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More reveals from radiocarbon dates

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So now that we have radiocarbon dating evidence for Early-Mid Neolithic occupation of the larger rectilinear hall (Structure 8) at Carnoustie, what does the latest batch of radiocarbon dates tell us about the context of this settlement?

Carnoustie excavation plan

The other large rectilinear hall (Structure 13) which lies just to the south-west of the larger hall has yielded calibrated radiocarbon dates ranging between 3938-3033 BC, which indicates that it was contemporary with the larger hall and may even have carried on after the larger hall was abandoned.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect to be revealed by the latest batch of radiocarbon dates is that many of the other features have yielded Neolithic dates too. These include structures 10 and 12 that extend beyond the southern corner of the site and the numerous groups of pits that lie to the east and south west of the two Neolithic halls, which have produced calibrated radiocarbon dates from across the fourth millennium BC. So it is clear that the two Neolithic halls lay within a much bigger settlement area.

What’s also apparent from the radiocarbon dates is that the Late Bronze Age settlement contemporary with the hoard lay clustered in that part of the site north-east of the larger hall. But more about this later…

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Radiocarbon dating the larger Neolithic Hall

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Aerial shot of Neolithic hall (from west)

So far, we have received three radiocarbon dates from the larger Neolithic hall (Structure 8) at Carnoustie.  Three of the post-holes at the north-eastern gable end of the hall have yielded calibrated (2 sigma) dates from single entity samples (willow, alder and hazel) of 3694-3530 BC, 3929-3703 BC and 3893-3653 BC. Which confirms our assumption that this was an Early Neolithic structure of the early fourth millennium BC.

Those dates are really close to the radiocarbon dates recovered from other Neolithic halls in Scotland such as Balbridie in Aberdeenshire and Doon Hill in East Lothian. So it’ll be interesting to see whether the smaller building (Structure 13) at Carnoustie, which lies on different alignment south of the larger hall, yields a different range of radiocarbon dates.

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What radiocarbon dates are beginning to tell us

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The first batch of radiocarbon dates have come back with some interesting results. First of all a couple of occupation layers within Structure 5 (a roundhouse just to the south of the pit containing the Late Bronze Age hoard) have yielded calibrated radiocarbon dates of 1118-931 BC and 1082-905 BC. These dates are very close if not pretty much identical to the calibrated radiocarbon date of 1118-924 BC obtained from the wooden scabbard of the Carnoustie sword. So this  confirms that the hoard was buried within a pit that lay within a contemporary Late Bronze Age settlement.

Carnoustie excavation plan

Another question is whether this settlement just comprised the one roundhouse or whether at least some of the other apparent buildings and houses were contemporary with this. Well, another building, Structure 1, which is elliptical in shape and lies to just to the east of Structure 5, yielded calibrated radiocarbon dates of 1046-916 BC and 920-818 BC. Structure 2, a sub-circular structure to the north of Structure 1, yielded calibrated radiocarbon dates of 1084-912 BC and 1192-998 BC. Structure 3, another roundhouse which lies just to the east of the hoard pit yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date of 1207-1017 BC.

Altogether, these radiocarbon dates provide a context for the burial of the Carnoustie hoard. The dates suggest that the hoard was buried within a pit that lay within a large settlement that had developed over the course of the last couple of centuries of the second millennium BC and on into the first couple of centuries of the first millennium BC – ie the Late Bronze Age.

Which is very exciting. And we haven’t yet mentioned the radiocarbon dates for the earlier Neolithic Hall!

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Replica Bronze Age sword and spearhead

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Although the museum where the excavation assemblage will be eventually exhibited has yet to be determined, Angus Council are keen to be proactive in the presentation of these important finds within the Angus area. To this end the programme of post-excavation works includes the production of replica items from the Bronze Age Carnoustie hoard discovered at the site, which will be suitable for public display and educational purposes. It will be possible for all items to be handled by children and adults, under supervision. 

The replica spearhead, sword and pin were cast and finished at a scale of 1:1 by Neil Burridge, a Bronze Age metalwork expert who has provided similar items for display and reenactment purposes across Britain for over 12 years ( Neil also produced a scabbard for the sword.

Neil was provided with scale illustrations of the sword and spear prepared by GUARD Archaeology’s Senior Graphic Officer, Gillian Sneddon. This ensured that the replica objects are an accurate representation of the items discovered at Carnoustie. The items were cast in bronze, and the sword hilted in a similar material to that found in the hoard. The golden collar on the spearhead was replicated in design and form with a gold coloured base metal.

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Late Bronze Age bangle fragment

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Carnoustie Late Bronze Age Bangle

This fragment of a cannel coal or shale bangle is an example of a Late Bronze Age item of jewellery that was comparatively rare in Scotland and which could well be contemporary with the hoard of metalwork found just around 5 m away. The recurrent association of such bangles with other valuable items including metalwork suggests that they formed part of the ‘vocabulary of esteem’ among the elite of Late Bronze Age society.

‘Its size suggests that it had been an adult’s,’ said Alison Sheridan, from National Museums Scotland, who analysed the bangle. ‘The discovery of such a bangle in a domestic context in northern Britain, datable from the roundhouse in which the pit was located, represents a welcome addition both to the contextual range of find spots and to the chronological evidence for the use of this type of object during the Late Bronze Age.’

Fragment of cannel coal or shale bangle from Carnoustie

It is hard to tell whether locally-available cannel coal or oil shale had been used to manufacture this bangle, since sourcing these particular materials requires sampling of the object. However, there are abundant supplies of cannel coal in the coalfield deposits of Fife, and shale is also available within a few kilometres of Carnoustie, so in theory this need not have been an exotic import. While Late Bronze Age bangles are likely to have been made by specialists, the scale of production in northern Britain may not have been large, to judge from their rarity.

As for how the bangle had been made, there are two basic methods: the first involves pecking or gouging a hole in the centre of a roughout then expanding the hole by cutting, and the second involves cutting a disc from the centre, leaving a disc-shaped waster or ‘core’, usually with a bevelled edge (from where the disc had been cut from either side of the roughout). The latter technique, rare in Scotland, is characteristic of Iron Age and early medieval bangles, and no pre-Iron Age example of a disc-shaped waster is known. This suggests that the Carnoustie bangle had probably been made by expanding a small central hole; the cut-marks running around the interior of the hoop are consistent with this.

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Analysis of a Neolithic stone axe

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Aerial shot of Carnoustie Neolithic Hall – the axehead was found near the top left centre of the hall

Buried within one of a row of pits within the large Neolithic hall at Carnoustie was a complete axehead in pristine condition, quite possibly never used. Measuring 170 mm long and 63.5 mm wide, this was analysed by Alison Sheridan from National Museums Scotland. With one face more markedly convex than the other (the blade lies closer to the less convex face), in theory this could have been hafted as an adze-head instead of an axehead, although it lacks the marked longitudinal asymmetry of adze-heads.

Neolithic stone axehead

There are numerous shallow striations all over the surface, from its grinding smooth and polishing to a low sheen. There is no obvious haft stain, and in any case the position of the axehead in the pit indicates that it was unhafted when deposited. The stone has kindly been identified by Dr Peder Aspen (former curator of the Cockburn Geological Museum at the University of Edinburgh) as a garnet-albite-schist, a metamorphic rock originating in the Highlands.

Finding the Neolithic stone axehead

Stone axeheads were an essential tool of farming communities, and many will have been required in the construction of the large Early Neolithic timber buildings at Carnoustie. It is possible that the deposition of what appears to be an unused axehead in a pit was a symbolically-significant act for the Early Neolithic household here.

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Comparing the Carnoustie and Pyotdykes spearheads

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the Carnoustie spearhead

The Carnoustie spearhead was probably the star find of the dig. But it’s not the only gold decorated bronze spearhead to be found in this part of Scotland.



Pyotdykes spearhead © The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum

Another Bronze Age hoard was recovered at Pyotdykes farm just outside Dundee in 1963 and it too includes a gold decorated bronze spearhead. Indeed the discovery of the Carnoustie hoard spurred one of the specialists involved in our post-excavation programme of works, Alison Sheridan of the National Museums of Scotland to re-examine the Pyotdykes artefacts – two swords and the spearhead – which are held by The McManus – Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum.

details of gold decoration of Carnoustie spearhead socket

Though a different shape to the Carnoustie spearhead, it is again the socket of the Pyotdykes spearhead which is embellished with a gold strip. The decoration on the Carnoustie band is decorated with a herringbone design between zones of two to three concentric lines,

detail of gold decoration around Pyotdykes spearhead socket. Photo by Lore Troalen of NMS


The Pyotdykes band has a more elaborate scheme featuring filled triangles between zones of up to seven lines. In each case, the design was probably incised into the end of the bronze socket, and then a seamless hoop of thin gold foil was slipped over the end and pressed in, to take the design.



One of the Pyotdykes swords had been buried in a scabbard made from hazelwood, just as the Carnoustie sword had been. As with the Carnoustie hoard, this proved really useful in providing suitable material for radiocarbon dating. The Pyotdykes hoard is now dated to 900–790 BC, slightly later than the Carnoustie Hoard which was dated to between 1118-924 BC.

The dates are interesting because they suggest that the two hoards were probably not contemporary with each other but may have been separated in time by as much as 300 years. This makes the similarities between the hoards all the more fascinating because while these suggest a similar idea behind why they were buried – perhaps safe-keeping rather than ritual given that the Carnoustie hoard lies within the middle of a settlement unlike most hoards which were deposited in watery places (rivers, bogs, lochs) – it was not one event that spurred this. This cultural custom of burying precious possessions for safe-keeping (for whatever reasons) was probably practised in this region for several centuries in the Late Bronze Age. And for whatever reasons, those who buried the hoards at Carnoustie and Pyotdykes, never returned to reclaim them.

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Carnoustie High School Workshops

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Earlier in June a team of GUARD Archaeologists made a visit to Carnoustie High School, which lies adjacent to the archaeological site. Approximately 22 students had been selected by the school for some archaeological workshops. An initial presentation by the excavation director provided an overview of the project from the initial evaluation, through the excavation, and into the post-excavation process, which is the stage we are at the moment. After the talk, the school students were split into two groups, one for drawing artefacts and one for photography, with each workshop led by GUARD Archaeology’s Graphics Officers.

During the Artefacts Illustration workshop, the students were shown a selection of finds from Carnoustie (prehistoric stone tools, lithics and pottery) and were then asked to select one that they would like to draw. They then learned how to draw different types of artefacts by drawing around it then using dividers to measure and correct the outline. They also used a magnifier to add in detail and were given a small light to create a light source for shading. Once they had finished the pencil drawing they traced over it using fibre tipped pens to produce a final drawing.

For the Artefacts Photography workshop, the students took pictures of prehistoric stone tools and pottery using either a portable light box or portable desk lights. They learned how to use photo scales and also how lighting can emphasise detail of an object. The students were also taught how to use a digital SLR camera to achieve best results for close up images of artefacts under different lighting.


These workshops will be followed up with a second day in Autumn 2018 which will examine more of the results from the post-excavation analyses and the science behind each specialism.

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Lithics Analysis

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602 lithic artefacts were recovered from the Carnoustie excavation and subjected to analysis by Torben Ballin. He found out that the lithics mainly comprise flint and quartz but with some pitchstone and quartzite. About 92% of this assemblage is waste material produced in the making of prehistoric stone implements. The remaining 8% of the lithic artefacts are actual tools such as arrowheads, knives and scrapers.

The flint included local material collected along the nearby shores of the North Sea (this kind is quite common in assemblages from eastern Scotland) as well as Yorkshire flint. The local flint/Yorkshire flint ratio is 68:32. In this region of Scotland, the local reddish flint was used throughout prehistory, whereas the Yorkshire flint was used mainly during the Middle and Late Neolithic periods. This is borne out by the two  timber halls at Carnoustie (that are likely to be Early Neolithic) which are entirely devoid of Yorkshire flint, whereas this type of flint is common in the pit groups elsewhere on the site that contained later Neolithic objects.

Five pieces of pitchstone were also recovered. This form of volcanic glass (a close ‘cousin’ of obsidian) was procured from the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. The distribution of diagnostic pitchstone objects and associated materials like Cumbrian tuff and pottery of the Carinated Bowl Tradition suggests that in southern, central, and eastern Scotland most pitchstone probably dates to the Early Neolithic period.

One of Torben’s conclusions is that though the archaeological features we excavated indicate that the location was occupied during the Early Neolithic (the timber halls), the later Neolithic (the pit groups), and the Bronze Age (the roundhouses and the hoard), the diagnostic lithics only derive from the two earlier periods. The timber halls are associated with Early Neolithic lithics (leaf-shaped points, pitchstone), whereas the pit groups seem to be associated with exclusively later Neolithic lithics (oblique arrow-heads, Yorkshire flint, Levallois-like technique). There appear to be no diagnostic lithic artefacts from the Bronze Age.


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Post-excavation examination of the site

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In March 2018, the final programme of post-excavation analyses of the archaeological remains at Carnoustie got underway with the wet-sieving of the soil samples taken during the excavation. This is the process by which we recover tiny minute environmental evidence (such as charred cereal grains) which might reveal the diet of the people who inhabited the site at Carnoustie during the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

And just as the post-excavation analyses of the hoard began with a Post-Excavation Research Design so does this programme of work, laying out the key questions we want answers to and the various types of specialist analysis appropriate to each type of archaeological material that might answer questions like:

  • What period or periods are represented by the artefacts and features?
  • Can datable features reveal further patterns in distribution of activity across the site?
  • Does the artefactual assemblage reflect a typical assemblage, reflective of the periods in question and is contemporary local/regional/national trade represented in the assemblages?
  • Has settlement been continuous or periodic from the Neolithic to Later Bronze Age periods
  • Are there discernible phases in the settlement of this site in the Neolithic and Bronze Age
  • How does the Bronze Age weapon deposits relate to the settlement activity and other
    archaeological features, temporally and spatially?
  • How has the local environment changed over the sequence represented by the deposits sampled?
  • What changes over time can be directly related to human intervention and/or natural processes?
  • Is the environmental record reflective of sustained cultivation in this locale during the Neolithic/Bronze Age period? or is there evidence of other land use here?
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