Which of these is Scotland's top treasure?

Share this article

THEY were discovered by Victorian drain diggers, measure less than 30cms and don’t have a gem or scrap of precious metal between them.

But the cache of Neolithic stone axes has been named Scotland’s greatest archaeological treasure.

Last week, archaeologists revealed the top 10 treasures held at the British Museum in London. Only one - the Lewis Chessmen - was discovered in Scotland.

But two TV archaeologists have now compiled Scotland’s very own ancient top 10 and have put the axes - found at Smerrick, Banffshire, in 1881 - at the head of the list.

Other leading contenders were the oldest bow ever found in Britain, a Viking boat discovered in an Orkney sand dune, a carved stone Roman lioness which emerged from the muddy banks of a river after 1,700 years, an Iron Age wind instrument cast into a bog and a hoard of silver Roman coins.

The list was compiled by Dr Tony Pollard, of Glasgow University, and freelance archaeologist Neil Oliver, who present BBC2’s Two Men in a Trench series.

"Archaeological finds are important for what they tell us, not for what they are or how much they are worth," said Pollard. "That is why the best example of Scottish ‘treasure’ (the Traprain hoard of silver coins) in the traditional sense is at No 10 and not at No 1."

The Smerrick axes were discovered by drain diggers in 1881. Dating from the Neolithic period, they appear to be unused and possibly part of a traders’ hoard. They are particularly well-made examples of tools fashioned more than 4,000 years ago to clear ancient Scottish forests for farming.

The axes, which are held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, were chipped from stone and polished to a wonderfully smooth finish. Although their origin is unknown, there was a Scottish Neolithic axe factory near Loch Tay.

The Rotten Bottom Bow was found by a hillwalker in a peat bank near Moffat just 13 years ago. Radiocarbon dating places it as made between 4040 and 3640BC. Made from yew, it would have been used by a hunter-gatherer from the Mesolithic period and is proof of the astonishing preservative qualities of the Scottish peat bog. "Bows made from yew rarely survive so it is a truly unique object," said Pollard.

No 3 on the list is the Viking burial boat discovered sticking out of a sand dune on the island of Sanday in 1991. More than seven metres long, it contained the bodies of a man, woman and child - thought to be among the first Viking settlers on Orkney - a sword, quiver of arrows, 22 gaming pieces, broaches, a sickle and a carved whalebone plaque.

At four on the list is a highly ornate carved Pictish stone slab from Hilton of Cadboll, in Ross and Cromarty. Dating from between the 5th and 9th centuries, it was taken from its original site in the 17th century and defaced before being used as a gravestone. It was donated to the National Museum of Scotland in 1921 and Glasgow University architects found the original base last year.

The Cramond lioness, at No 5, is one of the most remarkable discoveries of recent times. It was seen sticking out of the mud bottom of the River Almond, near Edinburgh, by a boatman.

The stone lioness has been described as the finest Roman artefact discovered in Scotland. It probably guarded the entrance to a Roman fort before disappearing into the river. One of the most famous archaeological finds in Scotland are the Lewis Chessmen, made from walrus ivory and dating from the 12th century.

Found by a farmer in 1831, most of the 90 pieces are now kept at the British Museum, with just a few at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland. Some historians want them all to be returned to Scotland, if not the Outer Hebrides.

The Peelhill hoard at No 7, ploughed up on a farm at Lesmahagow, in Lanarkshire, consists of 28 Bronze Age spearheads and fragments of a sword. No one is sure if they were buried as an offering to the gods or left for metal recycling that never took place.

The Deskford Carnyx, at No8, is an ornate musical instrument from the Celtic Iron Age, made from bronze and shaped in the form of a boar’s head.

Around 2,000 years old, it was also discovered by ditch diggers in north-east Scotland in 1816. It was probably cast into what was then a loch by its owner as an offering after being dismantled. The instrument has now been reconstructed and played again for the first time in 2000 years.

At No 9 is a beautiful jet necklace from a Bronze Age grave site at Mount Stuart, on Bute. Pollard said it was on the list because "the burial of such rich pieces tells us so much about how people lived in the past".

No 10 is the Traprain Treasure, discovered under the floor of a stone hut during excavations in 1919. The massive collection of Roman coins has been dated to around 400AD.

Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver are currently filming the second series of Two Men in a Trench, to be shown on BBC2.

Back to the top of the page