The study and understanding of equestrian equipment offer a genuine insight into the lives of past peoples. The horse provided transport, military and trade advantage and reflects social status, as it takes a landscape and a lifestyle to successfully raise and train the animals. The equipment used also shows what tasks equids were meant to perform within that society, as the variety of bits made and used reflect the tasks required. Bits are the bars, mostly metal but can be leather or rope, which are placed within the mouth of a horse, then attached to strapping to create a bridle as a means to control the direction and movement of the animal. There are many kinds of bits, all with different effects. A driving bit, for example, will often be stronger in effect than a riding bit, due to the distance between driver and equid.
Carts and wagons appear in some European high-status burials during the late Halstatt period (800 BC-450 BC) (Pare 1987) often accompanied with simple bits employed for use with these vehicles. Burials with lightweight carts, and occasionally the horses which drew them, continued to occur in northern France and Belgium, into the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC (Olivier 2016). These chariots, their lorinery assemblages, and burial customs, were interpreted by the Arras culture of Yorkshire’s East Riding area (Jay et al 2013), due to interactions with western Europe. Lorinery is the collective name for the small pieces of metal equipment used in bridles and harness. Making these objects is a highly skilled craft, and as such, its study in archaeology can tell us a great deal about the past.
England and Wales have several types of bit, including the elongated central link Hagbourne Hill types, which resemble the snaffles of the Arras chariot burials, the cuffed cannon Polden Hill types (Palik 1984) and some other outliers, such as the highly decorated piece from Ulceby (Leeds 1933). Ireland has unique ported snaffles of the Late Iron Age (Maguire 2018), but it is the diversity of equitation equipment which stands out in Scotland, with visible influences from other places. Here we highlight a very small selection of the material used in Scotland, which indicate regional connectivity to the rest of the island of Britain, as well as to Europe, all of which require further intensive study.
Iron Age- and earlier
Evidence for equitation in later prehistoric Scotland has included spectacular vehicle finds at Huly Hill, Newbridge, near Edinburgh (Carter et al 2010), and now Peebles. While the details of Peebles are still not available, Newbridge has demonstrated that the north of the island of Britain¹ was interpreting European equitation trends during the 5th century BC, as this chariot burial pre-dates the Arras examples by some 200 years. The bits used are simple single-jointed ‘nutcracker’ snaffles, commonly used in Europe and the Steppes regions from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age (Metzner-Nebelsick 1994), although it is an unusual type for Scotland.
The fragment of a Hagbourne Hill/Arras style snaffle at Hurly Hawkin, Angus (Taylor 1982) demonstrates that equestrian influences from further south were indeed present in Scotland, although the specimen could date to any time between the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, as this style of jointed bit had considerable longevity of manufacture (Figure 1). The unusual jet (possible) terret from Luce Bay, Wigtownshire, which may date from the Late Bronze Age (like Peebles), again indicates contact with Yorkshire, as the jet used for it came from Whitby (Figure 2). Six of these objects are known to exist, all from within the south of Scotland.
The splendid complete snaffle found at Loughlea crannog (Munro 1879), Ayrshire, in 1879 shows a certain amount of reinterpretation of bit styles to make something uniquely local. It has design commonalities with a snaffle from Swanton Morley, in Norfolk (which may be 1st century AD or slightly earlier) (Norfolk Heritage Explorer) but includes a no-frills, blunt variation of the Polden Hill cuff at the cannon joint (Figure 3). This is also present on a somewhat problematic specimen from Middlebie, Dumfrieshire (Palk 1984; fig C43, No. SB7), which presents the hypothesis that this modification was a regional interpretation of lorinery from further south (Figure 4).
Late Iron Age (c. 200 BC to AD 200) metal bridle fittings (“tack”) and harness, (equipment used to attach a horse to pull a vehicle ), is often decorated with ornate insular La Tène-derivative motifs, sometimes with enamel or glass inlays. The Torr chamfrain (1st to 3rd century BC) is perhaps the most notably flamboyant (Figure 5). Martyn Jope (2000) considered that the loop and pelta design on this object was possibly the handiwork of a scabbard-maker, due to the designs being so similar to Irish scabbards found at Coleraine, Toome and Lisnacrogher.
The styles of lorinery found at Carlingwark Loch and Eckford also suggest that the eastern coast of Britain was key to diffusing equestrian technologies by the Roman period. Piggott (1953) suggested that the enamelled rein-stop of Carlingwark, and even the oversized specimen from Birrens, were skeuomorphs of earlier antler fittings of the Late Bronze Age, like those found at Heathery Burn in Durham and Flag Fen, Norfolk (Britnell 1976). This is likely to be a correct assumption, another manifestation of the mixing of old and new ideas and technologies which occurred during the Late Iron Age/ early Roman period (Hunter 2015).
It is tempting to see all Iron Age equestrian equipment as extravagant and highly decorated, but the metal specimens which have survived were the ‘top end’ of the market. There is evidence that more vernacular equipment was being used, especially in more remote regions. There may also be some tentative indications that after the Roman period, tack styles followed a similar pattern to that of Ireland (Maguire 2019), with organic (and therefore easily perishable) materials being used more frequently, resulting in less preserved artefactual evidence.
An Iodhlann, the regional museum of Tiree Island, off the western coast of Scotland has the closest thing to an archaeological living ‘fossil’ for tack – a brangas (Holliday 2017). This is a bridle made from organic materials, such as reworked fragments of wood from whiskey barrels, often with a mouthpiece and reins made from marram grass or straw. The islanders have a strong awareness that these objects originate in prehistory, and their creation today is a maintenance of tradition. The brangas has strong parallels with the Scandinavian grimes, which has its own origins in Late Bronze Age equitation (Maguire 2020). Perforated antler found at Dun Mor Vaul (MacKie 1974) on Tiree may be components of organic bridles, with possible pre-Viking early medieval dates. Bone assemblages on Dun Ardtreck (MacKie 2000) and North Uist (Foshigarry; Bac Mhic Connain) (Hallen and O’Neill 1994) show that horses were not plentiful, but certainly present, while the bones and teeth from Tiree and Coll (Beveridge 1903) indicate a somewhat ambivalent status, of friend and food – perhaps to be expected on islands which would have endured periods of inaccessibility to mainland trade in winter.
Chronology is key to building a better understanding of the relationship between horse and human in ancient Scotland. The subtle differences in lorinery can assist with this, but a caveat must be stated that metal objects like bits and harness components have long lives, often re-used and repaired. As such they may be deposited in contexts very much out of their time. However, further study can enhance knowledge regarding contact with the rest of Britain and Europe. This brief entry can only offer an indicative overview, highlighting the most obvious areas which require analysis. There is a unique story of contact and trade between equestrians and elites waiting to be told, from the sheer diversity of lorinery styles, which is worth much further study.
¹The later prehistoric period did not have the borders and boundaries of the modern world, and there appears to be some fluidity of styles north of the Humber, both in what is now northern England and Scotland.
Find out more about these objects:
Newbridge Chariot Burial – National Museums Scotland
Torrs Pony Cap – National Museums Scotland
Equitation, Trade, and Contact in Later Prehistoric Scotland Bibliography
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