Raising a (Pictish) hand at the Knowe of Swandro

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(PHOTO: Steve Dockrill)

A Pictish coppersmith has left his prints – literally – on the remains of his workshop, recently excavated on Rousay, Orkney (pictured).

This discovery was made at the Knowe of Swandro, a multiperiod site that includes a Neolithic chambered tomb as well as subsequent Iron Age, Pictish, Viking, and Norse settlements, but which is slowly slipping into the sea. In a race against the tide, the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust, along with a host of partners, is working to excavate and record the site before it is too late (see CA 324).

This year, excavations have concentrated around features that are bearing the brunt of the erosion: the 5,000-year-old Neolithic chambered tomb and a Pictish metal workshop, dating to between the 6th and 9th centuries. Excavation of the workshop is being directed by Dr Julie Bond and Dr Stephen Dockrill from the University of Bradford, and their findings to-date are proving fascinating.

Located in a small cellular building, the smithy is semi-subterranean, probably in order to have minimised the amount of light entering the room and allowing the smith to assess the temperature of hot metal by its colour. The light would have been further controlled by a door separating the workshop from the connecting corridor. Many of the door’s stone fittings, including the pivot stone, door jamb, and bar hole, still survive, and in the middle of the room was a hearth and two stone anvils. Additionally, on the side of the hearth nearest the door was set an upright stone, most likely to protect the fire from draughts.

Scientific analysis of the site proved to be especially enlightening. As Dr Stephen Dockrill explained, ‘Work by archaeometallurgist Dr Gerry McDonnell, including analysis of crucible fragments and the floor deposits, has demonstrated that a coppersmith worked in the building. The analysis of the floor enables us to say with confidence where the smith worked, next to a hearth and two stone anvils. The biggest surprise came when we lifted the larger stone anvil and cleaned it; we could see carbon imprints of the smith’s knees and hands.’

For further information about the project, visit www.swandro.co.uk.

This article appeared in CA 343.

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