An Early Medieval Enclosure at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire
In August-September 2017, AOC’s Inverness office worked with Dr Gordon Noble (University of Aberdeen) and Dr Meggen Gondek (University of Chester) to investigate an early medieval enclosure at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire. AOC's Cathy MacIver has been working with Dr Gordon Noble and colleagues since 2012 excavating a 5th-6th century palisaded enclosure at the site of the Craw Stane (right, with Tap o' Noth hillfort in the background © Cathy MacIver), a Class I Pictish symbol stone. The site consists of two ditched enclosures which have been later superseded by a larger plank built palisaded enclosure.
These ditches enclose a number of timber and turf structures and the Craw Stane sits at the entrance to the inner ditch. An empty stone hole, identified in 2015, was in a similar position at the terminal of the outer ditch. This is possibly where the famous Rhynie Man symbol stone was originally located. This stone was found downslope on the site by the farmer during ploughing. Rhynie Man and the Craw Stane are two of seven Class I symbol stones found in and around Rhynie.
Excavation of the site has been undertaken since 2011 and has involved a large scale strip and map approach with particular features then sampled and excavated. This approach has refined the chronology of the site, placing the ditches, later palisade and internal structures firmly in the 5-6th centuries, indicating the site was re-structured and expanded over a relatively short period of time before being abandoned after a serious conflagration. Excavation, particularly in the outer ditch, has revealed a lot more about the activities and status of the site than previously known.
Many of the exciting finds on the site have been identified due to good preservation conditions of waste deposits dumped into the outer ditch during the use of the site. Finds have included imported 6th century Late Roman Amphora (LRA) sherds; quern stone fragments; bronze and iron pins; metalworking clay moulds for pins, brooches and other objects; crucibles; crucible stands; metalworking tongs; sherds of 6th century continental glass; amber and glass beads; a sword pommel; a shield boss and many more interesting finds waiting to be analysed and researched.
Above: (L) Aerial photo of the enclosure ditches and palisade in 2016; (M) Clay mould for an axe pin; (R) Fragments of a crucible found in a deposit of metalworking waste. All © University of Aberdeen
Many of these finds demonstrate the trade connections the people living in Rhynie would have had, the ability to import wine or oil demonstrated by the substantial number of amphora sherds. Evidence for high status metal work is clear at Rhynie, as well as evidence of this site being a centre of production. Metal-working waste products have included evidence for iron working as well as precious metal working, including silver. A particularly nice example, unique to Rhynie, is the iron axe pin found in 2012. This style of pin mirrors the form of the axe that Rhynie Man carries. In more recent work in 2015-2017 several axe pin clay moulds have been identified, confirming that these objects were made on site.
Many of the clay moulds found on the site (right) are in spectacular condition, providing valuable insight into the production activities, objects and styles of the people living and working at Rhynie. AOC Archaeology’s conservation department were involved in conserving these moulds and stabilising them as part of the HES call-off contract. Some of the examples included moulds for creating zoomorphic objects, reminiscent of the abstract animals found on Pictish symbol stones and other diagnostic objects.
The high status material culture combined with the symbol stones, radiocarbon dating and structural evidence demonstrate a high status settlement with far reaching trade connections and influence. It is clear Rhynie would have been a site of some importance at a crucial time of ideological change in northern Scotland and further afield.
Right: clay moulds after cleaning and conservation © University of Aberdeen