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Aerial view of the Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland.

Iron Age House Fire Took Place When Neighbors Were Few and Far Between

A woman thumps a knocking stone in the kitchen to prepare grain in preparation for tomorrow’s big meal. Her family have all gathered and are busy at various tasks about the house – her husband has just sat down after putting some deer carcasses to smoke, their son is helping mend some fishing nets, and their daughter has taken a lamp to go upstairs and find out why the baby is crying. Suddenly she hears “Fire!” and everyone rushes out into the cool night… soon the Iron Age stone roundhouse has gone up in flames.

A team of archaeologists are trying to discover what happened at an Iron Age stone roundhouse located at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland. They say it appears the home was quickly abandoned after an accidental fire or arson, but they are unsure which even is more likely. The date for when the building caught fire and collapsed has been given as sometime between 150 BC and 50 AD.

The work at the Iron Age site is being led by AOC Archaeology and is considered a major project. As Graeme Cavers, head of surveys at AOC Archaeology, explained to The Press & Journal : “It is a conservation project we are doing. The site is right on the edge of the sea on a cliff edge and will be a bit unstable later.”

The Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland.

The Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland. ( AOC Archaeology )

The AOC Archaeology Group’s blog on the site reports that most of the artifacts have been discovered in a layer of charcoal. They would have been typical for daily life in the Iron Age, and include items such as: mats or sacks, grains, animal bones and deer antlers, pottery fragments, iron pieces which may have been used in tools, stone whorls, and seven broken lamps. Mr. Cavers told BBC NEWS :

"One of the objects that is interesting is a knocking stone which is for the preparation of grain before it is ground into flour. We have found that stone in a state that it is filled with burnt grain. So that looks like it was in use on the day that the building caught fire."

A stone whorl found in the lower rubble layer.

A stone whorl found in the lower rubble layer. ( AOC Archaeology )

The Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch isn’t the only site of archaeological interest in Assynt. Actually, the location is better known for its Neolithic cairns which were likely used for burials and as family shrines. The area seemed to be less popular in the Bronze Age – only a few small cairns for single burials, some roundhouses in secluded valleys, and various burnt mounds have been identified.

Example of a Neolithic burial cairn at Camster, Caithness, Scotland.

Example of a Neolithic burial cairn at Camster, Caithness, Scotland. (David Shand/ CC BY 2.0 )

But Assynt gained interest once again in the Iron Age and several large farmsteads have been found. According to the website Visit Sutherland :

“Iron Age houses seem to have been deliberately isolated from their neighbours and were focal points surrounded by their own woods, fields, loch or burn and often with a beach suitable for landing a boat.  The largest is Clachtoll Broch […] it collapsed in the last few decades BC and was never re-occupied, although there are signs of later habitation around it.”

It is expected that work will finish at the site at the end of September.

Top Image: Aerial view of the Iron Age roundhouse at Clachtoll broch in Assynt, Scotland. Source: AOC Archaeology Group

By Alicia McDermott

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