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13 September 2003
Metalworking and mystery at Minehowe

The 2003 archaeological excavations at Minehowe in Tankerness (Orkney, Scotland) came to an end - but although it confirmed the extent and importance of metalworking around the enigmatic Iron Age site, it has again left the experts with as many questions as answers.
     "Apart from the so far unique religious and ritual aspects of the site," said Orkney Archaeological Trust's Nick Card, the excavation director. "This also is probably the best preserved late prehistoric metalworking site anywhere in Britain."
     Nick Card added: "We have discovered metal ingots, metal ore, slag and several crucibles. From the evidence we've found it is clear that this metalworking area was almost exclusively for copper or bronze work."
     The floor of the metalworking building revealed also a large whalebone object. This was found to be holed and held together with copper rivets but its purpose remains unclear. Another archaeological first in Orkney was the discovery of an ingot mould made of steatite (soapstone) - the nearest source of which is in Shetland.
     A trench opens towards the top of the south-western side of Minehowe's mound; there, the diggers found a beautifully preserved Iron Age furnace. But although this year's excavation work shed light on the later activities around the monument, Nick Card was the first to admit: "Minehowe has just raised more questions than it answers."
     Among the more perplexing elements was the discovery of a single infant burial, unearthed in a new trench to investigate a "quiet" area of the mound's encircling ditch. In this trench the archaeologists began to come across upright stones in the ditch fill. Then they found a circular, stone-lined pit, approximately 1.5 metres in diameter and 0.5 metres deep. At the top of this circular "container" lay the fragile remains of a very young baby. The pit is thought to date from the very late Iron Age, by which time Minehowe's ditch would have been filled in and all but invisible. What was going on within the stone-lined pit remains unclear.
     As work in the trench progressed, a curving wall was found, circling out from the infant's last resting place. Older than the pit, originally it was thought to relate to Minehowe's ditch and was perhaps a fragment of another revetted entrance causeway. But as the diggers worked on, more and more of the wall appeared until a clearly defined oval structure with a flagstone floor was revealed. "We're just not quite sure what this is yet," said Nick. "It could be like the broch sites of Gurness in Evie or Midhowe on Rousay where we can see later structures spreading out into the partially infilled ditches surrounding these sites."
     A cross-section taken through the soil deposits at the foot of the howe revealed that over two metres of archaeological deposits had been deliberately dumped on the north-western side of the mound in prehistory. Nick Card explained: "What we could be looking at here could be so huge in monumental terms that it's difficult to comprehend. What seems to have been going on was a deliberate 'sculpting' of the landscape."
     The reasons behind this massive landscaping effort are unclear but it seems likely to have been ritualistic rather than practical. We know that the Iron Age community at Minehowe were reusing a landscape that had already been used by their Bronze Age ancestors so perhaps their modifications were to stamp their own identity on the ritual landscape, and enhance further the significance of the underground structure at Minehowe.

Source: Orkneyjar (11 September 2003)

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