5.5.5 Belief and Ritual

Bone, stone and pottery were important to the inhabitants of Iron Age Scotland and objects usually viewed as prosaic were as likely to be symbolic as they were functional, playing an important part in ritual activities within settlements and the wider landscape. Structured deposition is well-attested on Iron Age settlement sites with objects such as querns and stone tools placed in foundation deposits, secondary deposits and structures. Votive offerings, predominantly metalwork and coins, are known from peat bogs and other wetland environments. One Iron Age burial is known from Perth and Kinross, which is part of a rare group of burials containing grave goods. The varied evidence from Perth and Kinross forms an excellent dataset to consider many of the questions surrounding belief and ritual in Iron Age Scotland. 


There is copious evidence for the special treatment of quern stones across Iron Age Scotland, often in foundation or secondary/closing deposits. One of five quernstones recovered from the Black Spout was buried under the paving at the threshold to the intramural cell which may have provided access to an upper floor in the building (Strachan 2013, 40–5; Case Study The Black Spout). The reuse of querns in several phases of construction of the roundhouses at Aldclune have been interpreted as imports from older settlement sites, symbolically placed in the foundation deposits of new dwellings, and again several were redeposited near entrances (Hingley et al 1998, 452). Querns are also known from souterrain closure deposits, for example, at Newmill (Armit 1999) and Shanzie (Coleman and Hunter 2002). The transitional very Late Iron Age/early medieval inhumation burial from Blair Atholl (MPK1168) contained no grave goods but the long cist was partially closed off by an unfinished or pseudo-quernstone, which may represent a continuity of Iron Age ritual modalities (Czére et al 2021, 32–3, illus.2). 

Polished Stone discs

Iron Age burials are extremely rare; a limited number contain polished stone discs, including that from Baledgarno (McManus Art Galleries and Museums accession number DUNMG 1964-79), which is the most southerly known example. It is suggested as the only known Iron Age burial in Perth and Kinross (Hunter 2021). A reassessment of a polished stone disc from an Iron Age cist burial on Orkney suggests it may have been used as a palette for cosmetic, medical or cosmetic purposes (Graham-Campbell and Hunter 2021). 

Bone tools

The cache of bone points from in situ burnt deposits in the monumental roundhouse within Moredun fort may have been deposited intentionally (Strachan et al forthcoming). Caches of bone tools are also known from other Iron Age sites such as Fiskavaig, Skye (Birch et al 2021). At the Cairns, Rousay, Orkney, a cache of long-handled bone combs likely to be related to textile production were placed in a lattice formation mimicking woven cloth (ScARF ECR Case Study Long-handled Iron Age bone combs). 


Frequently portrayed as magical objects in Celtic myth and legend, cauldrons, as well as being of great domestic, practical value had a rich, symbolic and ritual value. They are often found as votive deposits in watery places. The exceptional cauldron from Abercairny (MPK1515) is such an example, and is discussed in detail above. 

Massive metalwork

A pair of bronze armlets were discovered at Pitkelloney, Muthill close to one another in the ploughsoill. They were probably buried as a pair and disturbed by the plough. A spiral snake bracelet and massive armlet were discovered with other smaller objects in a vessel at the foot of Schiehallion (MacGregor  1976 no. 213 and 238). Frustratingly, the vessel and smaller items are now lost, but they provide a tantalising and rare insight into Iron Age hoarding practices. These cases are fully discussed above. 

Large and robust semi-circular armlet which is green in colour with red and yellow enamel decorations. The two ends are round with raised line details and small, circular decorations in the centre, which resemble red and yellow flowers.
Massive bronze armlet from Muthill, Pikelloney ©️ British Museum

Reuse of monuments

This is evidenced by the short-lived metalworking area discovered during the excavation of the stone circle at Moncrieffe for both non-ferrous and ferrous metalworking (Heald 2005). Metalworking may have taken place in a ritually charged environment, especially in the complex production of iron, where ore was transformed into metal. The metalworkers themselves were also likely to have been viewed as important and powerful individuals within Iron Age society (Giles 2012). 

Souterrain abandonment

Substantial stone-lined souterrains, characterised by Wainwright (1963) as ‘souterrains of southern Pictland’, have been suggested by Armit (1999) as showing clear evidence for deliberate destruction or backfilling, while others propose more gradual abandonment (Halliday 2006; Coleman and Hunter 2002). Several souterrains of this type in Perth and Kinross provide evidence of structured deposition, often incorporating Roman material, for example at Newmill (Watkins 1981) and Shanzie (Coleman and Hunter 2002). In addition to evidence for the careful dismantling of the structure, various objects related to craftworking were recovered from the recently excavated souterrain at Loak Farm, Bankfoot. These included a possible cache of coarse stone tools, pottery, a whetstone, metalworking debris, a cup-marked sandstone block and possible anvil stone (Demay 2021). Excavation evidence suggests souterrains were usually cleaned out prior to being backfilled/closed and as a result in situ deposits and artefacts are rare. However, this activity provides additional evidence of belief and ritual activity surrounding a labour-intensive process which probably involved the entire community. 

Roman objects

As mentioned, Roman objects found in backfilled souterrains may have been deliberate deposits.  Various brooches and coins have been recovered from the margins of Loch Leven; these are areas which are dry today but before the 18th century drainage, they would have been submerged, partially submerged or boggy. These objects not only provide evidence of votive deposition, they also show the symbolic value of exotic objects for ritual activities (discussed in detail in the Influence of Rome section).