6.3 The Archaeological Resource

Compared to some other periods, and the Iron Age in particular, there have been relatively few extensively excavated early medieval sites in Perth and Kinross. Historically, the archaeology of the period was largely unknown (Wainwright 1955 until relatively recently. A good example is the poorly understood character of houses, which only began to change with the work of Ralston (1997). Those sites that have been explored fall within three broad categories: secular elite sites, essentially forts and cemeteries; high-status religious sites, ie early monastic sites; and rural lower status peasant houses, ie Pitcarmick-type byre-houses that survive mainly in the uplands of Glen Shee and Strathardle. These categories are not rigid; for example, there are a small number of burials interpreted as lower status rather than elite, such as the male inhumation from Blair Atholl (Czére et al 2021).  Exploration of this limited range of site types, with an emphasis on those of high-status, has undoubtedly influenced what can be said about the period. Additional forms of evidence, notably the carved stones (Fraser 2008; Henderson and Henderson 2004), and textual references (Woolf 2007), do little to alleviate this bias, as they are also exclusively focused on the upper echelons of society.

The artefactual material from Perth and Kinross is critical for understanding the early medieval period. Documentary references to places in the region are sparse and concentrate on power centres in the east, while the distribution of diagnostic artefacts demonstrates occupation from the Highland glens to the lower Strathtay. The majority of finds from early medieval sites are not chronologically diagnostic and require other dating evidence.

The movement and reuse of objects is both a challenge and opportunity for understanding the period. The Anglo-Saxon segmented bead from Lair was probably an heirloom when deposited, and the decorated spindle whorl from the same site was of non-local sandstone. While this can be problematic in terms of understanding the origins and journey of some items, others give a clearer indication of trade networks. One such example are the imported E-wares, which are found on high-status sites such as the forts  of Dundurn (Alcock et al 1989; Campbell 2007; Campbell 2020; Campbell and Bowles 2009) and the King’s Seat, Dunkeld (Strachan and MacIver forthcoming). 

The date range of objects recovered by excavation focuses on the mid-centuries of the early medieval period, around AD 700–900. The material is, unsurprisingly, primarily indicative of aristocratic activity, given the nature of the majority sites investigated, but also perhaps due to the difficulties of dating mundane tools such as knives, whetstones and querns. Finds from before the 7th century are rarer, in contrast to the wealth of burial evidence from this period (Winlow 2011). There is also strong evidence of ‘Viking Age’ (about 800–1100) artefacts which is bolstered by stray finds. The period ends with the establishment of the earliest burghs, particularly Perth, where its origins in the early medieval period are revealed by the material culture, well before its first royal charter was issued in the 12th century.