The Work

Specialists Report 2006 - Small Finds Assessment

Posted by steven on 27/08/2007 at 08:51 PM

Assessment Report on Small Finds - High Pasture Cave, Kilbride, Isle of Skye 2006

Fraser Hunter and Dawn McLaren (with a contribution by Alan Saville) - National Museums of Scotland


The 310 objects from the 2006 excavations comprise coarse stone, worked bone and antler objects, lithics, iron and copper alloy objects.


80 fragments of bone and antler were submitted, comprising 66 objects, 9 fragments of antler working debris and 5 unworked fragments. A further 3 fragments were listed but not identified amongst the assemblage. The majority is typical of Iron Age domestic assemblages, and the types are mostly ones which have been found in previous years: points, pins, needles, handles and fittings. There are also nine fragments of antler working debris, comprising rough-outs, off-cuts, blanks and waste material. This adds to the significant quantity recovered in previous seasons; detailed study will provide valuable insights into the craft process.

A number of unusual finds merit more detailed comment. Foremost is a cache of seven bone/antler points, their tips showing polish and fine circumferential wear. The wear pattern is an unusual one, and the only comparanda known to the writers are tuning pegs for lyres, the wear arising from the movement of the wire. These are a highly unusual find, but there is a similar example from Cnip, Lewis (Hunter 2006, 147-8, fig 3.24a). If the identification is accepted, the discovery of seven pegs together suggests we may be dealing with the deposition of a complete lyre, perhaps with seven strings; this intriguing possibility will be tested during detailed study.

Seven antler lyre tuning pegs and antler strip recovered from Trench 6, Bone Passage (above)

There is other evidence of caches of material, in a deposit of 7 pin/points from context 605. This suggests the deliberate deposition of a kit of bone/antler tools.

A selection of bone and antler points and pins from the High Pasture’s site (above)

Apart from pins and points, the tools include an awl and a socketed gouge or spear, produced from a metapodial with the end cut off and shaped into a point. Both types are well attested on Hebridean Iron Age sites.

This season’s work also produced two unusual personal ornaments, an antler bead and, most strikingly, a polished, well-finished biconical bead probably made of the tooth or tusk of a sea mammal. Osteological identification is required to confirm that this is indeed ivory, but there are rare parallels from the Atlantic areas of Scotland for decorative items made from ivory.

Bead, sword or dagger pommel, manufactured from marine ivory

Coarse Stone

Of the 94 coarse stone items submitted for analysis, 40 were worked, 8 were possibly worked and 39 are natural water-worn pebbles. A further 7 objects were listed on initial small finds records but were not within the material submitted. This assemblage contains a wide range of tools. Most are cobble tools, often showing multifunctional wear including evidence of use as grinders, pounders, hammerstones, smoothers and whetstones. There is also a small assemblage of spindle whorls produced from steatite, and a limited number of food processing tools such as a saddle quern and three rubber fragments.  Although most of the objects appear to be prosaic, everyday tools, there are also some more unusual items, such as a whetstone/palette, a decorated palette and a stone bead. There is also a worked haematite pebble that appears to have been ground down for use as pigment.

Granite saddle quern stone recovered from Trench 6, Bone Passage

This assemblage is typical of Iron Age sites in being dominated by cobble tools, often showing signs of significant use. These can only be characterised as general purpose tools; without experimental work, it is not possible to confirm their detailed function.

Cache of pebble tools from Trench 2 (above) and decorated stone palette from Trench 6 (below)

Amongst the assemblage were also decorative or personal items; a highly polished stone bead, a decorated and stained palette and fragments of a flat soapstone disc. The disc, along with all seven spindle whorls, were manufactured from steatite, probably from the Glenelg source, one of the few steatite sources outside Shetland. Although most of the cobbles utilised as tools at the site are likely to have been derived from a local source, the use of steatite whorls suggests that regional contacts were in existence.

Steatite bead (above) and spindle whorls (below)

Four fragments of pumice were recovered, probably beach finds. Two show signs of working; one has been roughly shaped with a circular central hour-glass perforation, perhaps used as a line-float, the second has grooved wear from the finishing of bone/wood/metal points.


A small lithic artefact assemblage (approx. 33 pieces, including tiny chips from wet sieving) was recovered. One fragment was listed but not identified amongst the assemblage. The artefacts are mostly flint, but there are also two bloodstone flake fragments (F6222 & HP0293) and a quartz flake (F6338).

There are only two diagnostic pieces. One is a Late Mesolithic scalene triangle microlith (F5012), the other a short end scraper (F6233) which is a post-Mesolithic type. A broken blade fragment (F6136) is almost certainly also Late Mesolithic, but there are no other chronological indicators.

The assemblage is most likely to be a chronologically mixed residue from various episodes of prehistoric activity at or near the location, none of which have resulted in any intensity of lithic artefact deposition. It should also be considered that some of the pieces in this assemblage could have arrived on site incidentally within imported turves or peat.


As in previous seasons, only a few metal items were recovered, all in a fragmentary state. Of the three copper alloy finds, two fragmentary sheet objects cannot be identified without further conservation, and even then may remain elusive. The third comprises fragments of a pin shank, unfortunately lacking the diagnostic head. There were only three iron finds; one is a large piece of post-medieval cast iron, and another is unidentifiable without conservation work. However the third is a pin shank; the head is missing, but a kink at this end identifies it as a projecting ring-headed pin. Given the rarity of such items from datable contexts, the dating of this will be of considerable value.

Vitrified Material

24 fragments of vitrified material were recovered from the 2006 excavation; this excludes a possible crucible fragment which may be associated with non-ferrous metalworking but will require XRF analysis to confirm. There is a small quantity of diagnostic ironworking slag amongst the material, suggesting smithing activities, and a possible tuyère fragment. In addition to the small quantity of diagnostic metalworking debris are several fragments of vitrified material that could have been formed during any high-temperature pyrotechnic process and are not necessarily related to metalworking activities. All the diagnostic material recovered, apart from the possible crucible fragment, is related to iron working activities.

In addition to the diagnostic bulk samples (e.g. plano-convex hearth bottoms) there are also small quantities of magnetic residues which includes magnetic flakes and possible hammerscale. Contextual analysis is required to understand whether this represents in situ ironworking activity or secondary, residual deposits.

Despite the limited size and range of the ironworking debris recovered from this season’s excavations, the recovery of similar material from previous years all points to blacksmithing at the site. Although ironworking on later prehistoric sites is not uncommon, it is still little understood and rarely studied in detail. The recovery of a further possible crucible fragment also adds to the existing assemblage of non-ferrous metalworking from the site. In contrast to iron-working, evidence of non-ferrous metalworking is exceedingly rare; analysis of this will afford the opportunity to understand the processes involved and the role of this activity at High Pasture Cave.


Three small glass beads, the first from the site, were recovered in 2006. Two are small blue ones, a common Iron Age and later type. The third is a small opaque red annular bead, a much more unusual colour, and it is valuable to have a stratified example; the dating will be of considerable value.

Glass beads and copper-alloy fragments recovered from the site (above)


Amongst the assemblage are a small quantity of miscellaneous items that will require analysis by the appropriate specialist: two coprolite samples and one pine resin fragment. There is also a modern plastic cartridge case which requires no further analysis.

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 the possible crucible fragment 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 augment the finds reports are as follows:

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

• Geological identification of the worked stone assemblage, including the pumice and possible ore fragment, is recommended.

• Some of the finds will require illustration (see annotated finds list).

• Residues have been observed on a small number of the coarse stone tools, perhaps relating to their function (XRD analysis).

• The coprolite and resin will need to be passed to an appropriate specialist for study.


The 2006 assemblage augments the previous finds recovered from the site in several significant ways. The limited quantity of diagnostic material is consistent with the middle Iron Age date; there is no sign of later material, although there is a background of much earlier lithic material.

Although the assemblage is dominated by prosaic, everyday items, there are several more significant objects. With detailed study the stone and bone/antler tools should cast much light on the activities taking place around the site, but they suffer from a persistent problem of our limited understanding of their function. Studies of wear patterns may assist, but the problem will remain until more extensive experimental research is conducted. The large collection of stratified bone and antler pins, needles and other worked bone items provides a valuable opportunity to understand these common types of personal objects through study of associated objects and chronology.

Two of the bone/antler finds give hints of the importance of the site. One is a bead made of sea mammal ivory – a rare material in the Atlantic area which saw occasional use for what were presumably high-status ornaments and fittings. The other is the cache of points which are suggested to represent the tuning pegs of a lyre. This requires detailed study, but again points to a site of significance; the lyre seems to have been a much-valued instrument in the Iron Age, but evidence for it is exceedingly sparse, with only the peg from Cnip and perhaps the rather dubious wrest plank from Dun an Fheurain, Argyll attesting to it. In this instance, the association of seven pegs suggests these were the fittings from a single lyre; this is potentially a very significant find.

Close view of lyre tuning pegs manufactured from antler, showing circumfrential wear patterning (above)

The lyre pegs are one of two caches of bone items, the other comprising a series of points. These are two of several examples of multiple deposits on the site; previous seasons have found a cache of pebble tools and of shells, while the deposition of querns and perhaps an iron adze may be linked. This points to a series of structured deposits, probably some form of votive offerings; detailed contextual analysis will be of value in trying to understand their possible significance.

Most of the material would have been readily available locally, but slightly wider contacts are indicated by the steatite spindle whorls and disc, which probably originated from the Glenelg source. These and similar finds from earlier seasons provide valuable evidence of local exchange networks; a full study of steatite objects on Skye and the neighbouring mainland as part of the post-excavation should cast light on this. A small assemblage of glass beads, a first for the site, is important also in our understanding of wider contacts.

In conclusion, the 2006 assemblage provides several intriguing finds and represents a significant addition to the assemblage from the site with the potential to augment substantially our understanding of the later prehistoric period in western Atlantic Scotland.


Hunter, F 2006 ‘The bone and antler’, in I Armit,, Anatomy of an Iron Age Roundhouse. The Cnip wheelhouse excavations, Lewis, 136-51. Edinburgh: Soc Antiq Scot Monograph.

Previous entry: Specialist Report 2005 - Small Finds Assessment