Changing prehistoric settlement: the example of St Germains, Tranent

Sites visible from the air can only be dated and properly understood when they are excavated. At St Germains, Tranent, aerial photography in 1975 seemed to show an enclosed settlement dating from the Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 500); but when excavated in 1978-1982 in advance of opencast mining, the site proved to be much more complex – and older.

The site was first used in the Bronze Age, around the beginning of the second millennium BC, which is characterised by the innovation of metalworking. In Scotland, new forms of pottery appear at this time, especially beakers, tall vessels with open mouths, often elaborately decorated with impressed and incised patterns, which were placed in graves with the dead. Other pottery types include food vessels and burial urns containing cremated human remains. In East Lothian, Bronze Age pottery and burials are usually found accidentally during ploughing and quarrying, but at St Germains beaker sherds were recovered from the earliest excavated levels, together with flint artefacts, including a barbed and tanged arrowhead, and a jet bead. A penannular ring-ditch with a pit at its centre was interpreted as the ploughed out remains of a Bronze Age burial, while other lines of pits and postholes nearby denote settlement activity.

The subsequent story of St Germains offers a fascinating insight into Iron Age East Lothian (c.500 BC – AD 500). During the first millennium BC, the site changed from an open settlement with a single circular timber house; to an enclosed farmstead with a replacement ring-groove house, re-built at least once and enclosed by a polygonal bank and ditch; to a heavily fortified homestead, with the earlier enclosure replaced by an impressive defensive ditch and rampart, pierced by a single entrance protected by a post-built gateway; and finally, as the fortifications were abandoned and the ditch silted up, an unenclosed village developed, with a whole series of stone-paved houses built in scoops, some overlying the ditch as the settlement expanded. This final phase endured well into the Roman period, in the early first millennium AD.

The Iron Age inhabitants of St Germains used plain coarse bucket-shaped vessels for cooking and storage, throughout the long life of the settlement. Food processing is attested by quern fragments, grinders and pounders. Other finds from the site testify to craft and manufacturing activities, with evidence in the form of spindle whorls for textile production taking place in the first enclosed farmstead, and bronze-working and bone-working in evidence by the time of the unenclosed village. Hammerstones and cobble tools suggest that flint, quertz and chert knapping was common practice through all phases of occupation. By the second century AD, Roman cultural material was also present in the settlement.