Gold spearhead 'buried for safekeeping' at Carnoustie

A Bronze Age spearhead found on land due to be turned into football pitches contained high purity gold and was likely buried for safekeeping, research has found.
How the Carnoustie spearhead, complete with high purity gold  socket, may have looked. PIC: GUARD Archaeology.How the Carnoustie spearhead, complete with high purity gold  socket, may have looked. PIC: GUARD Archaeology.
How the Carnoustie spearhead, complete with high purity gold socket, may have looked. PIC: GUARD Archaeology.

The spearhead, which was concealed around 3,000 years ago, was discovered in Carnoustie, Angus, in 2016 as archaeologists assessed the ground due for the sports development.

As work got underway, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Bronze Age settlement and a haul of items, including a spearhead decorated with gold foil around the socket.

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The weapons is one of only five such gold-bound spearheads to have been found in Britain and Ireland.

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One of these was found just 12 miles away in a field at Pyotdykes 55 years ago with the two objects together offering new insight into Bronze Age life in Scotland.

Dr Alison Sheridan, Principal Archaeological Research Curator at National Museums Scotland, said: “These would have been especially valuable personal possessions, used to signal status as much as to be used as thrusting weapons.

“The Carnoustie example has nicks in its blade, and slight wear to the gold, that suggest that it had seen some use during its life.”

A band of gold foil was used to embellish the socket on both spearheads with a herringbone pattern used to decorate the Carnoustie weapon.

Analysis found the high purity gold was likely to have come from Cornwall or southern Ireland rather than from Scotland.

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The Carnoustie find was made by a team from GUARD Archaeology, who removed the object while it was still embedded in a large block of ground.

It was then sent for an X-Ray and CT scan at the Small Animal Hospital at Garscube in Glasgow.

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A report by GUARD Archaeology details how the spearhead was found in a pit wrapped in furskin.

Beside it was a bronze sword buried in a well-preserved scabbard made from thin strips of hazel wood, with the material also found at the Pyotdykes site.

A ‘sunflower-headed’ dress pin was also recovered from Carnoustie.

Dr Sheridan, in an article for the National Museums Scotland website, added: “In each case, these deposits represent the wealth of an important, high-status person; we assume that these belonged to community leaders.

“Why these precious possessions were buried remains a slight mystery: was it to keep them safe? Or were they presented as gifts to the gods? The fact that the Carnoustie items were within a settlement may support the ‘safekeeping’ idea.

“The forensic work that was done on the Carnoustie finds has revealed a wealth of additional fascinating details.”

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Allan Hunter Blair of GUARD Archaeology, the site director at Carnoustie, said the spearhead was probably the “star find” of the dig.

He said radiocarbon dating of the hazelwood scabbards found at both the Carnoustie and Pyotdykes burial sites indicated the spearheads may have been buried up to 300 years apart.

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The Pyotdykes hoard is now dated to 900–790 BC, slightly later than the Carnoustie Hoard which was dated to between 1118-924 BC.

Mr Hunter Blair added: “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 – it was not one event that spurred this.

“This cultural custom of burying precious possessions for safe-keeping 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.