Evidence of the earliest use of steel in Britain uncovered in East Lothian
15 January 2014
Archaeologists have identified examples of the earliest use of steel in the British
Isles from a site in East Lothian. The site, an Iron Age hill fort known as Broxmouth, was excavated
in the 1970s, however the discoveries are only now being published.
As part of the re-examination of the findings at Broxmouth, new analysis of some
iron artefacts has found that they can be dated to 490-375BC. Made from high-carbon steel which had
been deliberately heated and quenched in water, the artefacts are the earliest evidence of sophisticated
blacksmithing skills in Britain.
Experts are heralding the discovery as particularly significant for the insight
it offers into not only the early development of such advanced manufacturing skills, but what it may
tell us about social organisation at this time.
Technical skills at this level would only be achievable by specialist metalworkers
who devoted their lives to perfecting and developing their craft – some might say the first example
of a Scottish ‘knowledge economy’.
Such specialisation could only have happened with the practical support of the wider
community at Broxmouth and beyond. It is a poignant start to the story of steel manufacture in Scotland,
one of the great industries of the 20th century.
Broxmouth was occupied from the early Iron Age right through to its abandonment
during Roman occupation, nearly 1,000 years later. Remarkably well-preserved roundhouses, elaborate
hill fort entrances and an exceptionally rare Iron Age cemetery are among the other exciting discoveries
made at the site.
One of the most comprehensive excavations of any Iron Age hill fort in Britain,
a generation of Scottish archaeologists learned their trade at Broxmouth. The near-total excavation
of the site marked one of the first major rescue projects in Scotland; it is now entirely gone, with
a cement works in its place. Like many projects of its time it remained unpublished until now.
In 2008 a new project was set up at the University of Bradford to write up the findings
of the excavation. Published this month by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and funded by Historic
Scotland and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the
South-East Scottish Iron Age by Ian Armit and Jo McKenzie sets out the full results of the Broxmouth
project for the first time.
Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs said: “Broxmouth
has a special place in the history of Scottish archaeology, and of the many interesting discoveries
to come out of it, evidence of the earliest use of steel in Britain is particularly exciting. The manufacture
of steel is a complex and skilled process. That it was being produced in Scotland as early as
490BC serves to emphasise that this early community was sophisticated and highly skilled, and that those
skills were passed down through the generations.”
Dr Gerry McDonnell, an expert in archaeological metals and a specialist involved
in the project said: “The process of manufacturing steel requires extensive knowledge, skill and
craftsmanship. It is far from straightforward, which is why such an early example of its production
tells us so much about the people who once occupied this hill fort. It points to an advanced, organised
community where complex skills were refined and passed on.”
An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the South-East Scottish Iron Age by Ian
Armit and Jo McKenzie is available from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland at www.socantscot.org
for £35 and £30 to members of the Society.
Notes for editors:
- Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged
with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers
and through them to the Scottish Parliament.
- The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland is a charitable not for profit membership
organisation founded in 1780. Since then the Society has provided a forum for the study and debate of
the history and archaeology of Scotland. With almost 3000 Fellows from around the world, membership
is open to anyone with a passion and interest in Scottish heritage. The Society runs a prestigious lecture
series and regularly publishes high quality books and reports. www.socantscot.org
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