Iron Age

“The brochs of Orkney have had so much attention lavished upon them that our view of the Iron Age is very biased in their favour.”
John Hedges. The Broch Period. The Prehistory of Orkney: BC4000-1000AD (1985)

The Iron Age 800BC-AD800

Unlike England, where it ended with the arrival of the Romans in AD43, the Iron Age in Orkney continued until the arrival of the vikings in the 8th/9th century AD.

For a long time, the Orcadian Iron Age, as in the rest of Scotland, was regarded as a time of unrest and conflict. Why? What made life in the Iron Age more dangerous than earlier periods? In truth, probably nothing and the Neolithic and Bronze Age were no less violent. In fact, there is more evidence for interpersonal violence in Neolithic Orkney than its Iron Age!

The reason the Iron Age acquired its reputation as a time of strife is due to the most widespread and highly visible symbols of the period – the broch.

The Broch of Gurness. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Broch of Gurness. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The brochs were seen solely as defensive strongholds, constructed by people plagued by conflict. Until recently these monumental drystone towers dominated Iron Age studies  – broch-centred focus that influenced interpretation of life in the period.

Brochs are found throughout northern and western Scotland, concentrated mainly in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. This distribution over such a widespread area and the long-held belief they were nothing more than defensive refuges painted a picture of a society at war, in which fortifications across the Atlantic seaboard was a necessity. The brochs came to be regarded as the creation of local elites caught up in country-wide turmoil and apparently under constant threat.

While warfare and violence undoubtedly figured in Iron Age society, the idea of the broch being a mere refuge has fallen out of favour. Broch studies have come a long way from the antiquarian era and excavation and re-evaluation of previous investigations — particularly relating to the so-called “wells” encountered beneath them — suggests there was much more to brochs than mere, one-dimensional fortifications.

At least 700 brochs are known to have existed across Scotland, constructed and developed over the period between 600BC and AD100. Well over 100 have been recorded in Orkney, but whether they were actually intended for defence or merely a highly visible symbol of wealth and prestige, their popularity declined in the early centuries of the first millennium AD.

What is a broch?

The entrance avenue leading to the Broch of Gurness through the village clustered outside. (Sigurd Towrie)
The entrance avenue leading to the Broch of Gurness through the village clustered outside. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Standing from five to 13 metres high, brochs are circular, drystone towers accessed by a single entrance at ground level.

Inside was a main inner “chamber” from which smaller cells – either built into, or up against, the wall – branched off. A winding, stone staircase, housed within the broch’s double walls, led upwards to elevated floors and, in the case of Mousa, in Shetland, to the structure’s wallhead.

The Broch of Borwick, Sandwick. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Broch of Borwick, Sandwick. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Brochs seem to be an evolution of roundhouses that began appearing around 600BC. Like these, it is possible that some brochs were no more than fortified dwellings.

The presence of external defences, comprising of ramparts and ditches, around some does suggest they were built with an element of defence in mind – but the efficacy of these has been questioned.

In addition, there is little evidence of fighting or of the violent destruction of a broch.

Instead, Orkney’s broch dwellers may have lived in a society where feuds over land and status were common – perhaps not surprising considering the small area involved – but that actual conflict rarely escalated above local squabbles.

It is now generally believed that although defence may have played a part, brochs were more likely to have been built to impress – a monumental marker in the landscape, highlighting the owner’s social status, wealth and power.

Midhowe Broch, Rousay, looking out over Eynhallow Sound. (Sigurd Towrie)
Midhowe Broch, Rousay, looking out over Eynhallow Sound. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)   

Broch villages

Although many Scottish brochs stood alone, the larger examples in Orkney are surrounded by small villages and outer defences – a plan unique to Orkney and the northern tip of the Scottish mainland.

The Broch of Gurness, surrounded by the remains of the village outside its walls. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Broch of Gurness, surrounded by the remains of the village. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

At one time, it was thought that the jumble of external buildings and walls outside the brochs were later additions – built after the tower had fallen out of use. But in light of the excavations at Howe, outside Stromness, and a re-evaluation of the evidence from earlier broch excavations, this idea seems to have fallen out of favour.

Archaeologists are now of the opinion that the settlements surrounding the brochs were there from the start – clustered around the foot of the stone tower.

Digging deep

Steps leading down into the chamber at Minehowe, Tankerness. (Sigurd Towrie)
Steps leading down into the chamber at Minehowe, Tankerness. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Just as the broch builders had their sights set on building as high as possible, there seems to have been an equal emphasis on digging deep.

For much of the past two centuries, the Scottish Iron Age was perceived as a pragmatic, secular period.

A lack of ritual sites, formal burials and the purely functional, martial role assigned to brochs saw a series of highly elaborate underground structures — the so-called broch “wells” — dismissed at best and ignored at worst.

It is only in the past two decades that these have been recognised as being far too elaborate for the mundane roles once imposed on them.

Much ink has been spilled debating the potential heights reached by the tower-like brochs but little or no attention paid to the seemingly obvious fact that as much emphasis in the Iron Age was put on digging deep as reaching skyward.

Steps leading down to the 'well' beneath the Broch of Gurness.
The steps leading down to the ‘well’ beneath the Broch of Gurness during the excavation in 1930.

This was achieved through the construction of elaborate, underground chambers that have been broadly placed into two categories — the souterrain (known in Orkney as earth-houses) and the “broch well”.

Originally dismissed as “wells”, “cellars” or “cisterns” these were seen as purely functional — usually a source of water. The seemingly obvious fact that these “wells” went far beyond that required for a simple water source did little to dispel the notion they were purely utilitarian.

It took the 1999 “rediscovery” of Minehowe — a subterranean chamber at the heart of a metalworking complex in Orkney — to radically change this interpretation. Here was an Iron Age structure that clearly shared elements of broch architecture but which was “undisputedly ritual in nature”.

Metalworking and trade

Compared to the lack of evidence for Bronze Age metalworking, we know that throughout the Iron Age metal goods were being crafted in Orkney. At Minehowe, in Tankerness, for example, the metalworking assemblage was hailed as one of one of the best in Iron Age Britain.

Iron Age Orkney was far from isolated, with discoveries of Roman pottery and artefacts at several sites across the islands. The accounts of Pytheas in 325BC shows that the islands were at least known in the Mediterranean.

Riddle of the dead

The remains of the woman carefully buried beneath the floor of the smithy at Minehowe. (Sigurd Towrie)
The remains of the woman carefully buried beneath the floor of the smithy at Minehowe. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Although we have ample evidence about how the people of Iron Age Orkney lived, one area that remains clouded in uncertainty – what did they do with their dead?

In contrast to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, there is a distinct lack of evidence from the Iron Age. Some excavations have revealed burials in stone cists, where others have shown bodies (or body parts) incorporated into houses –  placed in the walls or under the floor.

At Minehowe, for example, the remains of a woman were found carefully buried under the floor of a metalworking smithy, while the body of a violently killed man was deposited in a pit outside.

This individual had been buried after rigor mortis had set in, so the toes were broken forcing the corpse into its shallow grave. Decorated pot sherd from the man’s grave matched, and fitted, a fragment from the woman’s grave, suggesting they were both interred at the same time.

At Howe, outside Stromness, the remains of 12-18 people were deposited in the rubble of a broch. At the ongoing excavation of The Cairns broch in South Ronaldsay, a male jawbone was found to have been placed in a whalebone vessel and set up against the building’s wall.

At the Knowe of Skea, in the island of Westray, the remains of well over 100 individuals were found in and around several Iron Age buildings.

The majority of the human remains – representing around 75 per cent of Iron Age bodies found in Scotland – were mainly neonatal or infant skeletons.

As well as complete burials, which usually saw the bodies interred on their sides in a foetal position, there were deposits of disarticulated human remains, some of which were deliberately incorporated into walls and floors of the surrounding buildings.

Excavation under way at the Knowe of Skea, Westray, in 2004. (Sigurd Towrie)
Excavation under way at the Knowe of Skea, Westray, in 2004. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The excavation of the remains of the man in a pit outside the Minehowe smithy. (Sigurd Towrie)
The excavation of the male remains in a shallow pit outside the Minehowe smithy. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Excavation showed that two buildings outside the apparent mortuary structure were metalworking “workshops”.

Among the finds in these was a mould for a pin identical to one recovered from a nearby grave – a pin that was perhaps used to fasten a burial shroud around the tightly crouched corpse.

So at the Knowe o’ Skea, just as at Minehowe, there appeared to be a link between the process of working metal and Iron Age burial rites or conceptions of death.

Links to the past

The reuse of Neolithic buildings in the Iron Age is not uncommon in Orkney. We know that Iron Age Orcadians continued to use, and, in some cases, respect earlier prehistoric sites.

One example is the Quanterness chambered cairn, where there was clear evidence of an Iron Age roundhouse being built into the front of the Neolithic structure.

In this case, the Iron Age builders incorporated the Neolithic structure into theirs, but also took great care not to disturb the original entrance.

That the Ness of Brodgar should attract Iron Age attention should perhaps come as no surprise.

Not only do we have the suspected broch site at Big Howe, a short distance from the Standing Stone of Stenness, but the 1906 operation to re-erect the fallen megaliths within the stone circle itself produced 51 sherds of Iron Age pottery, dating from between 50BC to AD300.

In addition, one of five pits discovered during the 1973/74 excavations, to the south of the central hearth, produced charcoal that was radiocarbon dated to between AD100-AD1050. The pit that produced the date is thought to be contemporary to the others.

Pictish period

The replica of the Pictish symbol stone found at the Brough of Birsay. (Sigurd Towrie)
The replica of the Pictish symbol stone found at the Brough of Birsay. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

From the writings of the classical authors who mention northern Britain, we know that by the 4th century AD the Picts – known to the Romans as “Picti” or “Painted People” – were the predominant force in northern Scotland.

Orkney was, at least for a time, part of this Pictish Kingdom, possibly with its own ruler/rulers, but owing fealty to a central High King.

Adomnan, the biographer of St Columbus, states that there were Orcadians at the court of the Pictish High King, Bridei, in AD565.

These Orcadians were described as “hostages” which could imply that relations between Orkney and Pictish King was perhaps strained. Some historians, however, have pointed out that these “hostages” could have an altogether less hostile interpretation and that they were merely guests at the King’s court.

Although we now know they were simply the descendants of the original broch builders, surprisingly little is known about the Pictish Orcadians.

This lack of evidence is due in part to the fact that the Romans, the major chroniclers of early British history, did not make it this far north in any great number. And we must remember that the Romans regarded the northern Picts as little more than savages.

The Brough of Birsay. (Sigurd Towrie)
The Brough of Birsay. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The most typically Pictish items that can still be seen today are the ornately carved symbol stones dotted across northern Scotland, the meaning of which is still hotly debated. Orkney only boasts a handful of these symbol stones, the best-known being the one on the Brough of Birsay, an offshore island settlement on the west coast of the Orkney Mainland.

The symbol stones are divided into two distinct classifications, depending on the form of the stone and the symbols found thereon.

The Class II stones, dating from around AD700-850, feature the Christian cross, with other symbols, carved in relief. Orkney’s only example from this group was found in 2011. Its discovery shows that Christianity was well established by the 8th century, the islands having been subject to Christian influence from 6th century onwards.

Although the Orkneyinga Saga glosses over the pre-Norse inhabitants of Orkney, the Historia Norvegiae states that the invading vikings found the islands to be inhabited by Picts and “papar” – the name given by the Norse to the clerics of the pre-Norse church.

Further reading