On February 2, 2016, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies and the First Millennia Study Group welcomed Alice Blackwell of National Museums of Scotland to discuss ‘Revisiting Gaulcross: Europe’s northernmost post-Roman hacksilver hoard’, Dawn McLaren of AOC Archaeology Group to discuss ‘Recent Burials from Papa Westray, Orkney: an overview and initial thoughts’ and Ewan Campbell of the University of Glasgow to discuss ‘New early medieval finds from Rhynie, Burghead and Glenshee’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.
Alice Blackwell started the night off with a discussion of the Gaulcross hacksilver hoard. The hoard was originally discovered sometime around 1838 during agricultural improvements, improvements which involved the destruction of two stone circles nearby. Today, only three objects associated with the initial discovery of this hoard survive: a handpin, a length of chain and a spiral bangle. Because it seemed that the group was a part of a substantial hoard, The Northern Picts Project (University of Aberdeen) and the Glenmorangie Research Project (NMS) joined forces in order to revisit and reconstruct the original findspot of the hoard. Geophysical survey, systematic metal detecting, followed by excavation; this led to the recording and recovery of another portion of the silver hoard. The finds were located entirely within the plow soil and were spread across the site.
Over 100 new objects have been recovered, many of which are hack silver and not complete objects. The information gained by this discovery allows for comparisons with the Norrie’s Law hoard, which is also largely composed of hack silver. Because many of the hack silver parcels from the Norrie’s Law hoard have been unfolded, they cannot contribute to questions concerning economic weights used during the time of deposition. Luckily, the newly discovered portions of the Gaulcross hoard can. In addition to questions concerning systematic standard units of weight, researchers believe that it will also help us better understand how Late Roman silver was recycled. There is evidence to suggest that there were no new sources of silver introduced to Scotland after the Romans until the Viking Age. Undoubtedly the recycling of silver was an important process in metalworking during the Early Medieval period which we know little about. There are additional similarities between the Gaulcross hoard and the Norrie’s Law hoard. Both contain similar large handpins, a significant component of hack silver, pieces of penannular hoops, and many pieces with similar decorative motifs. There are also several unique finds from the Gaulcross hoard, including possible scabbard bosses and a crescent-shaped pendant. Finally, many of the new objects which have been recovered suggest an earlier date in the fifth to sixth centuries AD, much earlier than was initially thought to be the case.
More information on the Gaulcross hoard can be found on the NMS website through the Glenmorangie Research Project’s blog, found here.
The second lecture was given by Dawn McLaren of the AOC Archaeology Group in which she described two Viking burials excavated in Mayback, Papa Westray, Orkney. Both burials were found with Viking-Age grave goods and are only a short distance away from each other. Both are associated with truncated stone settings, which suggests that cairns may have covered them at one time. A third stone cairn was discovered nearby, although no human remains were associated with it.
One of these Viking Age burials is a boat burial, which was found in the floor of an existing building. This burial was disturbed, especially on the northern side of the burial. Despite the disturbance, stone settings in a curvilinear shape in conjunction with the organic stain left by the keel of the boat and approximately over a hundred clench bolts and associated iron fittings and mineralized wood, it is certain that this is a boat burial. Unfortunately, there were few other artefacts associated with the burial, except for an iron shield boss and a possible iron key.
The second Viking Age burial consisted of a simple grave cut with stone lining slabs. The body was buried in a flexed position laid on its right side. Unfortunately a service trench had cut through the grave and removed the legs and feet of the individual. Additional damage was caused by a stone slab that had collapsed onto the grave. Many grave goods were included in this burial, most of which were removed in blocks and have not yet been identified with absolute certainty. Identified grave goods include a large broad sword was laid across the body with traces of what appears to be a scabbard, a possible spearhead, a cluster of iron objects behind the head that could be arrowheads, a whittle-tanged knife blade, a second whittle tanged object that could be a slotted tool associated with metalworking or glassworking, and a wooden shield with an iron boss. A strange substance located above the individual’s head was described as having the consistency of egg shell; it is thought that this could represent residue from the shield, which may indicate that the shield was painted. The broad sword was x-rayed, which revealed an elaborately decorated hilt with a missing pommel. Further examination of the artefacts will take place in due course.
These burials both have an additional feature in common: they both include upright orthostats, which might have aided in marking the burials. It is therefore very likely that these burials indicate a previously unrecognised early Viking cemetery. Undoubtedly, with more research, these burials will have more to tell about Viking-Age Orkney.
Finally, Ewan Campbell discussed several artefacts which had been recovered from Rhynie, Burghead, and Glenshee. He began by describing the highly decorated nail-headed pin which was recently recovered. It is decorated with incised lines in a sort of ribbed decoration around the pin in a way similar to Late Roman hair pins. It appears that these artefacts are derived from a Late Roman decorative milieu but expressed in a different way.
Square iron buckles were recovered from Rhynie and Burghead in a late 5th to early 6th century context. What is particularly interesting about these buckles is that they are far more difficult to make than oval buckles because its construction requires four pieces of iron to be welded together. Out of the 1400 buckle types associated with the Anglo-Saxon culture, only three types are square. However, square buckles are more common in Roman contexts, suggesting that these buckles are coming from a similar Roman cultural tradition as the nail-headed hair pin.
A spirally-wound cobalt-blue glass bead was also recovered from Rhynie. It is unclear to determine if it was meant to be made in that way or not. At least one other is known from Ireland from an Early Medieval context. They are also known to exist in a Roman context, which would suggest that this bead has similar connections.
Finally, a green glass segmented bead which appears to have been made of two beads fused together was recovered from the Glenshee excavations of a Pitcarmack type house in a shieling situation from a 7th to 9th century context. Similar beads have been found in Germanic Anglo-Saxon Continental situations. Due to its remote location, it is thought that this bead indicates that Glenshee had ties to an elite status site during this time period.
Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD researcher)
Our seminar series continues on 9 February 2016 with Denis Rixson (Mallaig) to discuss ‘Land-assessment in the west highlands.’ This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.