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Material culture studies

A selection of large bone pins from Bornais

A selection of large bone pins from Bornais

One of the many advantages of working on South Uist is the presence of a rich and varied material culture which is generally very well preserved. The shell sand deposits of the machair plain are particularly suited to the preservation of worked bone, but most other material categories survive; copper alloys are well preserved but iron less so. The only material that is missing is unburnt plant materials but the extensive areas of acidic peat moorland to the east provide ideal conditions for the preservation of organic material. Little excavation has been undertaken in this area but they have the potential to produce exceptional discoveries.

The quality of the archaeological finds is not just a result of preservation throughout prehistory communities on the island have produced large quantities of pottery and a wide range of tools from stone, bone and antler. The pottery assemblages are particular important as the Atlantic Seaboard is one of the few areas of northern Britain that has a continuous tradition of pottery production (19; 21; 22). Changes in shape and decoration mean that a sequence of ceramic styles can be identified and these changes can be used to date settlements with considerable accuracy.

A thirteenth century composite comb from Bornais

A thirteenth century composite comb from Bornais

The assemblages from the excavations at Bornais are of particular importance as the extended nature of the excavations on this site resulted in the collection of large quantities of finds. The principal antler and bone assemblages come from the production and use of composite combs and pins, and these assemblages are amongst the largest in Britain. There are about 200 pin and pin fragments, and these are associated with about 60 pieces identified as waste from the production of pins. There are 250 composite comb or comb fragments and about 500 fragments of antler waste (not including the over 3000 shavings). The iron assemblage consists of over 1500 fragments. The most common categories are structural waste materials; nails, holdfasts, fragments and strips. This is the kind of material that could be recycled and a local smith would be able to transform these broken objects into useable tools. Most of the objects can be amalgamated into four broad group of material; weapons, pins, knives and tools. Weapons are rare but include a small collection of projectile points. Knives are by far the most common tool and seem to be quite different in form to those used in the contemporary settlements at York and Whithorn.

A selection of iron knives from Bornais

A selection of iron knives from Bornais

The material is of considerable importance resource for the understanding of the Norse colonisation of the Atlantic seaboard. Several Cardiff University students have undertaken dissertations on this material and we have encouraged students studying at other universities to incorporate the material in their studies. These include:

Ashby, S.2006 Time, trade and identity: bone and antler combs in northern Britain c. AD 700-1400. University of York unpublished PhD thesis.
Forster, A. K. 2004 Shetland and the trade of steatite goods in the North Atlantic region during the Viking and early Medieval period. University of Bradford unpublished PhD thesis.
Hopkins, K 2010 An Investigation into the Role of Material Analysis of Copper Alloys in the Study of Viking Age Social Identity and Interaction. University of Sheffield unpublished masters dissertation
Rowe, A.  2004 The pins from Bornais, South Uist.  University of Cardiff unpublished undergraduate dissertation
Smith, R.  2004 The comb making evidence from Bornais, South Uist.  University of Cardiff unpublished undergraduate dissertation
Smith, R. 2006 The Ironwork from the Iron Age and Norse settlement at Bornais, South Uist. University of Cardiff unpublished masters dissertation.
Taylor, F. 2005. Distribution of artefacts on floor layers from House 2, Mound 2 at Bornais. University of Cardiff unpublished undergraduate dissertation.

 

Material culture gallery

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