Multi-Period Prehistoric Remains from Northern Scotland

Rectangular Post-Built Structure

Our recent excavations near Elgin, Scotland, have unearthed some fascinating discoveries dating from the Bronze Age and later periods including not just archaeological remains, but well preserved assemblages of plant remains shedding new light on what crops people grew and what the landscape was like in prehistoric times.

During the course of our excavations we have uncovered the remains of a rectangular post-built building that could be either Early Neolithic, or possibly early medieval in date.

The site has produced one of the earliest enclosed roundhouse settlements found in Britain dating to the end of the early Bronze Age, around 1600 BC, together with an adjacent cremation cemetery for the burial of their dead. The burials were contained within inverted pottery vessels, although they turned out to be very fragmentary on excavation.

A number of additional roundhouses have also been excavated across the site dating to subsequent periods within the Bronze Age up to around 900 BC. Settlement evidence for this period is rare and particularly in low-lying areas such as this where remains have usually been damaged or destroyed by ploughing. Our excavations have unveiled a settlement which appears to have been active for c. 500 years from the middle centuries of the 2nd millennium BC to the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.

Smelting Hearths

Three iron smelting furnaces were also discovered on site in addition to a small quantity of smelting slag. The slag morphology has been identified as being Early Iron Age and could be of particular significance in establishing the technological level of iron smelting processes in the formative years of ironworking in Britain.

The site has yielded considerable environmental evidence that includes cereal grains, hazelnut shells and charcoal fragments. One waste pit in particular yielded over 1000 well-preserved charred barley (Hordeum vulgare) grains. The presence of barley on these settlements, and in such large numbers, implies that the inhabitants were farming the cereal in large quantities and then processing it for a number of different purposes.

Clearance Pit
Barley Grains

Barley is dried as part of the final stages of cereal processing in order to remove the glume (its hard outer shell) from the grain. The recovery of these charred grains, particularly as some still retain their glumes, is perhaps the result of accidental charring during the drying process. Further quantities of barley have been found in association with some of the roundhouses and suggest that food processing may have taken place within the structures themselves.

Barley was often the dominant form of sustenance during the Bronze Age (c. 2400 – 700 BC) and Iron Age (c. 700 BC – 43 AD), particularly in this area. It would likely have been used to make bread which, by modern standards, would have been tough, gritty, and very stodgy as barley contains less gluten than wheat. Barley was also used to make beer in the Bronze Age and though only two grains were found to be sprouting, which means that it is unlikely they were being deliberately malted on this site, it attests to the versatility of the grain. Equally, making sure that animals had enough food for the winter was an important and challenging part of past life and the stalks and chaff for barley were utilised to provide winter fodder.

Further environmental evidence suggests that the diet of the inhabitants at this site, though heavily cereal-based, would have been supplemented by other crops such as cabbage, turnip, radish and mustard. Additionally, food foraged from the surrounding environment such as hazelnut would have provided a bit more variety.

Archaeological Research Services Ltd