They were a people who lived almost two thousand years ago, who would have been on nodding terms with the legions of Roman Britian and who may have decorated their homes with the severed limbs and heads of their enemies.
Yet despite the gulf of time and taste in interior decoration which separates the ancient inhabitants of Scotland and its modern population today, it appears that holding onto mementos of loved ones was just as important then as it is now.
A fresh analysis of artefacts uncovered at the Broxmouth hillfort site, near Edinburgh, has raised the tantalising prospect that everyday items were kept by iron Age people as an emotional reminder of those no longer there, and a ‘continuing bond’ with the deceased.
Just as someone today may hold onto a departed relative’s everyday possessions after, ancient people of Scotland and beyond also kept keepsakes which had little practical use except as a reminder of the departed.
However, instead of placing the items on shelves or at the backs of cupboards, the dwellers of Broxmouth put them into the walls of their homes, ensuring they were almost literally part of the foundations of their family.
A roundhouse during excavation.
The Broxmouth hillfort was inhabited for 800 years between 600 BC and 200 AD, before being abandoned around the time the Romans moved out of Britian to the South, and raiders from the continent and the north of Scotland moved in.
It was excavated in the 1970s as part of a ‘rescue archaeology’ operation carried out before the site was levelled and cleared to make way for a cement works.
In the intervening decades, a wealth of research has been carried out on material and bones recovered from the ruins the team uncovered.
The site itself was unusual as its surrounding wall were not particularly defensible, and may have for show. It was constructed with an elaborate entrance, and had a number of timber roundhouses and a cemetery which may have been for high-status residents.
Fragments of bone found at the site showed signs of violence, and may have been brought back elsewhere – with one theory being they were trophies carried off a distant battlefield.
A quernstone in situ
Now eyes have turned to artefacts deemed ‘problematic stuff’ – everyday items used or owned by a deceased person that relatives might not want to reuse but which they are unable to simply throw away
The study from the University of York suggests mundane items like spoons, combs and grinding stones were kept by Iron Age people as an emotional reminder and a ‘continuing bond’ with the deceased – a practice which is replicated in societies across the globe today.
At Broxmouth items like quernstones – used for grinding grain – and bone spoons found between roundhouse walls could have been placed there by loved ones as a means of maintaining a connection with the person who had died.
The study compared this with modern examples of similar behaviour, with the retention of relatives’ clothing or worn-out shoes being particularly recurrent themes.
The excavation team worked in 1977-78
Dr Lindsey Büster from the University of York Department of Archaeology said: “It is important to recognise the raw emotional power that everyday objects can acquire at certain times and places.
“Archaeologists have tended to focus on the high material value or the quantity of objects recovered and have interpreted these as deposited for safe keeping or gifts to the gods.
“My work uses archaeology to open up discussions around death, dying and bereavement in contemporary society, demonstrating that even the most mundane objects can take on special significance if they become tangible reminders of loved ones no longer physically with us.”
The research raises the possibility that some ‘grave goods’ – items found in ancient burials the world over – might have a far more mundane explanation than originally thought.
Traditional interpretations of these artefacts have often framed them as ritual pieces necessary for accompanying the dead to the afterlife,
But the easy disposal of “problematic stuff” – objects not needed or desired by living relatives but ones they could not bear to throw onto the rubbish heap – is another possible explanation.
The site before it was built over
Dr Büster added: “Archaeologists tend to caution against the transplanting of modern emotions onto past societies but I suggest that the universality of certain emotions does allow for the extrapolation of modern experiences onto the past, even if the specifics vary.
“I consider the experience of grief and bereavement to be one such emotion, even if the ways in which this was processed and navigated varies between individuals and societies.
“This research helps bring us a little closer to past individuals whose experience of life (and death), was in some ways, not so different from our own.”
All pics courtesy of the Broxmouth Project Archive