Culduthel: an Iron Age craftworking centre in north-east Scotland

The rapid suburban expansion of Inverness in recent decades has led to a patchwork of prehistoric sites being discovered through developer-funded excavations. In 2005, however, Headland Archaeology hit the motherlode at Culduthel. They had discovered a multi-period prehistoric site whose highlight was an extraordinary industrial and craftworking hub, active between the 2nd centuries BC and AD, possibly part of a larger unenclosed settlement of longer duration. In this Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume, Hatherley, Murray, and specialist contributors provide a very well-presented and stimulating account of the results, context, and significance of what, in their well-founded claim, is one of most significant Iron Age sites excavated in mainland Scotland in the last 20 years.

Luckily, part of the site lay in a hollow and was sealed beneath hillwash and an eroded slag heap. This contributed to a quality of structural preservation and volume and range of artefact recovery rarely seen on lowland prehistoric sites in eastern Scotland, which are often very plough-truncated. Sustained iron-smelting and smithing was represented by seemingly contemporary roundhouses containing furnaces, large quantities of industrial waste, and diverse iron objects. A smaller-scale, perhaps more transient, workshop making decorative copper-alloy metalwork, glass beads, and enamelwork was also revealed. The raw materials and objects reveal wide-ranging exchange networks, including, latterly, with the Roman world.

At a regional level, this settlement is without parallel for its period in terms of the range and (for ironworking) scale of craft production. Well-excavated, dated evidence for these activities is rare individually; to find all together is extremely fortunate. This begs the question as to how this community of crafty Caledonians fitted into society at local and regional levels. The authors consider various possibilities, building on previous models, but I feel we stand only in the foothills of enlightenment. The technological evidence from Culduthel represents a vital addition to our understanding of later prehistoric craft-working across Britain, if not beyond, and will form an important reference collection for some time to come.

Review by Andrew Dunwell.
Culduthel: an Iron Age craftworking centre in north-east Scotland, Candy Hatherley and Ross Murray, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, £30, ISBN 978-1908332196.