Category Archives: SCOTLAND

Well-Preserved Iron Age Butter Found At The Bottom Of Lake In Scotland

Well-Preserved Iron Age Butter Found At The Bottom Of Lake In Scotland

The replica crannog on Loch Tay, where the butter was found.

Now, the wooden butter dish remains one of the most evocative items left behind by Scotland’s ancient water dwellers who made their homes on Loch Tay.

The dish was recovered during earlier excavations on the loch where at least 17 crannogs, or Iron Age wooden houses, were once dotted up and down the water.

Built from alder with a life span of around 20 years, the structures simply collapsed into the loch once they had served their purpose, with an incredible array of objects taken with them.

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Well-Preserved Iron Age Butter Found At The Bottom Of Lake In Scotland
The 2,500-year-old butter dish and the remains of the butter.

Among them was the dish which, remarkably, still carried traces of butter made by this Iron Age community.

Rich Hiden, the archaeologist at the Scottish Crannog Centre, said the item had helped to illuminate the everyday life of the crannog dwellers who farmed the surrounding land, and grew barley and ancient wheats such as spelt and emmer, and reared animals.

The crannogs were probably considered high-status sites which offered good security as well as easy access to trading routes along the Tay and into the North Sea.

Mr Hiden said conditions at the bottom of the loch had offered the perfect environment to preserve the butter and the dish.

He said: “Because of the fantastic anaerobic conditions, where there is very light, oxygen or bacteria to break down anything organic, you get this type of sealed environment.

“When they started excavating, they pulled out this square wooden dish, well around three-quarters of a square wooden dish, which had these really nice chisel marks on the sides as well as this grey stuff.”

Liped analysis on this matter found that it was dairy material, with experts believing it likely originated from a cow. Holes in the bottom of the wooden dish further suggest that it was used for the buttering process.

Cream would have been churned until thickened until it splits to form the buttermilk, with a woven cloth – possibly made from nettle fibres – placed in the dish with the clumps of cream and then further pushed through to separate the last of the liquid.

The butter then may have been turned into cheese by adding rennet, which naturally forms in a number of plants, including nettles.

Mr Hiden said: “This dish is so valuable in many ways. To be honest, we would expect people of this time to be eating dairy. In the early Iron Age, they had mastered the technology of smelting iron ore into to’s so mastering the technology of dairy we would expect.

“So while it may not surprise us that they are eating dairy, what is so important about this butter dish is that it helps us to identify what life was like in the crannogs and the skills and the tools that they had

“To me, that is archaeology at its finest. It is using the object itself to unravel the story. The best thing about this butter dish is that is so personal and offers us such a complete snapshot of what was happening here.

He added: “It is not just a piece of wood. You look at it and you start to extrapolate so much. If you start to pull one thread, you look at the tool marks and you see they were using very fine chisels to make this kind of object. They were probably making their own so that gives another aspect as to how life was here.”

It is believed that 20 people and animals lived in a crannog at any one time. Many trees were used to fashion the homes, with the Iron Age residents having a solid knowledge of trees with their houses thatched with reed and bracken.

Hazel was woven into panels to make walls and partitions.

Plans are underway to relocate the Scottish Crannog Centre to a bigger site at Dalerb, with three to four crannogs to be built in the water there.

Abandoned Metalworking Site Found in Scotland

Abandoned Metalworking Site Found in Scotland

A metal-working site uncovered in Moray may have helped arm Caledonian tribes against the Romans, before being burned down by the invaders. Archaeologists have described the site at Lochinver Quarry, near Elgin, as fascinating and unusual.

Abandoned Metalworking Site Found in Scotland
Archaeologists have found evidence of extensive metal production near Elgin

Evidence has been found of metal production over a period of up to 2,000 years from the Bronze Age through the Iron Age.

Archaeologists believe they could end up excavating as many as 40 iron smelting sites.

Prior to these discoveries around 25 such sites have been found in the whole of Scotland. Lochinver appears to have been abandoned suddenly and homes and other structures burned down.

Archaeologists suggest one possible explanation could be that it may have been the actions of Roman soldiers following their victory over Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Grapius around AD 83.

The site may have been used over a period of 1,500 to 2,000 years

Dr Clive Waddington, of Archaeology Research Services Ltd, said the evidence being found at Lochinver made it different from Moray’s other Bronze Age and Iron Age sites.

He said the later metal-working could possibly have been in response to the Roman invasion of Scotland, with iron needed for weapons.

Dr Waddington added: “Something happens on this site that removes any further activity.

“We have got these burnt timbers and abandoned pits for making charcoal.

“We have got pits with roasted ore – a valuable commodity – ready for smelting but just abandoned.”

Two cauldrons have also been found buried, possibly by the Lochinver’s residents in an effort to hide the highly valued items.

Dr Waddington said it was possible Lochinver was abandoned in the aftermath of Mons Grapius which saw Roman troops and cavalry defeat 30,000 Caledonians.

Suggested locations of the battle include Dunning in Perthshire, Carpow in Fife, Bennachie in Aberdeenshire and Culloden in the Highlands.

Dr Waddington said: “The battle was a big victory for the Romans and could explain why some sites were burned down, with Romans torching sites as they came through after the battle.”

Archaeologists have described Lochinver Quarry as fascinating and unusual

Archaeological Research Services Ltd and Aberdeenshire Council are investigating the site supported by funding from building materials company Tarmac.

The work has been further supported by various universities including radiocarbon dating at the University of Glasgow, specialist artefact conservation at the University of Durham and expert knowledge from the National Museum of Scotland.

Archaeologists track the Scottish whisky story from the black market to the global export

Archaeologists track the Scottish whisky story from the black market to the global export

Archaeologists have returned to the site of the first legal distillery in Speyside to track how whisky went from a black market operation woven into the fabric of Scotland’s rural communities to one of the country’s biggest exports.

The original Glenlivet site, which was operated by farmer George Smith from 1824 after he made his underground whisky-making operation legal, is being excavated by archaeologists from National Trust for Scotland (NTS), who are working in conjunction with the distillery.

The site is around one kilometre from today’s home of Glenlivet, which Smith opened in 1859 to expand production and take advantage of a greater run of water off the hill.

Archaeologists track the Scottish whisky story from the black market to the global export
© Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology at National Trust for Scotland and Alan Winchester, Glenlivet’

The Pioneering Spirit project is now focusing on the original Glenlivet distillery after archaeologists spent months examining sites of illegal stills across the Highlands.

Derek Alexander, head of archaeological services at NTS, said: “The distillery we are working on here is a nice bridge between the small-scale illicit distilling and large-scale industrial production.”

Today’s Glenlivet site is modelled on Smith’s original distillery, which was set up on his farm.

Such was Smith’s unpopularity in the local community after he was granted a legal distilling licence under the 1823 Excise Act, which sanctioned distilling for a £10 licence fee and set payment per gallon of proof spirit, that he acquired two pistols to defend his property.

Mr Alexander said the aim of the dig was to find archaeology for each stage of the distilling process, with the operation set up around a courtyard.

Earlier, a piece of exciseman’s padlock was found at the site with pieces of the barrel now recovered.

Mr Alexander said: “We have also found the outline of the fireplaces where the stills were sitting.”

One may have been used for the wash still and the other for the spirit still, it is believed, with hopes that remain of grain drying still will also be found. Pieces of copper sulphite, a waste product of the distilling process, have been discovered.

The excavation will run for two weeks and will be assisted by NTS volunteers and members of the surrounding community, including schoolchildren.

Mr Alexander said: “It’s much easier to dig this site than those much harder to reach places, where we are carrying our equipment up a hill track for maybe an hour and then into a gully. These places are quite inaccessible by their nature and not that safe.

“We were using the same techniques as the excisemen would when they were out looking for illicit stills. You basically follow the burn line.”

Robert Athol, the newly appointed archivist for Chivas Brothers, which owns Glenlivet, said Smith risked “life and liberty” to produce whisky at his farm.

“His courage and conviction not only defined the path for The Glenlivet but was also influential on the development of Scotch whisky in general.”

NTS estimates there are at least 30 illicit stills across its 129 sites, including at Torridon, Kintail, Grey Mare’s Tail and the Mar Lodge Estate in western Aberdeenshire.

Man Finds Secret Window Hidden Behind Wallpaper in 19th-Century Home

Man Finds Secret Window Hidden Behind Wallpaper in 19th-Century Home

A man discovered a secret window hidden behind wallpaper in his house, thought to date back to the 19th century, as he lovingly renovated the property. Alex Howard is restoring the antique grandeur to his home, in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has been sharing progress to his TikTok page, @housedoctoralex.

Howard, an author, has been painstakingly removing all the woodchip wallpaper throughout the house—similar to popcorn style—when he found something unusual lurking behind the hardboard. He shared a clip of himself up a ladder armed with a wallpaper scraper, as he pokes a hole through the covering, and realizes there’s something on the other side. Howard immediately rips off the wallpaper, shouting “window” as he uncovered the black-rimmed frame. He captioned the video, which can be seen here: “Wtf I found a hidden window in my flat,” adding: “Well that was unexpected.”

In the comments, he revealed the woodchip was “getting steamed off and re-lined next month,” explaining the window was covered by flimsy sheets of hardboard. Speaking to Newsweek, Howard explained the two-bedroom apartment was built around 1890, and he and his wife are slowly returning it to its former glory after it’s “no doubt been home to countless students and tyrannical landlords over the years.”

He said: “There’s nearly always a window connecting the kitchen alcove and a box room (which has often been converted into a kitchen bathroom). Presumably, it was the Victorian idea of giving that little interior space some natural light. In fact, I learnt only yesterday they are called ‘borrow windows,’ presumably because you’re borrowing light from another room.

“When we arrived, I did that classic ‘dad’ thing of tapping up the wall to hear if the tone changed. Sure enough, I discovered that the window had just been dry-walled over. The fact that there was then a layer of woodchip on top of that, suggests that it was done at least as far back as the 70s.”

He added the glass was single-glazed, saying: “They’re that old pre-war ripply glass like all the windows in this flat. All our windows make things look a bit wibbly, and distorted when you look through them because of the more unrefined, pre-war glazing techniques. You can see the oddly replaced pane because it doesn’t distort.”

Photo of the hidden windows. Alex Howard discovered secret windows lurking underneath wallpaper in his 19h-century house.

The clip, shared in June, amassed more than 400,000 views, and people were so intrigued that Howard shared a follow-up clip. It shows he found a pair of windows, with two panes each, covered up between two rooms.

“So some of you have been asking about the backstory to these here windows that I discovered yesterday,” he said.

Howard, who moved in two months ago, gave viewers a mini-tour, saying: “I’ve worked it out, follow me down the hall, and into the box room. But why you might say might one block windows to a box room.

“It was once a bedroom. The reason I know is that up here there’s a light switch which controls the lights in the room. This means at some point there was a mezzanine level up here with a bed installed when this was rented out as its own separate bedroom.

“Some of you may have heard of HMO, or houses in multiple occupancies, before this was introduced any room could be rented out to someone regardless of whether or not it had a window in it. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times now and you can only let out a room if it’s got a window.”

It’s thought that as the window connects two rooms, rather than leading to the outside, they were covered to give each tenant privacy.

Howard explained: “This is what we’re putting the blocked-up window down to—the room on the other side is a box room with its plug sockets/switches mounted high up the wall. We reckon it was rented out as a room with a mezzanine bed, pre-HMO regulations when landlords crammed these flats full of students to cash in.

“But what is clear is that the blocked-up window is an attempt to make that postage stamp of a box room ‘private.’ Pretty sad to think that tiny, windowless space was some poor student/servant’s room at one point!”

He added that the smaller room was what the U.K. refers to as a “box room,” which is essentially a glorified cupboard, which is why the bed was on a mezzanine.


Howard clarified they’re “just a bit bigger than a walk-in cupboard,” adding: “They’re small rooms, bigger than a cupboard but smaller than a conventional room, that was traditionally used for lodgers. This one’s about 6×5.'”

Numerous people commented on the original clip, with Liam Burgeson asking: “Who does these things.”

Mecha_genki said: “We had this too! Didn’t notice it because it was on the side we never went down”

While MissMisty wrote: “Why was the window covered in craft paper? Lean against it too hard and your arm would go through.”

Marvin Harold joked: “Previous owner must have worked nights.”

Iron Age Settlements Identified in Scotland

Iron Age Settlements Identified in Scotland

Archaeologists from Edinburgh have discovered more than 100 Iron Age settlements in southwest Scotland that date from the time of Roman occupation.

The team has been surveying an area north of Hadrian’s Wall to better understand the impact of Rome’s rule on the lives of indigenous people.

Researchers explored nearly 600 square miles around Burnswark hillfort, Dumfries-shire, where Roman legions campaigned as the Empire expanded northwards.

Previous archaeological research on the terrain between Hadrian’s Wall and the Empire’s more northerly frontier at the Antonine Wall had focused predominantly on the Roman perspective.

It had concentrated on the camps, forts, roads and walls that Rome’s empire built to control northern Britain – rather than sites associated with native tribes.

Immense firepower

The new study initially focused specifically on Burnswark – home to the greatest concentration of Roman projectiles ever found in Britain, and a testament to the firepower of Rome’s legions.

The research team went on to scour an area of 580 square miles beyond the hillfort, using the latest laser-scanning technology.

Although much of the area had been studied before, researchers found 134 previously unrecorded Iron Age settlements — bringing the total number known in the region to more than 700.

The survey’s discovery of so many small farmsteads is a significant finding, researchers say. Such settlements offer key insights into how the majority of the indigenous population would have lived.

Analysis showed sites were dispersed evenly across the landscape — with dense clusters in some places — suggesting a highly organised settlement pattern, researchers say.

Empire’s edge

Work on Hadrian’s Wall began in AD 122 and, for two decades, the defensive fortification between the Solway Firth and the River Tyne marked the northernmost border of the Roman empire.

In AD 142, having made further gains north, the Romans built a second defensive line called the Antonine Wall between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde.

A few decades later, however, this second wall was abandoned with the Empire drawing its frontier back south to Hadrian’s Wall.

The findings of this latest study by the University of Edinburgh, Historic Environment Scotland and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre have been published in the journal, Antiquity.

The study is part of a wider project called Beyond Walls, which is seeking to shed light on ancient sites, stretching from Durham in the south to the fringes of the Scottish Highlands in the north.

Exciting prospect

Study author Dr Manuel Fernández-Götz, of the University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology, said: “This is one of the most exciting regions of the Roman Empire, as it represented its northernmost frontier.

“The land we now know as Scotland was one of the very few areas in Western Europe over which the Roman army never managed to establish full control”.

Fellow author Dr Dave Cowley of Historic Environment Scotland said: “The discovery of so many previously unknown sites helps us to reconstruct settlement patterns.

“Individually, they are very much routine, but cumulatively they help us understand the landscape within which the indigenous population lived.”

The 330-million-year-old fossil tree that’s stood the test of time

The 330-million-year-old fossil tree that’s stood the test of time

The fossil tree on the Museum’s east lawn is thought to have been in its current position since the 1970s, but it’s been part of the collection since 1873.  A large petrified tree that lived around 330 million years ago has been towering over visitors to the Museum for over 130 years, making it one of the longest-serving exhibits.

A Scottish tree

Craigleith Quarry was once the largest and most productive of Edinburgh’s quarries. The sandstone extracted in its 300 years of operation can be seen in the city’s historical architecture, including Edinburgh Castle. The quarry was infilled in 1995.

But the site is also well-known for its fossil trees, the first of which was discovered in 1826. The trunk that now resides on the Museum’s east lawn was uncovered in 1873, and found approximately 56 metres below the surface.

The fossil tree, Pitys withamii, lived during the Carboniferous Period, which lasted from around 359 to 299 million years ago. Many of the coal beds that Britain came to rely on formed at this time, made up of plants like P. withamii. 

When the fossil tree was alive it’s thought that it would have had fern-like fronds that were similar to this example of Sphenopteris foliage

The specimen was originally thought to be an ancient conifer but was eventually determined to be a type of seed fern (pteridosperm). In life, it would have featured large, fern-like fronds sprouting from the crown of its towering trunk and would have used seeds for reproduction. Seed ferns are an extinct group and their unique collection of characteristics is not seen in plants today.

Despite its London home, the tree’s Scottish origins weren’t forgotten. In 1986 the MP for Edinburgh West contacted the Museum to enquire about returning the large specimen to Edinburgh to put it on public display. The Museum declined this request but noted that another Carboniferous trunk from Craigleith Quarry was already on public display at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. At 10.5 metres long, it is Scotland’s largest plant fossil.

A long-standing exhibit

The trunk has been housed in the Museum’s gardens for over 130 years, although it hasn’t always been in the same spot. The tree arrived at the Museum in six large pieces with numerous smaller fragments, and originally the trunk was displayed lying on its side. The section of the specimen on display today towers over visitors at six metres tall, but with all the pieces laid out together, it measured around 12 metres.

The fallen fossil tree after sustaining bomb damage during an air raid in 1940

The wood is petrified, meaning that it has been turned to stone. For petrified wood to form, organic material is replaced by minerals – in this case, iron and calcium carbonates – while the plant retains its original shape and structure. This fossilisation process has increased the weight of the specimen’s trunk to around three times that of normal wood. Its exact weight isn’t known but is estimated at around 11 tonnes.

The tree stood upright in 1887, but only the large pieces were assembled. It remained standing until November 1940, when it was knocked down and broken into several pieces by an air raid bomb.

The tree has since been moved further from Exhibition Road, which lies to the east of the Waterhouse building. It’s thought this happened in the 1970s when the Palaeontology wing was being built. 

The petrified tree is thought to have been moved to its current position during the construction of the Palaeontology wing, seen here on completion in 1977

How to clean petrified wood

The fossil tree’s condition is assessed yearly, but in the summer of 2019 Museum conservators gave the specimen its most intensive clean in over 15 years.

Working from inside their own scaffolding ‘treehouse’, the team had to move quickly so the tree wasn’t screened off from visitors for too long. Ultimately it took four full days of work, plus a few early mornings to clean it from top to bottom.

Conservators Lu Allington-Jones and Cheryl Lynn start work cleaning the fossil tree, hidden inside their treehouse

Senior Conservator Lu Allington-Jones says, ‘It was like being in our own private treehouse. We could hear the public talking outside it, but no one knew we were there or what we were doing.

‘It was challenging because no one seems to know when the tree was last cleaned, so we didn’t know how long it would take and we had a really small window.’

As they were dealing with a specimen displayed outdoors, the conservators faced challenges they wouldn’t normally encounter. Bird droppings had to be cleaned off using water and cotton swabs, algae were removed with soft brushes and ethanol, and moss and lichens were picked off with plastic and wooden picks.

Plants can cause a lot of damage to stone as their roots grow on the surface. This can cause flaking and cracks. Additionally, the water that plants retained on the surface of the stone can cause further damage when it freezes and expands in winter. A concrete-like material that is thought to have been used to fill gaps in the 1970s had started to crack, so the team had to strengthen it.

The conservators were also accompanied by a seemingly angry tube web spider (Segestria senoculata) and multiple plane tree bug nymphs (Arocatus longiceps), which are usually found in the plane trees that grow at the edges of the Museum’s lawn.

Algae, lichen and moss were just some of the unique challenges of working on the fossil tree

The team will continue to keep an eye on the tree’s condition. Lu says, ‘We’re going to leave the specimen open to the elements – we don’t want to add any coatings that might deteriorate. But we’ll take photos so we can monitor its condition in the future.’

Fossil trees in Hintze Hall

The specimen on the east lawn isn’t the only fossil tree displayed at the Museum. In Hintze Hall, four fossil tree specimens are also on show.

You can see fossil trees from four different geological periods in the Museum’s Hintze Hall

The trees are from four different geologic time periods, ranging from a Devonian specimen that is 385 million years old to a tree that is 25-56 million years old.

These four trees grew in vastly different climates and atmospheres, and their preserved structures can provide clues about the ancient environments they lived in. The Museum’s palaeobotany collection of fossil plants, algae and fungi spans 3.5 billion years of Earth’s history. Scientists can use these specimens, including fossil trees, to chart historic climate change and make predictions about the future of our planet. 

Unknown symbols are written by the lost ‘painted people’ of Scotland unearthed

Unknown symbols are written by the lost ‘painted people’ of Scotland unearthed

What seemed like an eventful evening turned into an emotional discovery for the history books after archaeologists in Scotland came upon a stone covered with ancient geometric carvings. The symbols were etched in stone by the Picts, Scotland’s indigenous people, about 1,500 years ago.

The 5.5-foot-long (1.7 meters) stone is covered with Pictish symbols.

The 5.5-foot-long (1.7-meter) stone artefact was discovered in Aberlemno, a parish and small village in the Scottish council area of Angus. The site was already famous for four previously discovered Pictish carvings from between 500 AD and 800 AD, which exhibit a range of symbols, from Pictish symbols to overtly Christian iconography. 

Fierce people who a strong culture

For a very long time, the ancient Roman Empire wanted to seize Scotland, known during Roman times as Caledonia. The province was the site of many enticing resources, such as lead, silver, and gold. It was also a matter of national pride for the Romans, who loathed being denied glory by some ‘savages’.

Despite their best efforts, the Romans never really conquered the whole of Scotland. The farthest Roman frontier in Britain was marked by the Antonine Wall, which was erected in 140 AD between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, only to be abandoned two decades later following constant raiding by Caledonia’s most ferocious clans, the Picts.

The name given to these northern people means ‘Painted Ones’ in Latin. The Picts constituted the largest kingdom in Dark Age Scotland until they disappeared from history at the end of the first millennium, their culture having been assimilated by the Gaels. But although not very much is known about these people who dominated Scotland for centuries, evidence suggests that Pictish culture was rich, perhaps with its own written language in place as early as 1,700 years ago, a 2018 study found.

It’s unclear what the geometric symbols carved in the newly found stone at Aberlemno represent, which include abstract symbols in the shape of a comb and a mirror, a crescent, double discs, and triple ovals. According to Gordon Noble, excavation leader and a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, the most plausible explanation is that the symbols represented Pictish names, although there’s no hard evidence at the moment to back this claim. Some of these symbols overlap with one another, which suggests some were added later in different time periods.

Excavation leader Gordon Noble works at the site.

A tearful discovery

Archaeologists excavate the Pictish-carved stone in Aberlemno, Scotland.

The extraordinary find was made while the archaeologists were surveying the site as part of a five-year investigation into early medieval kingdoms in northern Britain in Ireland. Researchers had deployed geophysical equipment to the area, which they used to look for signs of any potential object of interest beneath the ground without having to dig an inch. The radar eventually picked up an anomaly that looked like it might be something interesting, perhaps the remains of a settlement, and the archaeologists were eager to work.

Unfortunately, this was early 2020 when the pandemic was sweeping Britain and there were still many frightening unknowns. The archaeologists would have to wait a couple of months before they could get back to Aberlemno — and all that anticipation eventually paid off.

At the bottom of the pit they dug, the archaeologists hit a stone, which they expected to be the remnants of some wall. But when they brushed the dirt off, everyone freaked out. The stone was covered in symbols, definitely of Pictish origin.

“There are only around 200 of these monuments known. They are occasionally dug up by farmers ploughing fields or during the course of road building but by the time we get to analyse them, much of what surrounds them has already been disturbed,” Noble said in a statement.

“To come across something like this while digging one small test pit is absolutely remarkable and none of us could quite believe our luck.”

Dr. James O’Driscoll, the researcher who was the first to discover the stone, described his excitement:

“We thought we’d just uncover a little bit more before we headed off for the day. We suddenly saw a symbol. There was lots of screaming. Then we found more symbols and there was more screaming and a little bit of crying!”

“It’s a feeling that I’ll probably never have again on an archaeological site. It’s a find of that scale.”

The researchers recounted their initial reaction to this priceless moment in the video below.

The marvellous carved stone was dated to the 5th or 6th century AD, not that long after the last Roman legionnaires left Britain for good.

Interestingly, the stone was found below the foundation of a huge building from the 11th or 12th century. The researchers aren’t sure why the building was built directly on top of the settlement layers extending back to the Pictish period. Perhaps the stone was simply lost and the people who built the building were simply not aware of its existence. Only 200 Pictish stones have been found in total.

“The discovery of this new Pictish symbol stone and evidence that this site was occupied over such a long period will offer new insights into this significant period in the history of Scotland as well as help us to better understand how and why this part of Angus became a key Pictish landscape and latterly an integral part of the kingdoms of Alba and Scotland,” Professor Noble said.

Study Explores Mobility in Early Medieval Scotland

Study Explores Mobility in Early Medieval Scotland

Isotope analysis of ‘bodies in the bog’ found at Cramond reveals several crossed a politically divided Scotland, meeting their end hundreds of miles from their place of birth. For decades, the skeletal remains of nine adults and five infants found in the latrine of what was once a Roman bathhouse close to Edinburgh have fascinated archaeologists and the public alike.

Burial 1 – facial reconstruction of man who may have come from Loch Lomond
Dr Orsolya Czére with extracted bone collagen
Dr Orsolya Czére examines demineralised bone collagen during the extraction process

Discovered in Cramond in 1975 they were originally thought to be victims of the plague or a shipwreck from the 14th century. Then radiocarbon dating showed them to be some 800 years older, dating to the 6th century, or early medieval period. New bioarchaeological work led by the University of Aberdeen has brought to light more details of their lives and has revealed that several of the group travelled across Scotland to make Cramond their home.

Their investigations change our understanding not only of this important site but of the mobility and connections of people across Scotland in the early medieval period, when the country was broadly divided between the Scotti in Dál Riata to the west, the Picts in most of northern Scotland and the Britons in the south. The researchers examined the bones and teeth of the group unearthed from what was once the latrine of a bathhouse in a Roman fort, leading to them being coined ‘the bodies in the bog’.

Using isotope analyses they were able to look at the diet and origins of each of the adults in the group. Professor Kate Britton, the senior author of the study, said they were surprised to discover that despite being buried in close proximity to each other – leading to assumptions that they were one family – some were brought up hundreds of miles apart.

“Food and water consumed during life leave a specific signature in the body which can be traced back to their input source, evidencing diet and mobility patterns,” she added.

“Tooth enamel, particularly from teeth which form between around three and six years of age, act like little time capsules containing chemical information about where a person grew up.

“When we examined the remains, we found six of them to bear chemical signatures consistent with what we would expect from individuals growing up in the area local to Cramond but two – those of a man and a woman – were very different.

“This suggests that they spent their childhoods somewhere else, with the analysis of the female placing her origins on the West coast.”

“The male instead had an isotopic signature more typical of the Southern Uplands, Southern Highlands or Loch Lomond area so it is likely he came to Cramond from an inland area.”

Tooth enamel, particularly from teeth that form between around three and six years of age, act like little time capsules containing chemical information about where a person grew up.

~Professor Kate Britton

The findings, published in the Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences journal, provide one of the first insights into early medieval population mobility in Scotland.

Dr Orsolya Czére, post-doctoral researcher and lead author of the study, added: “This is a historically elusive time period, where little may be gleaned about the lives of individuals from primary literary sources. What we do know is that it was a politically and socially tumultuous time.

“In Scotland particularly, evidence is scarce and little is known about individual movement patterns and life histories. Bioarchaeological studies like this are key to providing information about personal movement in early medieval Scotland and beyond.

“It is often assumed that travel in this period would have been limited without roads like we have today and given the political divides of the time. The analysis of the burials from Cramond, along with other early medieval burial sites in Scotland, are revealing that it was not unusual to be buried far from where you had originally grown up.

“Previous studies have suggested that those buried here were of high social status, even nobility. What we can say from our new analyses was that these were well-connected individuals, with lives that brought them across the country”

“This is an important step in unravelling how these different populations of early medieval Scotland and Britain interacted.”

Despite evidence of geographical mobility, social tensions may still have been high. Several of the skeletons at Cramond indicate that some of the individuals may have met with violent ends.

Osteoarchaeologist and co-author Dr Ange Boyle from the University of Edinburgh said: “Detailed osteological analysis of the human remains has determined that a woman and young child deposited in the Roman latrine suffered violent deaths. Blows to the skulls inflicted by a blunt object, possibly the butt end of a spear would have been rapidly fatal. This evidence provides important confirmation that the period in question was characterised by a high level of violence.”

John Lawson, the City of Edinburgh Council archaeologist, co-author and lead archaeologist on the investigations at Cramond, says the new findings further underline the importance of the Cramond site.

“This paper has been the result of a fantastic collaboration between ourselves and our co-authors from Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities. The final results from the isotopic research have confirmed the initial 2015 results giving us archaeological evidence and a window into the movement of elite society in the 6th century.

“In particular it is helping us to support our belief that Cramond during this time was one of Scotland’s key political centres during this important period of turmoil and origins for the state of Scotland. Whilst it has helped us answer some questions about the individuals buried in the former Roman Fort’s Bathhouse, it has also raised more. We hope to continue to work together to bring more findings to publication as these have a significant impact on what is known about the history of Scotland and Northern Britain during the Dark Ages.”

The study was funded by Edinburgh City Council and the University of Aberdeen and research by Professor Britton and Dr Czere is supported by the Leverhulme Trust and AHRC respectively.