ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


From Iron Age toilet to early 'Rayburn': all mod cons in prehistoric Shetland

Archaeologists in Shetland have discovered what they think may be an Iron Age 'Rayburn' cooker. When they first found it last summer, they thought it was an Iron Age toilet.

The object of all this colourful interpretation is a simple stone box, roughly 1.5m long and less than 1m high, which was found during excavations of a late Iron Age broch and village at Old Scatness. The box has a circular hole cut into the top slab.

The thing did indeed look like a toilet. A tongue-in-cheek report in The Scotsman referred to it as 'the venerable thunderbox' and described the archaeological quest for 'the lifestyle of the long-dead defecator'. Val Turner, archaeologist with the Shetland Amenity Trust, supported the interpretation by citing a similar late Iron Age toilet discovered some years ago near a broch at Howe in Orkney. The previous find was a stone slab with a circular hole in it, resting over a low cupboard which was thought to have contained a 'potty'.

Now, however, the interpretation of the new find has changed - to something almost as surprising. Recent work has established that the clay-lined inside of the Scatness chest was subject to intense heat, and ash has been found around the base outside. According to Ms Turner, the new evidence suggests the chest was used as a Rayburn-type oven, with hot stones fed in through a hole in the base of one of the sides, and food placed on the stones through the hole in the top.

As post-excavation work continues, the contents of the chest will be examined for any traces of food. Ms Turner said: 'It is an extremely rare find. I am not aware of any parallels.'

Excavations at the village and broch began in 1995, jointly directed by Ms Turner and Steve Dockrill of Bradford University. At least 16 buildings have been uncovered so far, revealing that occupation spanned the late Iron Age, Pictish and Viking periods of the early/middle to late 1st millennium AD.

The Iron Age oven is not the only unusual find made during last season's excavations. A miniature dagger about 10cm long, thought to be a toy, may date from about the 8th-9th centuries. Carefully carved out of local siltstone, with a trefoil hilt end, the dagger may have been discarded because of its broken point.

Also found were two Pictish carved stones. One was portable, and carried broken-arrow and arch motifs known from similar stones found elsewhere in northern Scotland. Such carved stones are thought to be symbolic tokens of some kind, but their meaning and purpose is unclear. The other carved stone formed part of a hearth in one of the excavated houses. The carving was a representation of a wild boar-like creature thought to resemble the extinct Irish greyhound pig.

Other finds include a piece of yellow/blue glass of Iron Age date, which is curving and cylindrical and may have formed part of a bangle. It is thought to be of Roman origin. As such, it would not be unique in Shetland - a flat piece of Roman glass was found at Clickhimin broch in the 1950s. It nonetheless provides an interesting pointer to the wide distribution of high-quality goods to the furthest reaches of Atlantic Europe in the Roman period.

Viking soapstone objects include a complete ladle or scoop; and a full set of loomweights, together with the metal end of part of the warp-weighted loom known as the 'sword-beater'. The position of the weights suggests the loom was left to decay in situ when the house was abandoned.

World's first farming found in Near East

The earliest evidence of agriculture yet known in the world has been found by a joint British-American team working in the Euphrates valley in Syria.

Cultivated cereal grains, including rye, have been found dating from about 11,000 BC - at least a thousand years before agriculture was previously thought to have started in the Near East. This new evidence places the origins of farming in the epi-Palaeolithic era, when the glaciers of the last Ice Age were still retreating from northern Europe.

The grains were found at the site of Abu-Hureyra, where a hunter-gatherer settlement had been occupied on a permanent basis for about 400 years before cultivation began. The site has been excavated since 1972 by former Oxford University archaeologist Andrew Moore, now of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, and by Gordon Hillman of the Institute of Archaeology in London.

According to Prof Hillman, the new dates coincide with a period of climatic instability and provide an explanation for why agriculture began. Environmental evidence gathered from around the Euphrates valley shows that a period of improving climate was followed by a sharp reversal around 11,000 BC, affecting the availability of wild plant foods. In such an unstable environment, the first farmers were able to replace vegetation only by transfering plants to more suitable habitats and cultivating them there.

The Abu-Hureyra cereals were confirmed as domesticated strains by analysis of their genetic composition, showing distinctive characteristics which could only have been produced through generations of selective planting. They were dated by Oxford's radiocarbon accelerator laboratory.

Previously, the earliest known agriculture was at Tell Aswad, also in Syria in the Damascus basin, dating to about 10,000 BC. According to Prof Hillman, dates nearly as early as those from Abu-Hureyra are now beginning to emerge from new work in China's Yangtze valley.

Minerva figurine found in Roman well

A pipeclay figurine of the Roman goddess Minerva has been found in London, during excavation of a barrel-lined well which went out of use in the 2nd century AD. The head of the figurine in missing. Excavators from the Museum of London Archaeology Service suggest it may have been snapped off in a ritualistic act, carried out when the well was no longer needed. This might have been done to liberate the spirit of the figurine, or to counteract any evil spirits invoked by the water deities of the well. Pipeclay figurines were mass-produced on the Continent, and were bought as gifts to the deities to petition them for favours. The most common types represented were Venus and the Mother Goddess. This is the first example from London of a Minerva, who was goddess of wisdom and war, art and trade.

The man, the grave and the antique arrow: Bronze Age warrior found clutching heirloom

The grave of an early Bronze Age man, who was buried holding an 'antique' arrowhead in his hand, has been found on Salisbury Plain during a programme of new track building by the military. Also found nearby was the top of a Bronze Age ritual shaft that could be up to 30m deep.

The man, who died aged about 30-35, has been radiocarbon dated to between c 2000-1800 BC. In his hand, however, was a mid-late Neolithic arrowhead already several hundred years old when he was buried. It had been burned. Its inclusion in the grave suggests it was a valued possession - though why it was valued remains a tantalising mystery. Was it a chance find, accorded magical properties because of its antiquity? Or was it an heirloom, handed down from generation to generation because of its role in a significant past event? We will never know.

The burial was in fact the upper skeleton of a pair - one above the other in the same grave. The grave had been redug for the second burial, but the precise alignment of the two suggests the second burial followed closely on the first. The position of the first had not been forgotten. Both were male, the lower aged about 40. Why were they buried together? Were they perhaps brothers, or comrades in arms?

The grave, between Tilshead and Chitterne in the west of Salisbury Plain, lay on the outside edge of a ring ditch, which possibly once surrounded a barrow. It appears the two men were buried as close as possible to a 'primary' burial inside the ring, according to excavator John Hawkes of AC Archaeology. The remainder of the ditch lay off the line of the new military track, however, and was not excavated.

The Bronze Age shaft was found a few miles west of the burial. A large circular pit about 5m across was found to funnel down to a central circular pit, about 1.5m across with vertical sides. This central pit - or shaft - was not excavated. However, from what was revealed, the feature appears identical to a shaft excavated on the Plain in the 1960s at Wilsford Down.

That extraordinary feature proved to be 33m deep, and no wider than 1.5m all the way down. Finds from near the base included middle Bronze Age pottery, amber beads, bone pins, a bone needle, pieces of worked wood including fragments of a bucket, and some human and animal bone. The site has been interpreted as either a well, later backfilled with domestic rubbish, or a ritual shaft for communicating with the underworld - or perhaps both.

The most astonishing aspect of these shafts, however, is the way they must have been built. They were cut through solid chalk; and with no room to swing a pick or even bend down, diggers were presumably lowered by rope face-down into the dark, airless, dangerous shaft. Other recent discoveries on the Plain include a new late Bronze Age/early Iron Age settlement on a ridge next to Battlesbury hillfort; and, from the same period, a row of seven complete animal carcasses - including cattle, sheep and goats - laid end to end along a ditch.

Wine 'fresh' after 300 years

A corked bottle of wine dating from 1682 was found last year in a cellar in Spitalfields, London, by the Museum of London Archaeology Service. Scientific tests preceded a formal wine tasting.

X-rays showed that the cork had preserved a perfect seal, and chemical analysis of the liquid showed it contained 6.25 per cent alcohol and tartaric acid, consistent with a grape wine. Sugar level was low suggesting a dry wine, and volatile acidity was also low suggesting the wine had not spoiled. The wine was eventually tasted by David Molyneux-Berry and Michael Broadbent, Masters of Wine for Sotheby's and Christie's respectively. Their verdict was that it was 'fresh, clean, lively and well-balanced' and was probably a dry madeira.

Viking house tainted by unlucky death: did the owner fall down a rabbit hole?

The house of an 11th century Viking-period leader who may have met an unlucky or shameful death has been excavated at a deserted medieval settlement on South Uist.

The well-built house was abandoned along with all its valuable contents, while the rest of the settlement remained occupied. This possibly suggests that some taboo prevented the leader's heirs from collecting their inheritance.

The house lay at the heart of Bornish, on the west coast of the island. The village had its origins in the Pictish period of the mid-1st millennium AD, and appears to have become the largest settlement yet found in the Western Isles by the 13th century. Excavations last season by Niall Sharples of Cardiff University indicate that its later prosperity may have been connected with Scotland's herring-fishing industry.

Bornish was abandoned, along with other west coast settlements, in the 13th-14th centuries.

In the 11th century, the Western Isles were nominally ruled by the Vikings of Man, but local leaders retained some de facto independence. The Viking-period house at Bornish has been identified as that of a local leader because of its exceptional size and quality. Bow-shaped in plan, it was at least 16m long by 6m wide, with 2m-high walls made of massive stone slabs.

Ranged across the floor were what seem to have been the leader's prized possessions. The excavation only sampled the house, but finds so far include about eight complete bone pins, four complete pottery vessels, four combs, a finely-decorated antler tine possibly used as a handle or attachment, and metal cauldron parts.

The abandonment of such a fine house and possessions requires some explanation. According to Mr Sharples, they may have been tainted by an 'inappropriate' death. In a warrior society, he suggests, this would be something 'simple and prosaic - like pushing your boat out and slipping off a rock; or falling down a rabbit hole and breaking your leg.'

Bornish, however, continued to flourish. Geophysical survey has located the sites of over 20 houses thought to date from the 12th-14th centuries. Large quantities of herring bones found on site suggest this unprecedented growth may be connected to the early development of herring fishing, for which teams of boats are needed to hunt for shoals with nets. Herring is known to have been one of northern Scotland's major trading commodities in the medieval period, but hitherto evidence for early herring fishing has proved elusive. Herring bones have rarely been found elsewhere at sites of this period.

Also excavated were houses of the early, Pictish phase of the village's history. One large 4th-6th century wheelhouse had caught fire, and its turf-covered roof crashed to the floor turning the smouldering roof-beams underneath to charcoal. Finds include a whalebone axe that had been stored in a nook in the roof; and a collection of hammerstones and animal long-bones - tools and raw materials for making pins and other items - which may have hung in a bag from the rafters.

A new, rectangular house was built soon afterwards on top of the ruins. It contained a peculiar arrangement of cattle lower-leg bones, set in an arc around the hearth, with all the knuckles projecting up from the floor. Whether this was purely decorative remains to be seen, but it is paralleled by a similar arrangement of red deer jawbones around a hearth at A'cherdach Bheag on South Uist, excavated in the 1950s.

Major new rock art discovered in Cumbria

One of the largest and most elaborate panels of prehistoric rock art in Britain has been 'discovered' in the central Lake District. The carvings are openly visible, but until now they have been completely overlooked by prehistorians. The concentric ring and cup designs, identified last year by amateur rock art sleuth Paul Brown, can be found in Langdale on an important routeway to and from the Neolithic 'axe factories' around Pike of Sickle, commanding extensive views up and down the Langdale valley. Stan Beckensall, author of many books on rock art, described the Langdale panel as the 'rock art discovery of the decade', adding that its revelation had caused astonishment among rock art scholars. A second new rock art panel in the Lake District, as large as the Langdale example but less elaborate, has recently been found at Greenrigg in Paterdale.

In brief

Orkney steps

A flight of 29 stone steps leading to a large prehistoric chamber 10m underground has been rediscovered on Orkney under a mound known as Mine Howe north-west of Kirkwall. The steps were first excavated by local farmers in 1946, but were quickly backfilled for fear that sheep would fall down the hole. The structure is thought to be Iron Age but may date to the Neolithic. The underground chamber has a 5m-high beehive-shaped ceiling and was probably a kind of temple.

Dating Seahenge

The inverted oak tree removed last year from the shoreline at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, and taken for conservation to Flag Fen, fell down-or was felled-in the spring of 2050 BC, according to dating experts at English Heritage. The surrounding timber circle was made from oaks felled one year later in 2049 BC. The date was provided by statistical analysis of the results of a combination of dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. Further examination of the partial growth ring on the outside of the stump suggested the tree fell between April and June. Part of a honeysuckle rope, found around the stump, was probably used to haul the tree into place.

Boston revolt

A fragment of wood retrieved from the harbour mud in Boston, Massachusetts, may have belonged to one of the 342 tea-chests hacked to pieces in 1773 by American colonists protesting at British taxation. The event, known as the Boston Tea Party, led to a series of British punitive measures which propelled the colonies towards war. The 45cm fragment, decorated with gold leaf and painted with oil-based lacquer, was found at the site of the former Griffin's Wharf where the tea ships were moored.

Monument damaged

The remains of one of the best-preserved 18th century lead mines in Britain have been bulldozed by a government agency whose role is to protect the countryside. Walls and floors were destroyed at Rookhope Old Smeltmill in Weardale, Co Durham-a scheduled monument-by Environment Agency staff constructing lagoons to trap contaminated water seeping from the site.

News is compiled by Simon Denison

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