Iron Age Orcadian ornament

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The remains of a structure in the northern part of The Cairns site, where abundant evidence of metalworking was discovered, including more than 60 moulds. (Image: UHI Archaeology Institute)

Perched above Windwick Bay on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, the site known as The Cairns has been under continuous excavation by the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands for several years. Although best known for its Iron Age broch (see CA 275), it seems that the area continued to be used even after this structure fell into ruin around the mid-2nd century AD. Recent radiocarbon dates are now shedding new light on this post-broch occupation, particularly on how it reflects the shifting social structure of late Iron Age Scotland.

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Cairns is the abundant evidence of metalworking. While metallurgical features and artefacts have been found throughout the site, the northern part in particular displays a high concentration of furnaces, bronze waste, and moulds for casting fine objects. In all, more than 60 moulds or mould fragments have been recovered, found within the remains of a structure that appears to have already been derelict by the time jewellery was made here. The types of casts vary from those for simple bronze rings to highly elaborate ornaments such as decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches.

A bronze pin re-created from one of the moulds found at The Cairns. (Image: UHI Archaeology Institute)

Until recently, however, the exact date for this industry was unknown. Radiocarbon dates from a midden, which is adjacent to this area and provides evidence of a large feast, have now rectified this by showing that the metallurgy most likely occurred some time between AD 240 and AD 300. By this point, the broch was well out of use and, crucially, the dates fall during a period of dramatic social change in Iron Age Scotland.

Throughout Atlantic Scotland, as the monumental architecture of the brochs began to fade, we see an increase in the number of items for personal adornment and ornamentation. The reason for this shift is not fully understood, but at The Cairns the fact that this elaborate jewellerymaking coincided with intensive feasting is an intriguing connection.

‘We may be looking at how the social structure of an evolving Iron Age society worked, using jewellery-making and sharing at a large social event as a mechanism to unite a community but also to define a social hierarchy,’ said Martin Carruthers, Site Director at the UHI Archaeology Institute. ‘This whole assemblage gives us an intriguing insight into the possible social structure of middle-to-late Iron Age society in northern Scotland.’

Excavations later this year will hopefully reveal further information as the lower layers of the broch and the surrounding settlement sites are uncovered.

This article appeared in CA 338

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