding of Iron Age material culture (see theme 7).

The issue of resource procurement is one where scientific work has not been exploited to the full.

  1. Petrological work on the geological sourcing of rock types occurring as filler in ceramics should be continued and expanded, especially in developing detailed pictures of local supply systems.
  2. Attempts to fingerprint Scottish copper sources by the analysis of copper alloys (successful in identifying the reuse of Roman metal) would benefit from wider application to examine the possibility of regional variation, and also from more work on trace elements to look for pre-Roman circulation pools, as has proved possible in Bronze Age contexts (Cowie et al. 1998).

Direct evidence of mining remains elusive, and proxy records (such as pollution signatures in peat bogs) offer considerable potential.

The study of evidence for woodland exploitation for the differential provision of material for building, different types of artefacts and, of course, fuel is an area of considerable potential especially given the numbers of waterlogged sites, notably crannogs. Valuable work has been done on this (e.g. Miller 2002) but it remains a resource where the Scottish record exhibits considerable potential.

Many resources were locally available, but this is too often seen as ‘obvious’ and therefore without  interest. The detail of localised procurement systems is of interest in terms of the exploitation of the local landscape, with the potential detailed pictures of routes of access and areas of avoidance affecting views of landscape use beyond the site.

Existing assemblages contain a great deal of raw material which merits study or re-examination to allow rethinking and modelling production and procurement systems and the nature of craft processes could be undertaken. The data from antiquarian excavations are a valuable resource, compensating in geographical breadth for what they lack in contextual detail. Regional case studies for particular crafts would be a valuable way forward

  1. Iron (through both study of slag and metallographic work on the products) is an obvious, urgent and often ignored subject of such study.
  2. Cannel coal / oil shale, and jet are often insufficiently differentiated and possibly contain the means for even more precision in origination. They are also prime candidates for technological study of patterns of craft practice.
  3. Bone/antler show evidence of regional or chronological variation in manufacturing techniques, but this has not seen detailed synthesis. There are also hints of varied access to resources, e.g. cetacean bone or marine ivory, which merit more work.

Sites with good manufacturing evidence, excavated and published to modern standards, remain rare; future discoveries should be a priority for careful excavation and detailed post-excavation programmes.

Studies of technology can benefit substantially from professional craftsmen’s help in elucidation of processes, ‘short cuts’ and techniques.

The use of certain categories of objects remains obscure. Notable examples are coarse stone tools and bone tools. A combination of scientific analysis (of wear patterns and residues) and experimental work would be of value.

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