Possible Iron Age graffiti uncovered in Trench 3

Posted by steven on 29/07/2005 at 12:15 PM

With the closing of Trench 3 for the 2005 fieldwork season an unusual block of limestone has been recovered with what appears to be graffiti scratched into the surface. Read on for more details…

With the excavation of Trenches 2 and 3 drawing to a close for the 2005 fieldwork season, we have only recovered a limited number of finds. During the excavation of context C208, a charcoal-rich sediment above the natural karstic sub-soil in Trench 2, a few stone items were recovered including two pebble grinding stones, a fragment of a upper stone of a rotary quern, and a part of a stone crucible or mould. The stone crucible or mould, which has been vitrified due to the high temperatures of the smelting process, would have been used for the production of copper-alloy items.

The image above shows the inside of the crucible/mould, the smooth surface on the inside contrasting with the vitrified stone. The image below provides an external view of the object showing the vitrified surface that has coloured orange, brown and green. Analysis of this item should indicate its function with more certainty, along with the materials that were being used in the process (scale=cm).

The block of limestone recovered from the low revetment wall in Trench 3 was originally noticed for its unusual shape and possible working marks on its surface. After recovery the item was cleaned with a soft brush and water, which revealed flaking and shaping marks around the edge.

The image above shows the side of the stone that was face-down in the trench and clearly shows working marks around the edge. This side of the stone was found to be polished in some areas, compared to the otherwise quite rough surface, and also appeared to have a thin coating of calcite. This indicates that it may have been located in the cave passages below ground at some stage in its life, where drips of calcium-rich water had helped to form the deposit.

The image above shows one corner of the limestone block that has been modified into this unusual stepped shape, although it is not presently clear how this has been achieved. However, the most unusual aspect of this stone was only revealed during the final cleaning by George Kozikowski, when he uncovered this complex set of grooves and lines that have been cut into the stone (scale=cm).

At first we thought that the grooves and lines had been formed by the use of the stone in some manufacturing-style of process, which could be the case with the lines towards the bottom of the group. But the deeper grooves, forming a tepee-style of shape, have been cut with some precision. Some of the lines are fairly parallel and are slightly curved in appearance. The image below shows the graffiti in more detail.

The orange-coloured patches located in hollows on the stones surface may be iron deposits, possibly left-over residues from the smelting process. Further analysis of this interesting item may reveal more detail of this residue, while also providing more detail of the complex sequence of lines cut into the surface of the stone, including the type of instrument that was used to perform this task. Could this be Iron Age Graffiti, or are the lines and grooves on the stone simply a result of some type of cutting action on the stone? Post your comments at the end of this report with any ideas you may have with regards to the pattern of lines on the stone.

After consultation with several archaeologists and other associates who had the opportunity to take a look at the markings on the limestone block recovered from Trench 3, it is possible that the ‘graffiti’ is prehistoric in date. There are certain similarities with the decoration found on some Iron Age pottery, especially from the Western Isles of Scotland.

The images above show pottery recovered from Hornish Point (upper image) and Baleshare (lower image) - [see Barber, J. (2003) Bronze Age farms and Iron Age farm mounds of the Outer Hebrides. Scottish Archaeology Internet Reports (SAIR), pp.129-30]. The decoration below the rims of the pots is remarkably similar to the scratches and grooves on the stone, especially the deeper incribed lines. Further investigations by specialists during the post-excavation analysis stage of the project this year will hopefully reveal more detail regarding this enigma.

Next entry: Latest finds from Trench 6, Bone Passage

Previous entry: New finds from Trenches 2 and 3

Posted by on 17/10/2005 at 04:57 PM

thanks for the hospitality on friday---2 suggestions on the graffiti---the lewis pots are very similar to some thracian and sumerian designs of (approximately) the same era---the designs may well represent fishing nets, and the containers may, therefore, have been used for storing fish; have you considered the possibility that the scratch marks may be ogham writing? there was a very small alphabet used by pictish scribes, only about twelve letters at best---if you consider the deep downward stroke at right centre as the axis, some of the other marks could be seen as letters eg the lowest right would be a “g”, and the most pronounced pair of strokes at the top (from bottom left to top right) form the shape of an “r”.
just a suggestion---might get a decent argument going!!

Posted by on 08/09/2005 at 05:38 PM

I would just like to say as a lay person who has a very real passion for Scottish history l am delighted to hear about your work.

I once said to George K that l would love to help on a cave dig but my deep regret is that l never took the next step.

Well clearly George and the team are continuing the good work and this web site will help to expand the knowledge and interest in the history of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Keep up the good work and if possible keep me updated?



Posted by on 31/07/2005 at 02:57 PM

An obvious and yet not terribly likely explanation of the graffiti—a map of the cave, which may have served as a ritual labyrinth of some kind.  Using the stone—referred to en route or memorized—the initiate could reach the sacred chamber, while any unwanted intruder would likely blunder into one of the traps or hazards placed at the ends of dead-end passages.  (Their deaths would be certain but not necessarily quick—their anguished cries for help would sometimes echo through the cave for days before dying away.)

The other chips and marks on the stone may have augmented the map, by—say—giving the number of paces between point X and point Y.

Highly unlikely, as I said.  It’s also a mistake, I think, to assume anything with no obvious practical function had ritual/religious significance.  Perhaps the stone was used in a game; perhaps it was made casually in the Iron Age equivalent of whittling.

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