7.4.2 Material Culture

Despite the great increase in settlement information when compared to earlier periods, researchers have, in many ways, fewer diagnostic artefacts which when found without context can be firmly placed in the Iron Age. On the plus side, the growing number and range of non-diagnostic objects found in dated Iron Age contexts provide more opportunities for comparison with stray finds that contribute to the picture of daily life. However, more work needs to be done on artefacts for the period, including revisiting older assemblages in museums (ScARF Iron Age section 9.5).


The pottery from dated Iron Age contexts is building up a picture of Iron Age ceramics in the Highlands. The Iron Age pottery from northern mainland and the Small Isles was considered by Euan MacKie (2002, 2007) and was the subject of an unpublished Ph.D thesis by Orlene McIlfatrick (2013). In her useful discussion of pottery from the Dornoch Quarry site McIlfatrick (2019) noted that Iron Age pottery in northern mainland Scotland tended to be long-lived vessel forms, with little decoration and mainly grit-tempered fabrics.

Broken pieces of pottery
Pottery from Dornoch Quarry. ©Highland Archaeology Services

Given that many of the Iron Age sites are multi-period (see 7.3), good dating is essential. Discussions in forthcoming excavation reports will provide a good start. Clachtoll broch with its relatively narrow dating and good preservation in particular should also provide useful evidence of west coast pottery traditions (Case Study: Clachtoll Broch). There is also a large body of material in museums which can be integrated into this picture. Work in progress by Andy Heald on pottery from Clachtoll and Thrumster brochs will contribute to this discussion for the Northern Highlands. An overview of Iron Age ceramics from Highland sites is therefore feasible and desirable, and would allow for insights into any geographic differences.


Guido’s (1978) study of glass beads remains the main source of discussion for glass beads in the Highlands, but her dating needs revision in light of other finds, notably Culduthel (ScARF Iron Age section 4.5, Case Study: Culduthell Iron Age craftworking site). Manufacturing was taking place at Culduthel (Hatherley and Murray 2021) and at Culbin Sands on the border of Highland and Moray, two of only a handful of sites known from Iron Age Britain (Guido 1978, 78; Hunter 2021). Usefully, many of the Culduthel beads are from dated contexts. For example, Guido’s Class 8 beads found at Culduthel dated from the 2nd century cal BC to 2nd century cal AD, a broader range than was available to Guido. Hunter’s ( 2021) analysis of the Culduthel material provides a useful summary of dating and types. The work of Elizabeth Foulds (2017) included the southeast edge of the Highlands, and offers a modern reappraisal of Iron Age glass beads. Diagnostic Iron Age bead types (Guido classes 8, 13 and 14) were being made on the Moray Firth (see 7.5) but their distribution spans large areas of the Highlands, giving insights into patterns of contact.

Glass beads from Culduthel. ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd


Non-ferrous Metalwork

Large objects, many with three-dimensional decoration and most of them cast copper alloy, have come to be known as ‘massive metalwork’ and are diagnostic of the Late and Roman Iron Age. Most are from the region between the Firth of Forth and the Moray Firth; this is probably where these objects were made, but some reached the rest of the Highlands (see Table 7.9). The objects are generally ornaments, including heavy armlets, bracelets and finger-rings, and they are often enamelled. Hunter (2014b; 2019, 87–113) has discussed the group, including some Highland objects. Where dating evidence exists, most appear to be later 1st to 2nd centuries AD. A harness strap junction from Culduthel was made in a different style to massive metalwork found in the area (Hunter 2019, 112–3; Hunter 2021). Some of the objects being made at Culduthel are unidentifiable but include a mix of objects and sheet working, suggesting the ability to make fine decorative objects in the region (Hunter 2021; Hatherley and Murray 2021). Many sites from the Iron Age had smaller finds such as pins or rings, for which the dating is generally dependent on contexts they were found in rather than stylistic attributes. XRF-analysis has shown that often Roman finds were re-used (Andy Heald pers comm).

Metal find from Culduthel in the shape of a cross and measuring 5cm
Harness strap junction from Culduthel. ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd

KettleburnCTweezersBroch excavated in 1850s. Unique in Scotland; perhaps in massive traditionMHG2134; MacKie 2007; Hunter 2014b; 2019, 98–9
Achavrail, Rogart[AH4] SMassive armlet‘Folded’ typeMHG12745; MacGregor 1976 no. 234; Hunter 2019, 91–3, 102
LairgSFinger-ringTriskele bezel decoration, with settings for enamelMHG9472; Hunter 2019, 96
Muir of OrdERFinger-ring MHG60602; Hunter 2019, 96
CulbokieERStrap mountWith bosses and enamelTT 226/09 report attached to MHG60614
CulduthelIStrap junctionCruciform shape with enamelling; 2nd c AD date; Unfinished, made on site.Hunter 2014b, 333; Hunter 2021; Case Study: Culduthell Iron Age craftworking site).
CulduthelISword hiltDecorated. Rare find in northHunter 2021
Castle StuartIFinger-ringHas enamel inlays. Evidence of heavy wear. Inlays likely to be re-used bead fragmentsMHG60612; Hunter 2014b, 337; 2019, 95–7
AldourieIDecorated plateFragmentary. Decorated with incised ‘mirror-style’ decoration. Parallels to southern British metalwork; rare in ScotlandMHG36679; Hunter 2006, 151–2
Drumashie, DoresIStrap junction; Strap mountJunction is cast, with enamel decoration; Mount is square-headed button and loop fastener of northern England/ southern Scotland typeMHG3528; MacGregor 1976 no. 36; Hunter 2006, 152; Hunter 2019, 97–8.
AuldearnNMassive torc First of its kind in Scotland, more common in southern Britain (though always rare); decoration paralleled locally. Thought to be a local productMHG60606 ; Hunter 2019, 112, fig 72
Loch GamhnaB&SCauldron (fragment) MHG4424; Joy 2014
Culbin SandsN / MorayZoomorphic spiral braceletMulti-period beach siteMacGregor 1976; Hunter 2007; Hunter 2019, 94–95
Duntulm SkyeZoomorphic spiral braceletFound when digging in a peat bogMHG6514; MacGregor 1976 no. 215; Hunter 2019, 94–5
High Pasture CaveSkyeSheet metal fragmentRepoussé decorationMHG32043; Birch et al forthcoming; F. Hunter pers comm; Case Study: High Pasture Cave
SasaigSkyeRing-headed pinCast BronzeMacGregor 1976 no. 266
KyleakinSkyeCauldronFound with bog butterMHG5418; MacGregor 1976 no. 306
FouhlinNWSShearsCopper alloy; found in souterrainMHG11928; MacGregor 1976 no. 277
Table 7.9  Iron Age ‘massive’ and other decorated metalwork found in the Highlands
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1
armlet made of metal
Massive armlet from Achavrail, Rogart. Image by Ewen Weatherspoon, courtesy of Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, High Life Highland
Massive copper alloy brooch and torc from Auldearn. ©National Museums Scotland
Spiral armlet from Duntulm, Skye. ©National Museums Scotland

Iron Metalwork

Many high-status sites often have iron objects, metalworking evidence or both, where preservation is good. An excavation strategy which recognises the potential for iron, utilising x-rays and conservation, as at Culduthel, is also important. The excavations at Clachtoll broch in northwest Highlands (MHG13002; Case Study Clachtoll Broch) uncovered a range of iron tools that were in use in the last half century cal BC, preserved in part because of a major fire and subsequent collapsing of the walls. To this assemblage can be added the pickaxe and door handle from Dun Ardtreck, Skye, originally published as Roman (MacKie 2000, 357–358), but more likely Iron Age products (Fraser Hunter pers comm). Culduthel also had good preservation, and a range of iron objects were found including weapons and woodworking tools (Hatherley and Murray 2021). The common survival of whetstones at Iron Age sites also points to iron tools large and small which needed sharpening. However, these common objects are often ignored in discussions, and deserve more attention (Cruickshanks 2017). At Langwell dun, Sutherland (MHG7371), hones and whetstones were the most common finds (Nisbet 1994–1995, 64). The use of iron knives and tools must have had an impact on craft, technology and agriculture. Altogether the evidence suggests that production (see 7.5) and use of iron tools may have been more common than hitherto thought.

The 42 iron objects recovered from the High Pasture Cave complex, including weapons, tools, personal ornaments and fittings, are of national significance because of their date; Early Iron Age ironwork is exceedingly rare. Several preserve traces of organic remains such as wooden handles, shafts and leather scabbards. Of particular significance are the items recovered from the earliest Iron Age phases, including a remarkably fine chain and a socketed axe; these are some of the earliest iron artefacts from Scotland. The delicate chain in particular would have required skilled blacksmithing; its function remains enigmatic, but its early date (in a context 670–410 cal BC) is remarkable. The iron socketed axe, one of only six from Scotland, is a classic Early Iron Age type, emulating the form of Late Bronze Age axes but requiring very different metalworking skills. It was found in a context dating from 670 to 410 cal BC (Birch et al forthcoming).

Pins and Toggles

Brooches are vanishingly rare in the Highland Iron Age, with the only example from Rahoy, Lochaber  (MHG487; Hunter 2009). Pins were used instead to fasten clothing and were made of metal and of bone and antler. Metal ones were typically variants of pins with ring-shaped heads. Four examples of iron crook-headed pins were found at High Pasture Cave. The type is distinctively Scottish but not common (Birch and Wildgoose 2013, 87). One had been broken into two parts and placed into a leather pouch or bag (Birch et al forthcoming). There is evidence of projecting ring-headed pins being made at Culduthel, with examples in iron and copper alloy (Hatherley and Murray 2021; Hunter 2021). Bone pins are found at a range of sites in the Highlands, many plain, although they become more decorative by the later Iron Age (Fraser Hunter pers comm). Further work on these objects is needed.

Dumb-bell toggles are known in copper alloy, bone and glass in Iron Age and Roman contexts, and they probably functioned as clothes fasteners. Copper alloy and glass examples were found at Culduthel, and a metal detecting find is known from Garguston on the northern side of the Beauly firth (Hunter 2020 unpublished; 2021).


A large number of handled stone vessels, variously interpreted as lamps or cups, have been found at sites with Iron Age occupation. Most are made of steatite, showing widespread use of this easily carved material, especially in the north and west (mapped in Hunter 2015, 230, ill. 13.2; see also Map 7.5; Datasheet 7.5). Use of steatite continues into later periods, so good dating is needed, but the balance of probability is that surviving objects without context are likely to be Iron Age unless they have forms similar to Viking Age objects. A number are decorated, usually with simple geometric designs, showing links with metalworking designs (Hunter 2014b, 333–334). Some have evidence of soot and hence are considered to be lamps; this will be critically reappraised in the Clachtoll broch excavation report.

Steatite lamps with handles and other stone finds (spindle whorls, whetstone and disc) from Dun Telve broch, Glenelg, Inverness-shire. ©National Museums Scotland

Jet-like materials such as cannel coal, lignite and albertite are all available in parts of the Highlands, and unlike the Bronze Age, real jet from Yorkshire does not appear to have been used or imported (Hunter 2015, 230–231). Objects made of these materials include beads (for example, Crosskirk Broch; MHG39521), pendants (Dun Ardtreck, Skye; MHG5019), and most commonly found bangles. Quantities of production evidence are found at Carn Liath (MHG10872), probably taking advantage of the nearby Golspie source, and other sites such as Upper Suisgill (MHG9345; Sheridan et al 1998). The forms of the beads and bangles are long-lasting, from the later Bronze Age into the early medieval period, so dating evidence is essential. At Lairg, for example, bangles were found in both Bronze Age and Iron Age contexts (Sheridan et al 1998).

Many excavated Iron Age sites have produced a range of undiagnostic stone tools such as the hammerstones or whetstones as discussed above (Heald and Jackson 2001), continuing a long tradition. The extent to which struck lithic production and use occurred in the Iron Age is little known and often ignored in contrast to the focus on more exotic materials for tools, though there is some evidence of regional production (ScARF Iron Age section 4.4). Little information from the Highlands can be brought to bear on this. As much of this material is undiagnostic, again well-dated sites are essential.

Painted pebbles, smooth white quartz stone painted with dots and geographic markings, are found particularly in Caithness and the Northern Isles, especially on Iron Age broch sites. From the Highlands they have been found at Applecross broch, Wester Ross (MHG7680) and at Portmahomack, Easter Ross; an example published from Crosskirk broch has been shown to be natural. The vast majority of known painted pebbles are from Iron Age contexts, but the Portmahomack find from within a metalworker’s workshop suggests some use may have continued into the early medieval period. Quartz stones are known from some earlier prehistoric burial contexts, suggesting that the painted pebbles might have had some ritual importance, and that they may have been used as charmstones. Healing stones, for instance, have a long tradition in the Highlands. Nevertheless, the relative scarcity of painted pebbles suggests a limited circulation (Arthur et al 2014; Carver et al 2016, 262ff).

This painted pebble is one of a number found outside the four brochs at Keiss in Caithness. It dates from sometime between 200 AD – 800 AD. ©National Museums Scotland


The poor preservation of organics means that there are relatively few organic objects dating to the Iron Age. Dated wooden finds (see Table 7.10) include bowls, kegs, hafts and stakes, as well as the unique figure of a woman often interpreted as a goddess found in the bog at Ballachulish (MHG4306; Case Study Ballachulish Figure).

SiteAreaDatings ObjectCommentsSource
Loch a’ Ghlinne Bhig, BracadaleSkye30 BC–AD 205BowlAlder; unfinished; carved; decorated; round-bottomedMHG6718; Crone 1993; Earwood 1993b; Case study; Wooden Bowl from Loch a’ Ghlinne Bhig; UT-1698
Huisgill Burn, TaliskerSkyeAD 20–400BowlAlder, with lugs. Carved; decorated; round-bottomedMHG5036; Barber 1982; Crone 1993; OxA-3542
ArdgourL43 BC– AD 322Bowl, with two looped handlesCarved; Part of hoard of wooden bowls;
MHG287; Earwood 1993b; NMS X.ME 66; OxA-2416
ArdgourLAD 76–390Bowl, with loop-handleTurned; repaired rim; part of hoard of wooden bowls; MHG287; Earwood 1993b; NMS X.ME 65; OxA-2415
Gleann Geal, MorvernLAD 127– 333Bog butter kegCarved from birch unsplit trunk or large branchMHG18481; MHG18482; Earwood 1991; UB-3185
KyleakinSkyeAD 212–391Bog butter kegHollowed out alder. Found with bronze cauldron and other kegs. Dating is of contentsMHG5418; Earwood 1991; UB-3186
PooleweWR801–571 BCFragment of haft for socketed axe MHG7755; Knight et al 2021; SUERC-81222
BallachulishL728–524 BCFigureWith woven screen in bogMHG4306; Case Study; Ballachulish Moss Figure; HAR-6329
Comar Wood DunI376–203 BCWooden peg, roundwoodIn burnt destruction layer; hazel roundwoodMHG55867; Peteranna and Birch 2017a.; SUERC-54243
Dail na CaraidhL761–406 BCWorked birch; barkNear site of Bronze Age hoardMHG4183; Dickson and Dickson 1999; GU-2185
Table 7.10  Dated Iron Age Wooden objects found in the Highlands
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1
Wooden bowl from Bracadale, Skye. ©Susan Kruse
Carved keg containing bog butter from Kyleakin, Skye; taken in 1992 prior to conservation. Earwood 1991; 237,Illus 235. ©National Museums Scotland

A wooden bridge for a lyre from High Pasture Cave came from contexts dated to the second half of the 4th century cal BC and is a rare surviving example of stringed instruments in Western Europe (Birch and Wildgoose 2013, 82–3; Lawson 2019; Case Study High Pasture Cave).

Wooden bridge for a lyre from High Pasture Cave, Skye. ©Steven Birch

A worked piece of birch, dated to 761–406 cal BC, was found next to a small deposit of bark in peat at Dail Na Caraidh on the Great Glen, which is the site of the large Early Bronze Age metalwork deposits (Case Study Dail na Caraich Hoard). The bark in particular was interesting, as there was no trace of wood and it seems carefully chosen. Birch bark has many uses, including for burning, making containers, use as a waterproof lining or scabbard sheaths, as well as for tanning. Its presence at the site of the hoard suggests people using the birch woodland (Dickson and Dickson 1999; Romankiewicz 2011, 137,140).

Basketry is likely to have been much used, especially given the prevalence of hazel and willow, but virtually no evidence survives. A number of sites have evidence of wattle work, for example the wattled lined pits at Redcastle (MHG9112; Hale 2000) and the workshops at Culduthel (Hatherley and Murray 2021); the Ballachulish figure may have been surrounded by a wattle panels (MHG4306; Case Study Ballachulish Moss Figure). The catastrophic fire at Clachtoll broch provided evidence of wicker work, some perhaps used for the flooring (Graeme Cavers pers comm).

Hides would have been used for a variety of purposes, with de-haired fragments at Redcastle Crannog (MHG9112) in the Beauly Firth providing evidence of local working (Hale 2000). However, Iron Age leather was not tanned – it was prepared by smoking, oiling or rubbing other preservatives into it, and it rarely survives even in waterlogged conditions. No textiles survive in the Highlands, although tools for making textiles survive in a number of contexts (see 7.5).

Bone and antler were used for everything from everyday tools such as awls, fish gorges and multi-purpose points, to more specialist craft tools such as long-handled combs, modelling tools, weaponry (such as bone spearheads) and domestic fittings as well as personal jewellery. These present a large body of material which could be examined more closely for production evidence and use wear. Recent excavations have mostly produced only small assemblages, but antiquarian excavations revealed a much wider range of items, and parallels from nearby Orkney or the Western Isles give a hint of the potential. Publication of the finds from High Pasture Cave and Fiskavaig on Skye will be of great significance (Birch et al forthcoming).

A critical need is for tighter dating control to allow for changes to be tracked: for instance, a bone point from the midden at An Corran, Skye (MHG6497) dates to 336–78 cal BC (AA-29312; Saville et al 2012), providing valuable dating evidence for this common item. Other dated objects include two antler weaving combs from Nybster broch, Caithness (MHG1593; 49 cal BC–AD 120 and cal AD 27–216; SUERC-18290; SUERC-18289) and one from Elsay broch, Caithness (MHG2079; cal AD 143–384; SUERC-18284).


Case Study: Clachtoll Broch

Case Study: Ballachulish Figure

Case Study: High Pasture Cave

Case Study: Dail na Caraich Hoard

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