Powerful finds at King’s Seat hillfort

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Excavations at King’s Seat hillfort, near Dunkeld, have demonstrated that the site was an important centre of Pictish power, occupied by an elite community who controlled craftwork production and had trade links with continental Europe in the 7th to 9th centuries AD.

Trench with postholes and stones visible
A line of post settings on the western edge of the rectangular structure in the central enclosure. [Image: AOC Archaeology]

The site consists of a low wall enclosing a small upper citadel, with a series of three or four ramparts enclosing a midlevel terrace on the west side of the hill, and a lower D-shaped enclosure surrounding an area to the east at the base of the hill.

Three seasons of archaeological investigation were carried out at the site by Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust (PKHT) with Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and AOC Archaeology Ltd, and with the final season now complete the results have been published in an interim report.

Material found at the site indicates that it housed an elite who had influence over the production of high-status goods. There was evidence of metal-working in the form of objects like crucibles, whetstones, and moulds, which may have been used in the production of blades. Textile production was also taking place, along with animal butchery, and possibly leatherworking and other crafts. The density of the craftworking material found across the site suggests that King’s Seat was an important production centre, not just the site of a small group carrying out production for their own personal use.

A complete disk-shaped spindle whorl was found in the central enclosure, with interesting scratch marks around the central perforation. [Image: AOC Archaeology]

Other indications of high-status occupation include finds associated with feasting such as fragments of glass drinking-vessels, gaming pieces, and large quantities of animal bone, and there was also evidence that this was a community with far-reaching commercial connections. Anglo-Saxon glass beads and vessels, and E-ware ceramic vessels which were made in western France, point to trade links with the rest of Britain and continental Europe, and reflect a more north-easterly distribution of E-ware in Scotland than was previously thought to exist.

The excavations have also identified structural remains: within the central enclosure was a hearth, surrounded by stone settings likely to be posts from a large, rectangular structure, perhaps some sort of hall or gathering place. In the western enclosure, multiple hearths and smaller, less-permanent structures suggest a different type of activity, possibly related to metal-working or other small workshops for craft production. Excavations in the eastern enclosure were not as extensive, but did also show evidence of metal-working and occupation, demonstrating that activity at the site extended beyond the immediate upper central enclosure.

No evidence of prehistoric activity has been discovered at the site yet, making it a very unusual find in a Scottish context – a high-status site that was constructed, used, and abandoned all within the early historic period. The work at King’s Seat has contributed significantly to understandings of hillfort sites in this period, which are largely assumed to have been occupied by some kind of elite but rarely yield such a wealth of material evidence. It is hoped that more information will be revealed by the post-excavation analysis currently taking place.

This news article appears in issue 362 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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