2.5 Material Culture and Scientific Analysis

The material culture of the Highlands is an important source, yet it is one for which we often have little idea of what currently exists or where it is housed. The Treasure Trove system ensures that all objects found are either allocated or disclaimed, and this information should be publicly available, to allow the tracking of items. If disclaimed, information about the objects must be recorded, as this may be the last time they are publicly seen. An online database such as is available for the Portable Antiquity Scheme in England would provide better access to this information, and allow regional comparisons.

A problem common to all periods of the past throughout and beyond Scotland is the retention of an unknown number of artefacts by members of the public. Not only is this in violation of Scotland’s bona vacantia (Treasure Trove) law; it also deprives others of finding out about the past, and there is the constant danger of information about the findspot and circumstances of discovery becoming lost when the collector dies or – even worse – sells artefacts on eBay or some other outlet (which is illegal for items that have not been cleared through the Treasure Trove system). More needs to be done to educate members of the public about the law and the benefits of making the nation’s material culture heritage accessible to all.

The National ScARF Medieval section (6.1) noted the opportunities provided by material in museum collections, and this applies to all periods and regions.

‘In order for material culture studies to grow and contribute to archaeological analysis it is vital that the potential of existing museum collections, excavated assemblages, and stray find material allocated through Scottish Treasure Trove is pursued. A huge amount of material in museum collections remains unstudied and would benefit from re-examination and re-interpretation (or in some cases examination and interpretation for the first time).’

The panel also made the plea for more museum-based archaeologists, and highlighted the value of artefact biographies.

Museums are the main repository for material culture, yet, as noted above, few have online catalogues. In the Highlands, only Historylinks and Ullapool museum have their collections online. This must be seen as a priority. Objects also reside in private collections, and where possible, information on key diagnostic objects should be recorded. As noted in the discussion on heritage databases, the HER and Canmore are the logical places for the information to be presented, or at least they should be supplied with links, so that this data can be combined with site information.

There is now a growing body of metal detecting finds, with large assemblages from certain areas in the Highlands, including Redcastle, Fortrose, Rosemarkie and Cromarty on the Black Isle; Ardersier, Tornagrain and the Fort George area to the east of Inverness; and Dornoch and the surrounding area in Sutherland. These finds can increasingly be anchored in the contect of well-dated sites. However metal-detected material often presents a very different picture of areas as they focus on losses rather than hoarding, and on items used by more ordinary people. There is enough data now that an overview on what these assemblages can tell us about the areas, prehistory to modern, can be undertaken.

Evidence has been brought together for coin finds from 1988 up to 2010 by Bateson and Holmes (1997; 2003; 2006; 2013) with a discussion of their significance in Holmes (2004). Coin finds are generally from two main sources: hoards and casual stray finds, with the latter often thought to provide a better indication of what was circulating at the time of loss. Clearly coins provide a very useful terminus post quem, dating the context to some point after the date they were minted. However, the time lapse is often difficult to determine. Some coins in Viking Age hoards are pierced showing that they have become jewellery rather than being valued as a coin. Some are clipped and marked, again suggesting they were in circulation longer, although it seems possible that some early Scottish coins may have been clipped at the mint to provide smaller change (Holmes 2004). Connections could be direct or indirect. Roman coins found in the Highlands are almost certainly through indirect connections. Foreign coins in Scottish Viking silver hoards, which could contain coins from as far away as the Arabic speaking world, were also probably coming via Viking trade networks in Scandinavia and the Irish Sea. The circulation of coin also requires a monarchy able to produce coinage which had a widely acknowledged buying power. In many areas of the Highlands this firm control was clearly lacking even during the medieval period.

Pottery is the other artefact type traditionally used in dating. Individual types are discussed in the chronological chapters. Geochemical fingerprinting of pottery by Inductively coupled Plasma – Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) allows production sites to be determined, for example medieval Scottish redwares, thereby providing evidence of industrial activity and movements of finished goods. Museums hold large archives of assemblages from known locations which would benefit from such analysis.

There are also opportunities to re-evaluate older assemblages, especially if combined with dating potential if samples survive. As a good example, Batey pulled together diverse material from Freswick (Batey 1987), and there have been further finds since then. Highland museums, particularly Inverness Museum, increasingly hold excavation assemblages obtained through Treasure Trove. These provide opportunities for undergraduate, postgraduate or other research.

Environmental Sources / Human and Animal Bone Analyses

The Science section in the National ScARF contains an accessible introduction to environmental, faunal, human bone and soil analysis as well as scientific dating techniques; these are also addressed by the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section (National ScARF 5.2.5). These disciplines when working together can provide good evidence of vegetation change, agricultural activity, woodland management, animal grazing and palaeoclimate, and together can address issues of environmental conditions, climate change, disease and cultural choices. The field is a fast moving one, and the National ScARF Science sections are currently being updated. This will highlight the interdisciplinary nature of bio-archaeology and environmental studies which can be used to answer some of these big questions across landscapes and time.

Although there has been a fair amount of environmental work done in the Highlands, it is patchy, and there is no overview available of the good studiesthat have been done, or indeed any synthesis of what this data can tell us about different areas within the Highlands (see Chapter 3.2). A database of environmental work would be an asset that would allow for future work to focus on target issues and research questions.

Other environmental work has been done by non-archaeological bodies, for example the Forestry Commission or the RSPB, but it has not always been integrated into archaeological discussions. For example, the Scottish Palaeoecological Archive Database (SPA Database) provides information on sites in Scotland where the natural archives of peat bogs, mires and lochs preserve evidence of past environments and environmental change.

There are also issues of survival of materials which can skew interpretation, as can sampling strategies (see eg Bishop et al 2009, 79-81). For example, charred hazelnut is far more likely to survive than hazel pollen or cereal grains. Issues relating to environmental research are discussed more fully in Chapter 3.2.

There is a wealth of environmental evidence available as most modern excavations take samples. Many, however, are not analysed, due to financial constraints, highlighting a lost opportunity. The samples are part of the assemblages which are then allocated by Treasure Trove, providing in theory a potential source for further work. However, the pressures on storage at museums means that some of these samples are being discarded, and issues of contamination and poor storage conditions sometimes also apply. While this material represents a great potential for analysis, there also needs to be more training opportunities to provide skills to interested people, academic and volunteers so that they can undertake future work. None of these issues are specific to the Highlands.

The analysis can cross chronological borders, for example long core samples, and provide perspectives over time. These are addressed in Chapter 3.2. Examples for distinct chronological periods are also addressed in the individual chronological chapters, but there is much evidence still to be teased out of reports.

The recent advances in aDNA have put a spotlight on the potential for analysing skeletal remains, providing information about sex, appearance, migration, disease and diet. In the past human remains often became separated from other finds, and in many cases their current whereabouts are unknown. As part of the Highland Archaeological Research Framework project, data about human remains has been assembled (see Datasheet 2.2). This material provides possibilities for important future analysis.

Funding the analysis of human remains an issue here, as few excavations include funding for a suite of environmental, isotopic, or osteological analysis. However, it is optimal that the importance of these investigations, alongside dating, are built into projects where possible.


The National ScARF Science section also has a good introduction and background to scientific dating techniques (ScARF Science Chapter 1). A large number of radiocarbon dates have been undertaken over the years in the Highlands and published in a variety of sources, especially in excavation reports and Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. Some published dates are calibrated, others are not. The dating is essential to our understanding of the archaeological record, and in some places provides the only indication of activity during a chronological period. Known dates have been assembled during the course of the Highland Regional ScARF project as an aid to future research, and added to the Highland HER, but it is acknowledged that there are undoubtedly many missing (see Datasheet 2.1). All radiocarbon dates funded by Historic Environment Scotland are now being added to the appropriate Canmore records. In Datasheet 2.1, uncalibrated dates have been calibrated using the Oxford calibration program. Since the start of the project a new calibration curve has been released – IntCal20 – (Reimer et al 2020) so some dates may be refined further.

Clearly, however, it is important to assess where possible the sample used and the context in which they were found on a case by case basis. Whether it was primary or secondary, issues of residual charcoal or dating on single grains need to be taken into account. Older dates often used bulked together material which can affect dating. In other cases, dating can vary depending on preparation of samples. For example, a Bronze Age skeleton buried at Dirlot (Dalmore), Caithness were dated by both the Beakers and Bodies Project and the Beaker People Project, with the former providing earlier dates and a difference of over a hundred years with the latter (see Parker Pearson et al 2019, 45); this exemplifies a need for caution when assessing published radiocarbon dates.

A limited amount of dendrochronology has also been undertaken on oak and pine from the Highlands. This provides the possibility not only of dating but also of sourcing the origin of the wood. Tree ring analysis can also shed light on climate factors and seasonal issues; a good growth year for trees will also indicate a good growth year for crops and vice versa (Wilson et al 2011). The longevity of the trees and potential re-use means that care should be taken when interpreting dendrochronology. It is also clear that importation of wood from Scandinavia and the Baltic occurred, commonly from the late 15th century. As a result, native and import chronologies are needed (Science panel 1.5).

In situ photographic recording of ring patterns in Scots pine boards of the crypt hatch in the Wardlaw Mausoleum, Kirkhill near Beauly. ©Erik Linkberg

Dendrochronological analysis has been undertaken on some Highland wood, particularly by the SCOT2K Native Pine Dendrochronology Project (Mills et al 2017) and Native Oak and Pine project (Crone and Mills 2012; 2015), although the west has seen relatively little work. There are limited dates for wood used in medieval constructions, including some long-growing wood from the early medieval period (see Chapter 9), and rather more for the post-medieval period (see Chapter 10). Oak is hugely under-researched in the Highlands. Other species sometimes occur in vernacular buildings too, for example birch crucks in the Great Glen, quite a rare survival of use mentioned in some records. Ash also crops up in vernacular buildings and would benefit from dendrochronological research; sadly, ash dieback means that there will be plenty of dead trees that could be sampled to build those chronologies. Highland dendrochronology sequences go back to the late early medieval period, and earlier than that there are floating segments. Work on Highland crannogs which date from at least the Iron Age onwards could provide the links to join these chronologies.

Dendrochronological samples should be taken as a matter of course during renovations or excavations, even if at present they have insufficient rings. Isotope analysis holds great promise in allowing the dating of these rejected samples (Loader et al 2019); this work is not being undertaken yet in Scotland, but holds out promise for the future.

Comments 1

  1. The survey of Roman and Medieval coins found in Scotland has now been updated 2011-2015 in Savage, Carl E, Freeman, Emily A and Paul, Ella B 2021 ‘A survey of Roman, medieval and post-medieval coin finds from Scotland 2011-2015’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 150 (2021), 163-186.

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