Iron Age 'nerve centre' uncovered on hill

EXCAVATIONS at a large hill fort in East Lothian have uncovered what archaeologists believe to be one of the nerve centres of Iron Age Scotland.

The new findings at Traprain Law, near Haddington, include the first coal jewellery workshop unearthed in Scotland as well as hundreds of artefacts giving new insight into life in the 700BC-AD43 era.

Experts who have been working on the site for several weeks are now able to paint a picture of a densely populated hilltop town which was home to leaders of local tribes, following the discovery of multiple ramparts, Roman pottery, gaming pieces, tools and beads.

At the centre of the archaeological site, which is one of the most important in Scotland, a medieval building, first uncovered by a fire in 1996, has now been fully excavated by the 20-strong team of archaeologists, also showing the area was occupied hundreds of years later.

The ten metre-long building is understood to have been built during the 14th century to supply pilgrims visiting the hill because of its traditional connections with St Mungo, whose mother was thought to have been banished from the hill by her father, the mythical King Loth, when she became pregnant.

St Mungo brought Christianity to the west of Scotland.

Fraser Hunter, the curator of Iron Age and Roman at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS), said pottery found at the site proved that in AD80-400 Traprain Law’s inhabitants had regular contacts with Roman visitors, highlighting the importance of the area.

"The finds confirm the importance of Traprain in the Iron Age. This was a major craft centre, with jewellery being cast in bronze and carved out of oil shale.

"The whole site is more complex and densely fortified than we originally thought. Our finds show it was the power centre of East Lothian from the multiple ramparts we have found and the fragments of Roman objects which tell us this site was important as it had affiliations with the Romans.

"Our excavations confirm that the site thrived during the Roman period, with the inhabitants having access to a wide range of Roman goods which are otherwise very rare in Scotland."

He added: "We are also very excited to find a workshop where cannel coal was carved into jewellery. We knew this vegetable-based coal was used to make bangles and beads but nobody had ever found a workshop where it was made.

"It brings the Iron Age to life to know where they stood making these objects and gives us a vivid insight, which we have not had until now."

Experts at the latest excavation, the largest since 1923, have also produced the first detailed plan of the hill using new global positioning satellite equipment to chart the 50 hectare area.

Dr Ian Armit, a Queens University Belfast (QUB) reader in archeology, said they had found even more than he had hoped for at the site, which was subject to a fire last year.

In 2003, a fire started by a discarded cigarette end burned through grass and vegetation, damaging some historical remains and exposing others to potential erosion. Dr Armit said: "The recent fire and the longer-term effects of rabbit burrowing have caused irreparable damage to the buried archaeology, but we have still managed to salvage hundreds of artefacts. We believe it is Scotland’s premier Iron Age monument because of its unique wealth.

"This dig has given us new insight into the kinds of activities that went on at the site and paints a picture of a thriving hilltop town with a mixture of high status people and lower ranked individuals."

Five fire crews and 28 firefighters from Haddington and East Linton stations were called to Traprain Law when the huge grass fire broke out last September, before council officials and environment watchdogs were drafted in to draw up an action plan to salvage the fort.

Traprain Law literally means the hill of staves, because of the wooden fortifications. In prehistoric times it became known as Dunpender, the hill fort capital of the Votadini tribe, who dominated what would become south-east Scotland.

The excavations, undertaken by NMS and QUB and CFA Archaeology Ltd, are being funded by Historic Scotland.

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