Men working on a peat bank, in Orphir, have unearthed an “outstanding” example of a late Bronze Age socketed axe – believed to be only the second found in Orkney to date.
Michael Watt discovered the 3,000-year-old axehead while spreading peats at the Highland Park’s Hobbister peat bank. The distillery uses the peats, which are mechanically extracted each spring and manually spread to dry over the summer, to dry the barley used in its whisky.
Initially, it was thought that the peat-encrusted object was an old tractor part, but, once its significance was realised, it was passed to Scott Chalmers, whose father, Jim, took it to the archaeology department in Orkney College.
Measuring 8.9cm long, the axe head has a socket at one end, to which a wooden haft would have been attached, as well as a loop through which leather or twine would have been threaded to keep head and haft together.
Its condition is remarkable, thanks to the protection offered by the peat over the millennia.
Commenting on the find, county archaeologist, Julie Gibson said: “My initial reaction was that it was too good to be true. But this is really treasure. It’s a perfectly preserved example of a socketed axe that looks just the same today as it would have about 3,000 years ago.”
In the Bronze Age, the changes sweeping southern Britain did not seem to catch on in Orkney, where metal goods appear to have remained scarce. This would have ensured they remained objects of prestige.
Although copper could be found naturally in Orkney, there is a distinct lack of evidence for copper mining. This implies that metal objects were still being imported, adding to their rarity and subsequently, value.
The Hobbister axe, for example, probably belonged to someone of high social standing and was more than like a ceremonial object. Although we can’t say for certain why the owner decided to part with it, it is possible the axe was deliberately placed in a pool of water as a ritual offering.
In Britain, ritual deposits of precious metalwork were made in rivers, marshes and other aquatic locations during the Bronze and into the Iron Age.
But despite its rarity, the axe might not have been a mere status symbol. Viewing the find, Anne Brundle of the Orkney Museum, noted wearing and irregularities that could indicate it had been used, and perhaps resharpened.
What the discovery highlights in particular is the value of marshland and peat bogs to archaeology. The logistics of working in wetland has meant the areas have been neglected over the years, something Julie Gibson feels needs remedied.
“Orkney’s marshes are a potential goldmine of information about Orkney’s past. They are extremely important and deserve much more archaeological attention. It is also vital that we bear this in mind in any future planning projects to utilise these areas in non-traditional ways.”
The axehead was sent away for conservation s now on display in the Orkney Museum.