5.5.2 Craftworking

Fundamental questions remain concerning the nature and organisation of craftworking in Iron Age Scotland. Artefactual evidence from Perth and Kinross provides a limited, but nevertheless informative base from which to consider these, as it indicates a range of making practices comparable to those in other areas which have received greater archaeological attention. 

Craftworking evidence has been found on several settlement sites in the region. These include, for example, crucibles and moulds for the production of decorative bronze objects and waste material representing various stages of iron production. There are also roughouts and debris from the production of cannel coal/shale artefacts and valuable proxy indicators for organic crafts such as polishing stones for leatherworking and spindle whorls for textile production. 

A general overview of Scottish Iron Age craftworking, the raw materials available and wider considerations and research questions is presented in the ScARF Iron Age section 4.4; see also Hunter 2015

Proxy evidence: stone 

Stone tools can provide valuable proxy data for craft activities for which the finished products and working waste have since degraded. Spindle whorls on many sites confirm widespread and localised textile production, as at Moredun fort (Strachan et al forthcoming) and Castle Craig broch (Poller forthcoming). Polishers for use in textile production and whetstones for sharpening long-since corroded iron tools are frequent finds on settlement sites. 


Spindle whorls are the most common artefacts associated with textile production. Other associated tools made from organic materials are much rarer, although a cache of bone points from in situ burnt deposits from the monumental roundhouse within Moredun fort, Perth, have been interpreted as possible textile-working implements (Strachan et al forthcoming). They provide rare, well-preserved evidence for bone artefacts in central Scotland and may have been deposited either in use, or intentionally (Strachan et al forthcoming). 

A person's hands holding a small metal tray, lined with white tissue paper. On top of the paper are rows of small, crumbling bone pieces, all shaped like pencils or small points. There are around 16 pieces of different sizes.
Bone points from Moredun ©️ AOC Archaeology Group

Cannel Coal / Shale Working 

The exceptional assemblage from Moredun fort includes many pieces diagnostic of various stages of production, such as roughouts – blanks for bangles – and debris/working waste; the quantity recovered suggests a small centre of production, relying on imported roughouts (Strachan et al forthcoming). Known sources of oil shale, cannel coal and lignite occur in the central Scottish coalfields and scattered along the western coast of Scotland and Inner Hebrides, with one outlier at Brora, Sutherland (Hunter 2015, 230 Illus 13.3). Further analysis of this important group of finds may enhance understanding of raw material sources, trading and production. It may provide a basis for considering the social significance of artefact production in Iron Age society in Scotland, including the organisation and nature of craftworking and how finished objects may have been valued in different regions (Hunter 2015). 

Non-ferrous metalworking 

Evidence for later prehistoric non-ferrous metalworking in areas of southern and eastern Scotland is limited, and largely confined to enclosed settlements, specifically forts (Heald 2005, 126). In the Early Iron Age it is often accompanied by iron working, and the recovery of both iron and bronze-working debris from settlements suggests that, in certain areas of Scotland, the first manufacture of iron objects took place while bronze-smiths still plied their craft (Heald 2005). 

Limited evidence for iron and bronze-working was discovered at Oakbank crannog. The metalworking evidence from Oakbank crannog provides a valuable insight into the early Bronze Age to Iron Age transition and wider social and economic developments. 

Excavations at Kay Craig (MPK1405) produced evidence of Iron Age and Roman activity and non-ferrous metalworking. While the site was heavily disturbed, it included a hearth setting surrounded by metalworking debris and a crucible fragment (Poller 2013c; Poller forthcoming). The hillfort at Castle Law, Abernethy, also produced evidence of non-ferrous metalworking (Strachan et al forthcoming). 

Metalworking debris is often found in secondary deposits in souterrains, including a mould from one of the upper fills of the souterrain at Shanzie, dated to the Middle Iron Age (MPK12170; Heald 2005). 

Ephemeral remains of a metalworking area were discovered during excavations of the henge and stone circle at Moncrieffe, where clay crucible fragments, molten bronze and iron slag were recovered (MPK3163; Stewart et al 1986). While originally assigned a Late Bronze Age date, a Late Iron Age/Roman date is supported by analysis of the crucible that demonstrates that it was used for melting silver, suggesting a date no earlier than the 2nd century AD (Heald 2005, 177). Moncrieffe is important as it provides rare evidence for the reuse of a Neolithic monument for metalworking and an unusual insight into possible 3rd–4th century AD activity in the region. 

Recycling Roman alloys 

Over the 1st–2nd centuries AD the use of Roman alloys to fashion new objects in local styles makes a conspicuous appearance in the archaeological record. Roman objects were not only prestige items, but also a valuable raw material for melting and casting into new objects (Heald 2005; Hunter 2007, 38); a practice known across northern Europe (Wells 2013, 9). Two scientific studies have been pivotal for understanding metalworking processes during this period: Dungworth’s (1996) analysis of the production of copper alloys in Iron Age Britain, and Heald’s (2005) assessment of the evidence for non-ferrous metalworking in Iron Age Scotland through analysis of debris. 

Ferrous Metalworking 

The Iron Age saw the adoption of iron as the dominant material for tools and weapons. Assessment of the evidence for iron working in Scotland (Cruickshanks 2017) shows that while iron slag – waste from the smelting and smithing processes – is found on many sites, evidence for smelting of iron is markedly less common than smithing, suggesting it was a more restricted process. Iron-smelting was a highly specialised process, perhaps ritually charged, which went beyond the process of producing material for everyday objects (Giles 2012). Evidence for the production of iron in Perth and Kinross is limited and where it has been found, for example at Moredun fort, it suggests small-scale ironworking, probably to produce and maintain iron tools and equipment for the immediate community (Strachan et al forthcoming). 

The regular use of iron tools and weapons would have required blacksmiths on most settlement sites, even at a basic level for mending everyday objects (Hunter 2015c, 233–4). Ironworking debris is found on many settlement sites, often incorporated within fills of pits and souterrains, for example, at Shanzie (Coleman and Hunter 2002), Newmill (Watkins 1981) and the recently excavated souterrain at Loak Farm, near Bankfoot (Demay 2021). Discovered in backfill deposits, ironworking debris cannot be used to accurately reconstruct metalworking practices but it provides evidence that ironworking was taking place in the vicinity, which is important for mapping Iron Age metalworking in the region. Given slag was rarely retained by early excavators (Hunter 2015c, 233), recent and planned developer-led work poses an excellent opportunity to investigate unknown settlement sites and to enhance our current understanding of the nature and organisation of metalworking across the region and Iron Age Scotland.