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Photos show the graves and surrounding ditches of a small Pictish cemetery under excavation in March north-east of Perth
Pictish cemetery excavated near Perth
Archaeologists have excavated a complete cemetery near Perth that may be all that remains of an otherwise unknown small Pictish community. The early medieval graves were found during routine evaluation of a field destined for agricultural development. There were no prior signs of any historic activity on the site, but when exploratory trenches revealed graves and barrow ditches, the area was opened up and entirely excavated.
Five graves had been laid out in a line running approximately east-west. Each was set at the centre of an enclosing ditch and, perhaps, beneath a low mound, all traces of which had gone: a double square barrow (in which two barrows shared a common ditch) stood a little apart from two round barrows and a small rectangular barrow. The circular ditches were continuous, but the square ditches each consisted of straight segments with small gaps or causeways at the corners.
Skeletal material was recovered from four of the graves, and where this could be discerned the bodies had been laid out straight with their heads to the west. The well-drained sandy subsoil had not helped preservation, and the sites of bodies were mostly marked by dark stains; sufficient remained, however, that some analysis and dating should be possible. No associated grave goods were found.
Several dozen cemeteries of this type are known across eastern Scotland, where they are generally ascribed to the Picts, a generic term for the early historic descendants of the region’s indigenous iron age people. Most barrow groups are known only from cropmarks seen from the air, however, and there have been few modern excavations. This is the first group to have been completely sampled.
Other comparable excavations were university research projects. Cropmarks at Redcastle, Angus, were partly excavated by Edinburgh University in 1997–98 when the ditches of five square barrows and two round barrows, and nine unenclosed burials, were uncovered. As at Perth, the square barrows contained a central burial surrounded by ditches with corner breaks, and none of the graves contained artefacts. The cemetery was radiocarbon dated to the third to eighth centuries AD. Five unenclosed graves and two conjoined square barrows were excavated by Glasgow University at Forteviot, Perthshire, in 2007. Again, heads were laid to the west. Martin Cook, who directed the Perth excavation for AOC Archaeology in March, noted that paired square barrows are characteristic of these Pictish cemeteries. He wondered if the graves were for closely related people.
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JIM Bronze finds put prehistoric leather-workers on map called chisels, as they often still are. But as long ago as the 1940s some archaeologists questioned this attribution, saying the blades were too thin for working wood – from as little as 2mm to a tenth of a millimetre. The blades are always worn from use and resharpening, and often damaged.
Boughton says their identification as leather-working knives “makes a lot of sense” when they are compared with medieval heraldic symbols. Such a knife, for example, was the centrepiece of Aberdeen’s 17th century shoemakers’ guild (see illustration), and a similar single-edged tool – known as a Sattlermesser or Halbmondmesser – was in the coat of arms of the medieval German equivalent. Modern leatherworking knives, known as “head knives” or “saddler’s knives” (see photo below), are also comparable.
Left: Bronze leather-working knives from Penrith, Cumbria (top) and Fincham, Norfolk Below: Two of four bronze knives from the Leckwith hoard, Cardiff, found in 1928 (lengths 6cm)
Last year two metal detectorists searching 230 miles apart from each other, found two similar but rare objects. Made over 2,500 years ago from copper alloy or bronze, with a hollow socket for a wooden or bone handle and curved, triangular-shaped blades, they are thought to be leatherworking tools of a type that is still in use today.
One was found near Penrith, Cumbria, and the other near Fincham, Norfolk. They were reported to the local finds liaison officers (FLOs), who recognised them as knives dating from the earliest iron age (800–600bc). As with much of the material shown to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, says Dot Boughton (FLO for Cumbria), identification was not immediately obvious. Just ten specimens are now known from the UK – none from Scotland or Ireland – and they are rare too on the continent.
The earlier finds include one each from Staffordshire and Mildenhall, Suffolk, and a total of six from early iron age hoards (four from Leckwith Moors, Cardiff, and one each from Netherhampton, Wiltshire and Ferring, West Sussex). Similar-looking tools from the preceding late bronze age are far commoner, across Britain, Ireland and much of France. These have a solid tang for hafting instead of a socket, and it is assumed the one evolved into the other. Once the iron age began, however, the manufacture of bronze tools decreased rapidly, wrought ironwork displacing the cast alloys.
These knives were traditionally
Boughton suggests the early iron age knives were a key piece of kit for saddlers and whipmakers – professions connected to horses, horse-drawn carts and carriages or chariots. Other bronze artefacts clearly related to the use of horses and carts are very common in some early iron age hoards
The knives from Cumbria and Norfolk were returned to their finders after recording.
Above: Modern leather-working tools, including a saddler’s knife with a blade similar to the prehistoric examples Left: Detail from a 17th century crest for a shoemakers’ guild in Aberdeen, with a leather knife under a crown
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