Case Study: The Poolewe Hoard

Matt Knight

In 1877, a Bronze Age hoard of nine copper alloy artefacts were recovered while peat cutting near Poolewe, Highland (Jolly 1880, 46). These objects included five complete and incomplete socketed axes, three rings, and an object referred to as a “cup-ended ornament”, an object that may have functioned as a cloak fastener or decorative adornment. Based on typological assessment the hoard was probably deposited during the British Llyn Fawr metalworking assemblage (800-600 BC). It is the only secure hoard from this period in Scotland.

The Poolewe Hoard. ©National Museums Scotland

Recent reassessment of the hoard has provided interesting insights into its dating, production and deposition (Knight et al 2021). Firstly, the wooden haft of one of the socketed axeheads survives and produced a radiocarbon date of 800–560 cal BC at 95% confidence, or 790–760 BC at 68% confidence. This suggests the hoard was deposited in the early 8th century BC, which conforms with the expected stylistic date of the socketed axeheads. Study of the condition on the axeheads suggests most, if not all, were used as functional tools prior to deposition. At least two would still have been usable, though one had been deliberately fragmented.

The cup-ended ornament poses an interesting perspective on the dating. This object form was typically produced in gold between 1000-800 BC. Other notable examples include those in the hoard of gold ornaments from Heights of Brae, Highland (Clarke and Kemp 1984). The production of the Poolewe ornament in bronze is very rare and if it were produced and used between 1000-800 BC, it could have been several years, or even decades, old when deposited. It was probably a treasured object. The presence of an older object, as well as the mixed condition of the axeheads, suggests that the hoard was perhaps accumulated over time before it was buried in a peat bog.

Metallurgical analysis supports this theory. The objects were produced from five ‘pools’ of metal, which suggests that the objects were produced at different times and there were multiple supplies of bronze entering the supply system in Scotland around this time, much of it from continental Europe. These are important observations as they run against the traditional view of the collapse of metal supplies around 800 BC.

We now recognise that around this time there was a broader change in social and cultural perceptions relating to bronze and hoarding practices (Needham 2007; O’Connor 2007). New forms of bronze objects continued to be produced and deposited, as indicated by single finds of axeheads, swords and razors, as well as remains of metalworking workshops, but people seemingly stopped burying hoards in Scotland. By contrast, over 60 hoards were deposited during the period 1100-800 BC (Coles 1960). The deposition of the Poolewe hoard between 800-750 BC, perhaps accumulated over a period of time, may represents the last vestiges of Late Bronze Age hoarding practices in Scotland at a time when ideologies were changing.

This case study illustrates the benefits of revisiting historic discoveries, such as hoards, and utilising modern techniques to understand their place in Bronze Age Scotland.

Further information

Knight, Matthew G, Boughton, Dot and Northover J P 2021 ‘Poolewe: The last Bronze Age hoard in Scotland?’ Archaeological Journal 178, 1-31, https://doi.org/10.1080/00665983.2020.1824883