Ironworking may have been carefully controlled knowledge in the Iron Age, leaving the uninitiated wondering whether it involved divine power, higher knowledge, or perhaps even magic. If so, the Iron Age smiths kept their secrets well, for the scarcity of direct archaeological evidence leaves many questions about how they practiced their craft. New finds at Beechwood Farm, Inverness may help to reveal these ancient techniques, and provide new perspectives on metalworking in northern Scotland. As well as ironworking debris in the form of slag the site has yielded an unusual find: the remains of a clay-lined furnace, a feature that only rarely survives in the archaeological record.
The excavation, conducted by AOC Archaeology Group, has unearthed evidence showing that activity on the site stretches back to before the age of metal, into the Neolithic. Early prehistoric artefacts have also been recovered, including a selection of pottery sherds and quern stones used for grinding grain into flour.
A cluster of roundhouses provides the first indication of settled occupation on the site although several pit groups and boundaries may be evidence of earlier activity. Charcoal recovered from the postholes of the timber roundhouses indicate they date from the Iron Age (c.700 BC-AD 400).
Dr Dawn McLaren from AOC Archaeology described the recovery of ironworking furnaces and hearths as ‘much rarer’ than iron slag which is ‘not an uncommon find on archaeological sites’. Though the Iron Age earned its name from the smith’s mastery of this metal, sites from this period that feature in situ ironworking evidence, such as furnaces, are scarce. Beechwood is a rare exception. A large clay-lined pit appears to be a hearth or furnace designed to achieve the high temperatures needed to work iron. Also recovered were many waste pieces from ironworking, known as iron slag.
These recent finds will hopefully provide new insight into the mysterious world of the Iron Age smith, and the effects such activities had on the local people and environment. Excavations at a neighbouring site – at Culduthel, also revealed smelting furnaces, suggesting that iron working was more widespread in North East Scotland than previously thought.
Post-excavation analysis is still in its early stages and the discoveries are only just beginning. Thanks to the new finds made at Beechwood Farm, the secrets of the Iron Age smelter may soon be revealed. The project was funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
By Ruth Mason