Iron Age East Lothian

The picture emerging from St Germains and other excavated sites, such as Broxmouth Hillfort, a palisaded enclosure at Dryburn Bridge (south-east of Dunbar), and two enclosed settlements at Fishers Road, Port Seton, is one of increasing insecurity and territoriality from about 1000 BC, which led to settlements being enclosed by banks, ditches, walls or stout palisade fences, or some combination of these. Once the idea of enclosure had taken hold, it became a way not only of protecting a family or community, and controlling stock, but also a means of demarcating territory and areas of cultural and political influence. However, recent excavations have shown that the relative chronology between open settlements, palisaded enclosures and hillforts is rarely straightforward. Single long-lived settlements could have different types of houses, enclosures and defences at different times, and what appear from the air to be simple palisaded enclosures often turn out to be long-lived and complex monuments, as do the hillforts. It used to be thought that unenclosed houses were the lowest rank of settlement but, as at St Germains, excavations have shown that phases of enclosure could intermingle with phases of open settlement though the long life of an Iron Age settlement, and could date from any time within a millennium or more. It may be that the decision as to whether a settlement should be enclosed or not was determined more by the contemporary function of the homestead and by immediate prevailing local circumstances.

The landscape itself was also divided up by physical boundaries, with fields and cultivation plots often surrounded by banks, ditches and palisades, many still visible from the air. We should not assume that families owned land as we understand it: members of a community may have been assigned different areas to cultivate. In these fields families planted, tended and harvested crops, which were later processed, stored and consumed. Barley was the main crop, with some wheat and oats. The soil was turned with a wooden or metal ard to till the fields. Families also kept cattle, sheep and goats, and some had pigs, dogs and horses. The staple diet was the meat of domestic animals and the crops that they had grown, supplemented by wild fruits and plants, fishing and occasional hunting. People made most of their own possessions, including ards and quernstones for farming and processing crops, pots and wooden vessels needed to store and cook food, clothes and personal items.

Iron Age houses are always circular, with so-called ‘ring-ditch houses’ common in lowland Scotland from around 500 BC. The interior of the house closest to the wall was dug into the ground and often paved, while the central part of the house was a raised area. Some had rings of posts inside to carry the roof structure. Some commentators have suggested that the paved ground floor was a byre for cattle, and the family occupied the first floor level of these substantial timber dwellings. Iron Age roundhouses vary considerably in size, from as little as four metres to over 20 metres across. The larger examples might have accommodated as many as 30 people, perhaps as well as cattle.

Iron Age burials: the example of North Belton, by Dunbar

While Iron Age burials are relatively scarce, some have been found in the county. In 1989 the farmer at North Belton dislodged an enormous capstone with his plough, which is how most ancient graves were discovered in antiquity; this one was excavated using modern techniques. It proved to be a large cist of unusual construction (peculiar to south-east Scotland), with walls of large orthostats surmounted by drystone masonry, dating from the early centuries AD. It contained two male skeletons lying side by side, one about twenty when he died, and the other in his late thirties or early forties. From analysis of the skeletons, it seems that the younger man was in the early stages of arthropathy, a joint abnormality arising from ailments such as psoriasis; while the older man had very worn and uneven teeth, four of which exhibited caries. The North Belton cist is reminiscent of an earlier discovery at Lochend. This massive cist was packed with the remains of 21 totally or partially disarticulated skeletons and had been used as a burial vault over several generations, with the earlier inhumations disturbed to make room for each new inhumation. Fragments of two penannular brooches and an iron stud were also found. These two examples, North Belton and Lochend, seem to belong to a group of Iron Age cists of drystone construction in Berwickshire and East Lothian.