Finds in context – the long Iron Age at Clarkly Hill, Moray

The Society helped fund excavations at an Iron Age site in Moray

Clarkly Hill

Ring-ditch roundhouse with series of standing stones set into it, and the cobbling of an overlying early Medieval structure

Clarkly Hill

Stone hole with human skull placed at the base; the stone was later removed

Thanks to the Society’s funding, a three-week excavation took place in July 2012 on an intriguing Iron Age site at Clarkly Hill, near Burghead on the Moray coastal plain. Metal-detecting finds, including Roman brooches and a scatter of Roman silver coins, first drew attention to the site, and geophysical survey and small-scale excavation had shown that an important Iron Age settlement lay in the field. This offers a tremendous chance to provide a context for this scatter of important finds and provide a comparison to the site at Birnie, some 10 miles away, which was an Iron Age power centre.

This year’s excavations confirmed the exceptional survival of the remains, and painted an intriguing picture of long-term settlement. Two large Iron Age ring-ditch houses were exposed. One of them was quite short-lived, but the other showed a long and complicated sequence. Immediately after it was abandoned, a curved line of standing stones was erected across its stance. These were later smashed or pulled out, but the two which were investigated contained very unusual finds in their fills – one had a series of special artefacts, including an iron knife, a silver finger ring, and two sherds of Roman samian ware, while the other had a human skull placed face down in its base. The stones themselves were removed or destroyed. Could they have been inscribed Pictish stones?

Clarkly Hill

Excavation of a fragment of steatite bowl

Clarkly Hill

Stone foundations of a small rectangular building

To the north of the settlement lay an area of intensive industrial activity. Excavations uncovered a complicated sequence, with wheelbarrows full of slag debris covering the remains of dismantled iron-smelting furnaces. There were also fragments of bronze-casting crucibles, and this seems to have been a dedicated craft zone.

Over the top of the Iron Age settlement were the fragile remains of insubstantial rectangular houses, defined by cobbled scatters which formed the base of turf walls, small erosion scoops, and stone foundations only a single stone thick. Finds were sparse – we suspect this represents a Pictish farm, but radiocarbon dates are needed to confirm this. The fragility of these remains shows why it is so hard to find early Medieval settlement – any heavy ploughing would have totally destroyed the site. Here, it survives under a blanket of sand from later sandstorms, protecting it from the plough.

This evaluation work has been very successful in revealing the outline history of what was clearly a major and long-lived settlement.

Clarkly Hill

Traces of the wattle lining from a small rectangular building

Fraser Hunter
National Museums Scotland

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