Metalworking and mystery at Minehowe: The 2003 Excavation

The trench opened to the south-west of Minehowe. The underground structure's entrance is pictured top left.

The latest four week archaeological excavation at Minehowe, in Tankerness, came to an end last week – but although it confirmed the extent and importance of metalworking around the enigmatic Iron Age site, it has again left the experts with as many questions as answers.

The excavation, sponsored by Orkney Enterprise, Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College and Historic Scotland, was the fourth in a series of digs and continued to focus on the area surrounding the underground chamber.

The “best preserved metalworking site in Britain”

Excavation director was Orkney Archaeological Trust’s Nick Card. Orkney College’s Jane Downes was co-director.

“We’re looking at an exceptional site in so many ways,” Nick said. “The emphasis here is on just how important this site was in the Iron Age. Apart from the so far unique religious and ritual aspects of the site, this also is probably the best preserved late prehistoric metalworking site anywhere in Britain.”

Returning to the known metalworking area and structure outside Minehowe’s circular ditch, the 2003 excavation revealed more of the type and scale of processes that took place there in the third or fourth centuries AD.

Excavating the workshop

Excavating the circular metalworking 'workshop.

Moving slowly down through the soil, the site was painstakingly excavated, the archaeologists recording every minute detail and they dug down through the layers of accumulated history.

Nick Card explained: “From the floor deposits of the round structure we uncovered last year, we have discovered metal ingots, metal ore, slag and several crucibles – beautiful objects, some almost like egg-cups with little pedestal feet. Although we knew we probably had one of the best assemblages of metalworking from the later Iron Age found anywhere in Britain, this just amplifies everything and adds other dimensions to it.”

“We have come across three or four small kilns within the round structure, possibly for finer metalworking than a furnace we found up on the side of the mound. From the evidence we’ve found it is clear that this metalworking area was almost exclusively for copper or bronze work.”

Among the other finds was another possible sword pommel. A whale-tooth pommel was unearthed in 2002 and the latest find hints that the area was being used for the full range of metalworking – from perhaps the heavy forging of weapons down to finer finishing work and more delicate items.

Meanwhile, the floor of the metalworking building revealed a large whalebone object. This was found to be holed and held together with copper rivets but its purpose remains unclear until it has been properly cleaned and conserved. These finds once again confirm the importance of the site – the Iron Age craftsmen were not just producing mere work implements but very high status Iron Age artefacts.

Another archaeological first in Orkney was the discovery of an ingot mould made of steatite (soapstone) – the nearest source of which is in Shetland. Nick said: “Viking steatite moulds have been found in Birsay before but for this to be in an Iron Age context is a first for Orkney and its presence certainly implies contact of some sort with Shetland.”

Iron Age furnace revealed

Minehowe Furnace

The Iron Age furnace unearthed on Minehowe's mound

Moving away from the ‘workshop’, a trench opened towards the top of the south-western side of Minehowe’s mound confirmed what a detailed geophysics scan of the area had already hinted at.

The scan had showed an intense area of magnetic activity on the surface of the mound – a reading that usually indicates burning of some sort. And sure enough when the trench was opened, the diggers were delighted to find a beautifully preserved Iron Age furnace.

It is suspected that the stone furnace was positioned high on the mound simply to make the most of the updraft from the base of the howe. And from previous the geophysics scans of the area, it seems that it might not be the only one.

“It came as a very nice surprise when this thing turned up. Although we often find the residues from metalworking, to find an actual furnace is extremely rare,” said Nick. “The geophysics scans have shown up lots of ‘little black blobs’ just like this one appeared as. If these are all in some way related then we have an area of considerable Iron Age industrial activity.”

But although this year’s excavation work shed light on the later activities around the monument, Minehowe continues to live up to its reputation. As Nick Card was the first to admit: “This year, like every other year Minehowe has just raised more questions than it answers.”

An enigmatic baby burial

Late Iron Age Pit

The late Iron Age pit found to contain the remains of a very young baby.

Among the more perplexing elements was the discovery of a single infant burial, unearthed in a new trench to investigate a “quiet” area of the mound’s encircling ditch.

In this trench, opened to the south-west of the underground chamber and over an area thought to incorporate the ditch, the archaeologists began to come across upright stones in the ditch fill.

Originally it was thought this could have been another of the alcove-type “shrines” discovered at the rear of the mound in 2000. But as the trench was extended a more puzzling sequence of structures came to light.

First to see the light of day was a circular, stone-lined pit, approximately 1.5 metres in diameter and 0.5 metres deep. At the top of this circular “container” lay the fragile remains of a very young baby – the exact age of which has yet to be determined.

The pit is thought to date from the very late Iron Age, by which time Minehowe’s ditch would have been filled in and all but invisible. The archaeologists were expecting to find more remains as they dug deeper but found nothing.

What was going on within the stone-lined pit remains unclear but as Nick Card summed up: “At present it’s just another enigma from Minehowe, although the analysis of the soil samples we took may shed some light on its function. But it’s interesting enough just to find the burial, as Iron Age burials remain comparatively rare in Scotland.”

Iron Age structure

The Iron Age structure found built into the infilled ditch at Minehowe. The circular pit can be seen in the top left of the picture.

As work in the trench progressed, a curving wall was found, circling out from the infant’s last resting place. Older than the pit, originally it was thought to relate to Minehowe’s ditch and was perhaps a fragment of another revetted entrance causeway. But as the diggers worked on, more and more of the wall appeared until a clearly defined oval structure with a flagstone floor was revealed. What appeared to be a drain was also visible.

“We’re just not quite sure what this is yet,” said Nick. “It could be like the broch sites of Gurness, in Evie, or Midhowe, on Rousay, where we can see later structures spreading out into the partially infilled ditches surrounding these sites.”

Sculpting the landscape

Much has changed around Minehowe over the centuries and although the mound remains reasonably prominent in the landscape, it now appears that it was once even more so.

A cross-section taken through the soil deposits at the foot of the howe revealed that over two metres of archaeological deposits had been deliberately dumped on the north-western side of the mound in prehistory.

Nick Card explained: “What we could be looking at here could be so huge in monumental terms that it’s difficult to comprehend. What seems to have been going on was a deliberate ‘sculpting’ of the landscape.”

The reasons behind this massive landscaping effort are unclear but it seems likely to have been ritualistic rather than practical.

We know that the Iron Age community at Minehowe were reusing a landscape that had already been used by their Bronze Age ancestors so perhaps their modifications were to stamp their own identity on the ritual landscape, and enhance further the significance of the underground structure at Minehowe.

“Ideally, what we would like to do now is a complete survey of the area to find out the topography of the landscape before any of this archaeology was in place.” added Nick.

Once again, time will hopefully tell.

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