7.6 Beliefs

For all its apparently domestic character, evidence for rituals and beliefs is a key feature of the Iron Age, both on and off-site. The on-site evidence is critical to understanding both the material record from sites and the societies involved; the off-site finds (especially hoards) provide a link into wider concepts of landscape, the understood world and cosmography. Evidence of how Iron Age societies dealt with death is at last beginning to accrue, revealing a bewildering complexity.

The popular and previously dominant academic paradigm of a widespread Celtic religion is questionable as it conflates sources distant in time and space from the Scottish Iron Age (Fitzpatrick 1991; Hingley 1992). Recognising ritual practice has always proved difficult and there has been a reliance on a classical model of gods, temples, iconography, mythology and formalised burial rites (Webster 1991). Inferring beliefs is the hardest inference of all (Hawkes 1954). Analogy often relies on ‘primitive’ anthropological theory such as natural religion/animism (Tylor 1871), fertility (Frazer 1924) and more recently shamanism (Aldhouse-Green 2004)

How then can correlations and similarities with wider British, Irish and European archaeological evidence for ritual and religion be explained? What are the mechanisms for the transmission and maintenance of common patterns of practice? How can this be addressed from archaeological evidence alone? What is the role of analogy and is an enhanced cooperation with philology/Celtic studies a necessary step towards a fuller understanding? A comprehensive survey based solely on Scottish archaeological evidence that synthesises recent data is needed to address these issues.

A photograph of an archaeological excavation showing a person excavating a pit containing a large fragment of a circular stone artefact

Deliberately-smashed saddle querns buried in a pit on the settlement site of Birnie, Moray. Copyright F. Hunter

On-site ritual practice

The focus of Iron Age studies has often been on the apparent domestic nature of the evidence. The quest for an archaeology of everyday practice hoped to find patterns of structured behaviour behind the deposition of artefacts on site (Fitzpatrick 1997; Parker Pearson 1996; Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999). Scepticism of cosmological interpretations can still allow the production of interpretations directed at ceremony and ritual (Pope 2007). The work of Hill (1995) in particular highlighted the existence of patterns behind the deposition of objects, human and animal remains in pits in Wessex which had previously been seen as rubbish, and the existence of certain features, such as pits, ditches and post-occupation deposits rich in cultural material is increasingly identified as the result of complex but poorly understood episodes of deposition. These may be linked to specific important events in a community’s life, and careful consideration of patterns and associations could provide models for testing (e.g. Campbell 2001).

The deposition of material such as smashed or intact querns is often linked to concepts of ensuring fertility, at moments connected with the life-cycles of houses, as they often occur in foundation or abandonment deposits (e.g. Barrett 1989; Hingley 1992; Brück 1999). However, this does require demonstration (in the form of recurring patterns of deposition) rather than assumption because it happens to be a current theory. This impacts directly on field practice, in the detailed recording of object location and position. Formation processes on site need to be carefully considered for the recognition of ritualised practice.

Off-site deposition and hoarding

Spectacular artefacts that are rarely found on inhabited sites were recovered during early modern agricultural improvements – this includes most of the pieces of ‘Celtic art’ in Scotland. They have often been treated as stray finds as they frequently lack contextual information but collection and synthesis of data will allow meaningful patterns to be explored in terms of objects, associations and locations (e.g. Hunter 1997). This could be supplemented by modern study of the environment and setting of these finds: landscape and peoples’ perception of place is one gateway to understanding these practices. The lack of structures and perception of a use of natural places may be more apparent than real as few have been investigated (e.g. excavation of the findspot of the gold torcs at Blair Drummond in 2009 revealed a timber circular structure (house? shrine?) at the site of the hoard).

Wet places, springs, wells (which Minehowe would appear to be), rivers, mires and lakes all appear to have liminal associations at this time. There is also an emerging trend in the Iron Age for subterranean sites and features as ritual foci (e.g. High Pasture Cave, Minehowe) and it is tempting to view this as an ‘underworld’ component of the Iron Age cosmological landscape.

It is important to bear in mind that assemblages of a ceremonial character may have been deposited instantaneously, but may equally have accrued over a very long period of time. Excavation at recent findspots such as Fiskerton (Lincs) and Snettisham (E Anglia) has shown how complex the practices could be (Field & Parker Pearson 2003; Stead 1991), while other classic ritual sites have seen increasingly complex reinterpretations (e.g. Llyn Cerrig Bach, Macdonald 2007; La Tène, Müller 1992, 2007). Excavation of future and past findspots is a  priority  to understand the processes taking place at them.

A photograph of an archaeological excavation showing people with buckets and sponges excavating in a boggy area and a person in the background plan drawing

Excavations in the bog where the Deskford carnyx was found. Copyright NMS


The last synthesis of Iron Age burial in Britain had a very sparse Scottish section (Whimster 1981). This could now be expanded considerably, thanks in large measure to the more routine dating of unaccompanied inhumation burials, and technical developments allowing the direct dating of cremations; this has revealed a considerable number of Iron Age burials (e.g. DES 2005, 148 (Pollochar); 2003, 169). Exceptional discoveries have also changed the picture: the site of the Knowe of Skea on Westray has revealed over 200 burials, the vast majority of infants. This itself poses severe problems of interpretation – is this number more typical of what would be expected from a long-lived community, and if so why have more such sites not been found? And is such high infant mortality typical? Ongoing PhD research on these remains should help to answer this.

Yet overall the number of burials remains very small, given the time span and population involved, and especially in contrast to large parts of the Continent at this time or to the Scottish early Bronze Age record. Iron Age Scotland fits the general pattern for Britain, which has only sporadic formalisation of burial rites at certain times and in certain places; formal burial was the exception, and there is increasing evidence for a variety of non-normative burial rites and manipulation of human remains (Armit and Ginn 2007; Shapland and Armit 2011). This included (but was not limited to) fragmentation of individuals, partial burial, and the retention of certain skeletal elements (often skull parts) on domestic sites; it is not at all clear what led to the treatment of individuals in specific ways, although careful osteological study (for evidence of trauma) allied with scientific evidence (isotopic study to ascertain whether they are local or not, and perhaps ultimately DNA work when it is more reliable) offer ways forward.

The recognition of cremated human bone within midden material at Phantassie, East Lothian (Lelong 2008, 195), offers a possible reason why routine disposal of the dead is all but invisible, although the results have yet to be replicated on other sites. Whether it is possible to know what happened to the majority of bodies of Iron Age people remains a question that innovative techniques or methodologies might help answer. Why burial is apparently more common in some areas (e.g. East Lothian) than others is another interesting question. Is this primarily conditioned by area where bone survives, or are there wider patterns at work?

A photograph of a skull surrounded by bones

Remains of a youth whose body was divided between four pits under a house at Hornish Point, South Uist. Copyright NMS


Belief impacts on all the other aspects of Relations between people, and can be used as a lens through which to explore them. For example, in terms of individual and group identities, can hoarding at natural boundaries be used as evidence for regional identities or territory? Prestige metalwork has been used as indicators of status, with objects interpreted as symbols of individual authority (high status ornaments) or symbols of community (vessels). Does deposition therefore indicate a rejection of the authority represented by the objects? More sophisticated anthropological theory could provide a number of analogies against which the Scottish data could be tested. This stands more chance of success as long as ritual evidence is integrated with other more substantial bodies of evidence for Iron Age societies.

For social structure, the increase in deposition in the Later Iron Age could be used to theorise increasingly hierarchical changing societies who could afford to participate in the conspicuous consumption of deposition or in the need for its demonstrative nature to emphasise rank. How can this be tested? The apparent rarity of burial in the earlier Iron Age and increase in Later and Roman Iron Age may indicate steeper social stratification but can this correlation be supported by other evidence? A focus on settlement and on-site ritual practice is one of the recurring features of Iron Age society, with the demise of circular architecture at the end of the Iron Age fitting theories of major social change at the end of this period – how does evidence for Iron Age belief correlate with this?

In terms of the interaction between groups, prestige metalwork is often exotic and therefore demonstrates evidence for the movement of materials objects, ideas and people. Again, does deposition of these exotic objects imply the rejection of alien and ritually polluting material/symbols of distant authority or a reinforcement of existing authority through demonstration of access to these materials, and can this be explored through case studies of e.g. Roman material on indigenous sites?

Wider issues include environmental change and how the ‘nature’ of the landscape features chosen for ritual practices can be understood. For example, how did ritual activity fit into the inhabited, agricultural landscape of Iron Age Scotland? Visibility is a problem for hoarding and ritual sites, as the most spectacular finds were chance finds and fieldwork is needed to contextualise these.

How are patterns of practice recognised and at what scale: locally, regionally, Scottish or British?

Can other ritual sites be located or recognised?

Are there pan-European or at least international trends in ritual that can be legitimately recognised?

How much is Iron Age domesticity a product of modern rationalisation of the evidence?

The occurrence of structured deposits is relatively well researched in Atlantic Scotland, but less so elsewhere (Haselgrove et al. 2001, 8-9). The evidence would benefit from a national and regional review and synthesis. Are there regional differences to ritual practice?

Excavation of any fresh hoard finds is critical – but is excavation the only way to reveal ephemeral structures, pits, platforms, walkways, logboats and organic deposits? What potential is there for remote sensing? Background research into find spots and understanding the processes of recovery through agricultural improvement may provide further information on context.

Why were certain sites chosen for hoards? There is potential to characterise these sites that suffer from a distinct lack of contextual information. Environmental deposits and ecofactual information may be locked in the waterlogged contexts that produced prestige metalwork or other ceremonial deposits.
Renewed synthesis of the expanded range of burial evidence is a desideratum

The human remains, both from burials and non-burial contexts, merit detailed osteological and scientific study to extract the maximum of information on their date, origins and fate.

Comments 1

  1. Fiona Tucker’s lecture: Treatment of Iron Age dead

    Woven into the stuff of other men’s lives: the treatment of the dead in Iron Age Atlantic Scotland Lecture by Dr Fiona Tucker, University of Bradford. Recorded as part of the series hosted by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The full size version can be viewed at http://www.socantscot.org/article.asp?aid=1300

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