Iron Age burial evidence has been elusive, though by the time of the National ScARF new evidence was beginning to be recognised (ScARF Iron Age sections 7.6). Since then a number of older finds have been dated and new Highland burials have added to the picture (see Table 7.12). Nevertheless, burial evidence is limited for the Highlands, with gaps in Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey and Nairn, and many finds have emerged only by chance in recent years. Evidence is very sparse for the Early to Middle Iron Age.
|Crosskirk broch||C||AD 130–340||SUERC-23664||Perforated femur head found on platform west of entrance||MHG45519; Tucker and Armit 2009|
|Whitegate broch||C||210–50 BC||SUERC-24961||Cranial fragment from roundhouse interior||MHG1545; Tucker and Armit 2009|
|Wag of Forse||C||AD 130–340 AD 230–340||SUERC-24239|
|Individual bones buried below roundhouse entrance||MHG2404; Tucker and Armit 2009|
|Ackergill||C||AD 256–530||SUERC-2985||Unstratified human bone in barrow cemetery; probably early medieval in date||MHG2135; Hunter Blair 2004|
|Kintradwell broch||S||AD 80–260||SUERC-23669||Cranium placed at interior end of broch entrance||MHG9777; Tucker and Armit 2009|
|Dornoch Bridge Quarry||S||395–209 BC 405–235 BC||BRAMS-2596|
|Two cremation burials||Young et al 2019|
|Balnabruach||ER||410 –230 BC||SUERC-13257||Burial in short cist. In same area as early medieval burials||MHG14367; Carver et al 2016|
|Small quantities fragmented bone in two pits at roundhouse. One pit capped by saddle quern||MHG61055; Sneddon forthcoming|
|Sangobeg Sands||NWS||170 BC–AD 30||SUERC-4527||Inhumation of juvenille beneath Norse period house||MHG29877; Brady et al 2007|
|Loch Borralie||NWS||40 BC–AD 130||OxA-16490||Sub-rectangular burial cairn with 2 inhumations, probably multi-phase. Only one dated.||MHG33474; MacGregor 2009; Case Study; Loch Borralie|
|Applecross Old Steading||WR||156 BC–AD 53 AD 21–211 |
|At least four male burials, lain on top of one another, underneath 19th century steading building and animal bones.||MHG61030; Cathy Dagg, Ian Armit pers comm|
|High Pasture Cave||Skye||Span Early Iron Age to AD 25–90||Remains of 13 individuals, some foetal. Closing deposit of woman buried with 2 infants. Also disarticulated human bone||MHG32043; Birch et al forthcoming; Case Study; High Pasture Cave|
|Fiscavaig||Skye||Site dates to c. AD 50–150||Human cranial fragment with drilled hole||MHG51768; Armit and Shapland 2015, 38|
|Acharn||L||Possibly Late Iron Age||Charcoal from cist. Old date (1980s)||MHG496|
|Dun Mhurchaidh, Ardnamurchan||L||521–412 BC (68.2% probability)||Cremated bone beneath stone platform forming substantial structure.||Ardnamurchan Transitions Project|
Phil Richardson pers comm
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1
The Iron Age in Scotland is noted for its diverse burial traditions, with local preferences, encompassing inhumation, cremation, and the inclusion of token body parts. The deposition of skulls or perforated bone could be interpreted as being trophies from enemies or veneration of ancestors (ScARF Iron Age section 7.6; Armit and Ginn 2007).
The Highlands indeed show a continuation of a wide range of burial traditions, for example with a burial in a short cist from Balnabruach and one from Loch Borralie in a sub-rectangular cairn; without radiocarbon dating these would have been attributed to the Bronze Age and early medieval periods respectively. The Highlands is not unique in this range of burial traditions, and the need for dating elsewhere has been noted (Cook et al 2018).
A Clava-type ring cairn from Laikenbuie, Nairn-shire (MHG54907) would have been expected to produce a Bronze Age date, but radiocarbon dates from the fill of a small hole in the centre, and from the early land surface beneath the cairn, produced Early Iron Age dates; this is reminiscent of late use from the Balnuaran of Clava South ring cairn (Scott and Jack 2016; Bradley 2000). This may indicate harking back to a much earlier tradition. No finds, however, provided information as to the Laikenbuie cairn’s function.
In Caithness, burial of selected bone, sometimes pierced, appears at some broch sites (see Table 7.12). Many of these brochs would have been derelict, but they were clearly still seen as important in the landscape. This practice continues into the early medieval period (Heald and Barber 2015, 95ff; see also Chapter 8.6).
From northwest Sutherland there is evidence of carefully chosen materials and layouts for burials. The juvenille aged eight to ten years old that was buried at Sangobeg Sands (MHG29877) had been laid on a platform of white quartzite pebbles on their right side with body flexed. Several red stones were placed near the body, with a flat slab beneath the head. The burial was defined by a rough kerb of larger stones, then covered with clean beach sand and finally capped with larger quartzite stones. At the nearby Loch Borralie burial (MHG33474; Case Study Loch Borralie Burial) the body had also been placed on a platform of stone and earth, covered by another layer of sand and then sealed by stones including quartz and quartzite. A ring-headed pin accompanied one of the Loch Borralie burials (Brady et al 2007, 74ff; MacGregor 2009).
Some of the best burial evidence from the Highlands comes from High Pasture Cave (Case Study High Pasture Cave). Disarticulated human bone and the teeth of at least seven and possibly up to 12 individuals were deposited in the cave fit the wider tradition of disarticulation, curation and deliberate deposition found on other Iron Age Scottish sites, representing various practices carried out over several centuries. The bones were probably gathered from bodies left to decompose naturally. The final activity at the site was the burial of a female with two infants, a foetus and a perinatal infant who died during the last month of development or during the first two weeks of life; these individuals were placed at the top of the previously filled in stairwell around cal AD 25-90. The foetus was placed between the knees of the female, while two small bundles of bones at her feet contained the remains of the perinatal infant, the remains of a foetal pig and a perinatal dog. DNA analysis showed that the perinatal child was not related to the woman. This level of ritual detail is rarely available for Iron Age Scotland and clearly indicates the presence of distinct burial traditions even if not fully understood. Only children who died before or shortly after birth were placed in the cave, suggesting that individuals of a very young age were selected (Birch et al forthcoming).
Evidence of burial under paving slabs comes from recent finds at Dornoch Bridge quarry and Dun Mhurchaidh, Ardnamurchan (Phil Richardson pers comm). At Dornoch Bridge quarry the burials were near a pit containing Iron Age pottery and charred plant remains, possibly related to a burial ritual (Young et al 2019, 41–2).
Burials at times seem isolated, as the two in northwest Sutherland, but some appear to often be in domestic contexts or settlements, although more work on direct connections between burials in houses is needed. It is clear, as in other prehistoric periods, that archaeologists have only a small selection of the burial evidence (ScARF Iron Age section 3.8).