7.6.2 Ritual Areas

The evidence in Scotland and the Highlands suggests that wet and boggy areas or underground structures were used as ritual areas in Iron Age society; this is where objects were deposited and other activities took place (ScARF Iron Age sections, 1; 3.8; 7.6). Rituals were also embedded in the structures of daily life.

The excavations at High Pasture Cave (MHG273776; Case Study High Pasture Cave) have transformed the understanding of ritual sites in Iron Age Scotland. Ritual deposition occurred in the cave passages, where there was an underground stream, while on the surface feasting and metalworking took place. Most of the objects were not exotic, but they had been carefully chosen and deposited. Some show signs of deliberate breakage. Metalworking waste appears to have been deliberately redeposited. High Pasture Cave must have been an important place for gathering, exchange, feasting and veneration: it was probably a place for the negotiation of status and forging new relationships and identities. It provides key evidence for the importance of caves sites being seen as special and unusual in Iron Age society (Birch et al forthcoming).

Some brochs and roundhouses have evidence of nearby wells, such as at Whitegate, Kettleburn, Keiss Road and Crosskirk brochs in Caithness, some with evidence of  stone steps. Dating is difficult, and in some cases might go back to the Bronze Age. While they could have been used for water supply, increasingly the more elaborate wells are seen as having a ritual focus (Heald and Barber 2015, 136-9), akin to the underground passage at High Pasture Cave.

The wooden figurine with quartzite eyes placed at Ballachulish Moss (MHG4306; Case Study Ballachulish Moss Figure) and radiocarbon-dated to the Early Iron Age was covered and surrounded by basketry, perhaps it was even in a wattle hut. The figure is unique in Scotland, but it is one of the best hints of religious veneration of female figures, and is perhaps a symbol of fertility (Christison 1880-1881; Coles 1990; www.nms.ac.uk/ballachulishfigure). However, there’s so little evidence of deity-depiction in the Iron Age in Britain, that other interpretations are possible; the figure could represent an ancestor figure, for instance (Fraser Hunter pers comm). An archaeological assessment of the area in 1993, followed by further trial trenching, test pitting and several dated cores in 1996, found no further evidence of Iron Age features. However, antiquarian accounts mention deposits found in the 19th century. The excavation conditions were challenging, but show potentially well-preserved deposits for future investigation (Clarke 1998).

The Ballachullish Figure upon it’s discovery in 1880 (left) and The Ballachulish Figure as it looks today in its distorted state on display at the National Museum of Scotland (right) ©National Museums Scotland

There are clear patterns to what was selected for deposition. Many of the wooden vessels (Table 7.10) can be seen as deliberate deposits, often associated with food offerings such as bog butter (Hunter 1997), but in contrast to other parts of Scotland, decorative metalwork was almost never deposited (Hunter 1997; 2019, 63, fig 49). However, small personal items such as pins and bangles are known from peat bogs, indicating that personal offerings did occur; Iron Age finds from Neolithic chambered cairns suggest that these monuments had a continuing significance into the Iron Age (Hingley 1996; Hunter 2019, 79–82, tables 6-8). On settlement sites, deliberate deposits of artefacts are often connected with moments that are significant in a site’s history. At Culduthel, for instance, postholes in the houses often contained finds, including an iron dagger; other objects were connected with the abandonment of buildings (Hatherley and Murray 2021).

Certain objects appear to have acquired ritual significance. Querns, either intact or smashed, appear in contexts which suggest deliberate deposition, for example at High Pasture Cave (Birch et al forthcoming) and Culduthel (McLaren 2021); elsewhere in Scotland they have been found in foundation or abandonment deposits, and may be linked to fertility (ScARF Iron Age section 7.6; Hingley 1992; McLaren 2021). The reuse of a rotary quern as a metalworking mould at Culduthel is rare and may have had a symbolic purpose (McLaren 2021). The finds of grains in underground souterrains (see 7.6.4) may also relate to fertility. Elsewhere a strong of ritual deposition with agricultural tools has been argued (Hingley 1992).

 

Case Study: High Pasture Cave

Case Study: Ballachulish Figure

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