Case Study: Feats of Clay: Bronze Age Metalworking around the Moray Firth

Susan Kruse

In 2008 and 2009, excavations in advance of house building at Bellfield Farm, North Kessock (MHG53531), uncovered Bronze and Iron Age pits and structures. In one of the pits, clay moulds fragments were identified by Trevor Cowie of National Museums Scotland. They had been used to make Late Bronze Age socketed axeheads and spearheads, as well as a variety of tools including gouges, knives, awls and sickles. This was a significant find: it was the first evidence for the manufacture of sickles in Scotland (of which there are only three provenanced examples, one from Dores near Inverness), as well as evidence of Late Bronze Age metalworking which is found on only a few other sites.

Fragments of clay object.
Figure 1: Sickle moulds found at Bellfield, North Kessock. ©Trevor Cowie
Group of people around a table looking into a white box.
Figure 2: Investigating metalwork at NMS with Trevor Cowie. © Susan Kruse

Trevor approached Susan Kruse of ARCH and the North Kessock and District Local History Society about creating a project to explore the objects and their context. The local history society saw this as a valuable way to inform and involve people in understanding the heritage on their doorstep: few knew that they had a nationally important site under the new houses. Trevor saw this as a way of getting some detailed analysis of the moulds which otherwise would probably not have been part of the post-excavation analysis of the developer-funded excavations. Susan saw it as a way to involve local communities in a variety of ways.

A multi-facetted project was set up, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Highland Council ward discretionary fund and STEMnet:

  • An overview background course on the Bronze Age in the Highlands was run by ARCH to provide some context. Trevor came up to do a guest lecture as well.
  • A module to investigate clay sources followed the course. Participants drew on local knowledge of sources of clay as well as archive and published accounts. Interestingly the local knowledge provided the best leads. Clay was sampled from a number of locations.
  • Orlene McIlfatrick, a potter and archaeologist, took the clay samples and made them into briquettes. These were then analysed by Daniel Sahlén, a specialist in scientific analysis, who created thin sections to attempt to match them to the mould and daub fragments from the excavations. A surprising finding was that different clay sources were used for moulds and daub. A likely local source at Munlochy Bay was identified for the moulds.
  • An experimental crafting day was organised, with pottery workshops by Orlene and experimental casting of a sickle by Neil Burridge of Bronze Age Craft. This was well attended and very informative, providing a number of insights.
  • In order to put the objects in context, a new course was run by Susan to show how to compile a corpus of material. All Bronze Age metalwork from the Moray Firth area and environs was catalogued and where possible photographed. The number of objects discovered exceeded expectations.
  • A booklet was written by Graham Clark (of the local society), Susan and Trevor (Clark et al 2017), which included the corpus of material as well as overviews of the project and an assessment of the significance of the finds. This is available from the local society. A display of the project was also made and has toured at a number of local events.
Four people in a grassy area in the process of casting a metal object.
Figure 3: Experimental casting. ©Alasdair Cameron
Man digging with a shovel in clay.
Figure 4: Obtaining samples of local clay. ©Graham Clark

Altogether the project showed the value of creating artefact biographies: taking the moulds as an example it looked at local production issues, the range of objects made, the use of the objects, and then their final deposition. The catalogue is a valuable reference work, with details available on the local HER where they will inform future planning decisions. The project is also a good example of involving academics, museums, members of the community and schools, producing important new work as well as alerting local people to the importance of a local site.

The work also provided key evidence for this period in the Highlands and elsewhere. It concluded that similar small scale production sites may well be more common in the period, since the evidence is very ephemeral. It provided insights into the range of artefacts a Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age local smith would have made, even where few artefacts survive. The site also shows the survival of Late Bronze Age metalworking tradition into what is generally thought of as the Early Iron Age, since the mould fragments were found in pits associated with Early Iron Age houses. This correlates with the revised dating of Sompting-type axeheads into the period 800–600 BC (Knight et al 2020; Boughton 2015).

Further Information

Clark, Graham, Cowie, Trevor and Kruse, Susan 2017 Feats of Clay. Bronze Age metalworking around the Moray Firth, North Kessock and District Local History Society: North Kessock.

The final report of the excavations is awaited (Hatherley and Scholma-Mason forthcoming).