The Work

Specialist Report 2005 - Small Finds Assessment

Posted by steven on 05/04/2006 at 06:50 PM


Fraser Hunter & Dawn McLaren - National Museums of Scotland


The 160 objects from the 2005 excavations comprise coarse stone, worked bone and antler objects, lithics, iron and copper alloy objects. There are also 36 bags of vitreous material, including metalworking debris. An assessment of its nature and potential given below.

Coarse stone

Of the 120 coarse stone items initially submitted, 82 were worked, 6 may be worked, and 32 are natural water-worn cobbles. This large assemblage contains a wide range of tools. Most are cobble tools, including grinders, pounders, hammerstones, smoothers and whetstones. There are also some unusual flat square palettes, and a range of querns: saddle querns (with rubbers), and both bun and disc rotary querns. There was also a haematite nodule ground down for use as pigment. The dominance of cobble tools is typical. Most of the cobble tools appear to be multi-functional items, often with signs of significant use; unfortunately, in the absence of experimental studies, the detailed function of such tools is uncertain.

There were also five personal or decorative items; a small perforated oval stone bead, two possible gaming pieces, a shale bangle fragment and a simple decorated spindle whorl or weight. Two of these items appear to be steatite, which is likely to come from the Glenelg source, one of the few steatite sources outside Shetland. Other finds hint at wider contacts, notably the bangle fragment. This appears to be of oil shale, although analysis is required to confirm this. There are no local sources of this, with the nearest possible sources being Brora in Sutherland or central Scotland. Although there are a very few stray finds of jewellery of this material from Skye, this is only the second example from a known site (there is a ring-pendant from Dun Ardtreck; MacKie 2000, fig 25 no 56). The steatite and shale show something of local and longer-distance contacts of the site.

Perforated stone bead and steatite disc with abraded grooves (Illustrations by Marion O’Neill)

Three further aspects of the assemblage stand out for comment at this stage. One is the mixture of different quern types. Although saddle and disc querns are not unexpected on an Iron Age site, the presence of several bun querns is unusual for the north-west of Scotland, as this type is more common in southern Scotland (MacKie 1971, 52-55, fig 5). Further work will address the geological sources of the stones and look more widely at types of querns from Skye.

Secondly, amongst the common types of stone tools are a few more unusual objects. Two stand out in particular. One is a number of square tabular stones, some with ground edges, which may have been used as palettes. This is unusual because Iron Age palettes are typically circular. The other is a steatite disc with abraded grooves radiating from a central perforation. These appear to be from wear rather than decoration. One possible interpretation would suggest they were worn by string or twine, the soapy nature of the soapstone serving to lubricate the twine. However the detailed function is unclear, and further research is required.

The third intriguing aspect is the presence of a stone tool cache in this year’s excavation. It is unlikely that this was a dump of waste material as most were apparently still functional. Analysis into wear patterns and possible functions should help us to understand the purpose of this deliberate collection. However it may represent a form of deliberate deposit.


Forty-nine worked bone or antler objects were recovered. The range is that of a typical Iron Age domestic assemblage, covering points, needles, pins, handles, fittings and a perforated bone mount. There are also thirteen examples of antler-working debris, ranging from roughouts to off-cuts and waste material. This confirms the 2004 evidence for antler-working on site, and will allow a detailed reconstruction of the processes involved.

Bone gaming piece or pommel from Bone Passage (Illustrations by Marion O’Neill)

A selection of bone and antler pins from Trenches 2 and 6 (Illustrations by Marion O’Neill)


A total of thirteen struck lithics were recovered. Eight are flint or chert and five are quartz. All are working debris apart from one retouched item.


There is one copper alloy fragment; it requires conservation to allow identification. The nine iron artefacts are mostly nails, with one possible knife blade. 

Vitrified material
36 bags of vitrified material were recovered. Most of this is iron-working slag, but there is also the first evidence of non-ferrous metalworking from the site, in the form of two crucible fragments. Twelve pieces of ore (both copper and iron) were also recovered, and geological assessment of these is recommended.

The assemblage to date is small but significant. Iron-working assemblages from older excavations were poorly studied, and this material offers the first real chance to look at iron-working on the island. Evidence for non-ferrous metalworking is exceedingly rare, especially given its likely date in the last few centuries BC: only Dun Ardtreck and Dun Beag have produced similar evidence on Skye (MacKie 2000, 345; Callander 1921, 123). Analysis will provide valuable information of the alloys in circulation at the time. Non-ferrous metalworking is rare in the Atlantic Middle Iron Age, and appears to have focussed on the more important sites. It has been argued that metal-working often had a magical element, and the connection with a cave site with its links to the underworld may be significant. However the material is in secondary contexts, and it is hoped that further excavation will provide a broader suite of metal-working evidence to aid interpretation.


One bag contains organic material, possibly coprolite. This requires analysis by an appropriate specialist.

Recommendations for Further Work

The NMS team will undertake the preparation of a full catalogue of the small finds, integrating the results with the rest of the assemblage and producing a discussion of its significance. XRF analysis of the copper alloys and of the non-ferrous metalworking debris will be undertaken.

Other aspects of the finds work should be undertaken by other specialists. Conservation of a range of material is required and this is already in hand. Other work which will feed into the finds reports are as follows:

• The bone and antler tools and working debris should be examined by an osteologist to identify species and anatomical element where possible.

• Geological identification of the worked stone assemblage is recommended; a wide range of stone types has been utilised, and specialist study will allow a better understanding of sources.

• Mineralogical study of the ore samples would be of considerable value.

• Some of the finds will require illustration.


The 2005 finds augment the existing assemblage from the site, and it is clear that study of this material will represent a major step forward in our understanding of the material culture of western Atlantic Scotland. The limited quantity of diagnostic material is consistent with the suggested middle Iron Age date, with no sign of significant later material; this is a period when the material culture is particularly poorly known.

The 2005 finds have thrown up a number of intriguing angles for investigation. These have been considered above, but may be summarised here. One is in the contacts available to the site, with evidence of local exchange networks (seen in the steatite, probably from Glenelg) and more far-flung ones, as the oil shale suggests. The presence of bun querns, a southern Scottish type, also raises questions about the site’s connections. The stone and bone/antler tools have information locked in them on the activities taking place around the site, but a persistent problem with these categories is our limited understanding of their function; while studies of wear patterns may assist, the problem will remain until more extensive experimental research is conducted. The cobble tool cache is an intriguing discovery which adds to the evidence of unusual deposits of material on the site; detailed study should allow a better idea of whether practical or more symbolic motives lie behind it. The evidence of metal-working, both ferrous and non-ferrous, is also of considerable significance, as the former is poorly studied in the area and the latter a rarity in a middle Iron Age context. Here the presence of metal ores nearby raises some intriguing questions about the metal sources used.

In sum, the 2005 discoveries are a significant addition to the assemblage from the site, raising some intriguing areas for future work.


Callander, J G 1921 ‘Report on the excavation of Dun Beag, a broch near Struan, Skye’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 55 (1920-21), 110-131
MacKie, E W 1971 ‘English migrants and Scottish brochs’, Glasgow Archaeol J 2, 39-71
MacKie, E W 2000 ‘Excavations at Dun Ardtreck, Skye, in 1964 and 1965’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 130, 301-411

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