Society-funded Research

West Plean Object Review

Reanalysis of objects has offered for the first time a very tentative Roman date for the West Plean Homestead

As part of an ongoing review of the Late Prehistoric Settlement remains of the Forth Valley by Murray Cook in his role as Stirling Council’s Archaeologist, a reanalysis of the West Plean Homestead object assemblage (excavated by Kenneth Steer in the 1950s) was undertaken by Gemma Cruickshanks and Fraser Hunter of the National Museums of Scotland. West Plean Homestead comprises a timber roundhouse surrounded by a palisade and ditch, the remains of which are still upstanding.

The Forth Valley is famously home to the densest concentration of Southern Brochs in Scotland (between four and six), which are later than their northern counterparts and appear to be connected with Roman period exchange across the pinch point of the Forth Valley at Stirling. The review to date has revealed a considerably denser volume of contemporary and potentially contemporary sites (around 40) and much greater architectural variation (brochs, duns, souterrains, forts and timber palisaded enclosures). It seems likely that the presence of the Roman Empire first to the north of the Forth and then to the immediate south, may have increased the volume of exchange and thus of conspicuous consumption amongst native societies in the Forth Valley during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. One expression of this conspicuous consumption appears to have been through architectural variation.

This reanalysis made three new key observations. Firstly, the assemblage is dominated by roughouts for objects (ten out of eighteen were unfinished), suggesting that they were made on site. Indeed, the unfinished quern comprises around half of a schist upper stone, broken through the perforation. A lack of any wear traces on the grinding surface indicates the quern had not been used and may have broken during perforation. Unfinished querns are notably uncommon.

Secondly, a possible gaming piece was identified. This comprised a thin slate disc (illustrated below: X.HD 1781) which has seen a small amount of shaping. Evidence of gaming is rare in Scotland until the Roman Iron Age, making this a potentially significant find for understanding the dating of the site.

Thirdly, the reanalysis identified three struck flints which were not commented upon in the published report: two flint flakes and a pitchstone flake. They are not mentioned by Steer, so their context of discovery is unknown, though presumably from residual activity prior to the Iron Age settlement. While not diagnostic in form, the presence of pitchstone so far from Arran suggests a Late Neolithic or later date for that piece (Hugo Anderson-Whymark, pers. comm.).

The opportunity was also taken to redraw a finely-shaped sandstone lamp with a crudely incised line around the rim exterior (illustrated below: X.HD 1766), the only decorated item from the site. Such lamps are a classic Scottish Iron Age artefact, particularly in north-east Scotland; indeed, the West Plean find prompted the first modern review of the type. A recent survey of examples in National Museums Scotland collections by Hunter and Cruickshank confirmed the frequency of burning or sooting, with a prevalence of soot around the rim, particularly opposite the handle (though no sooting is present on the West Plean lamp). Parallels with post-Medieval metal ‘crusie’ lamps in the Scottish vernacular tradition suggest the wick rested over the edge opposite the handle to prevent hands being burnt. Similar lamps have been found on other Iron Age sites in Stirling, including a handle and part of a bowl from Fairy Knowe and an unusual small, burnt mudstone example from Torwood.

The reanalysis has offered for the first time a very tentative date for the West Plean Homestead, possibly in the Roman Iron Age, making it potentially contemporary with Fairy Knowe and Leckie brochs, though this remains unproven. What the nature of the relationship between these two classes of site (brochs and timber roundhouses) is uncertain but it does seem likely that it may have been hierarchical. It may be that the occupants of more impressive stone sites, like Leckie mediated the exchange relationship with the Romans. The presence/absence/volume of high status goods, including Roman imports may reflect the relative positions of individual households in their hierarchy, thus the West Plean occupants are likely to have been lower down.

Image: Drawings of objects from West Plean including sandstone handled lamp

Drawings of objects from West Plean including sandstone handled lamp