Thumbpots and roundhouses: Unravelling the mysteries of the Scottish Iron Age with the Whithorn Trust

By Graeme Cavers Published: 09 August 2016

The Whithorn Trust in Scotland was nominated in the community section of this year’s British Archaeological Awards. The trust’s Graeme Cavers explains why small discoveries can lead to the greatest surprises

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
This thumbpot was found at Whithorn - the Dumfries and Galloway setting of the earliest Christian community in Scotland© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
Our shortlisted entry for the awards was based on excavations carried out by AOC Archaeology in 2015, and again in June 2016, which unearthed a unique discovery in Galloway that promises to revolutionise our understanding of the Scottish South Western Iron Age.

Last year, archaeologists began excavating one of numerous roundhouses sited on a boggy island at this unique Iron Age settlement near Whithorn, uncovering a massive hearth mound which had been built and rebuilt and flooring which still preserved leaf litter and woven panels of hazel wattle, all preserved thanks to the waterlogged conditions.

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
A series of archaeological digs have taken place in Whithorn over the centuries in search of the site of the earliest church© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
One of the most intriguing artefacts we recovered during the 2015 excavations at Black Loch was a small ceramic vessel, termed a “thumbpot” due to its very small size.

This was a surprising find in many ways: firstly, the shape and size of the object is very unusual and is quite different to the large storage pots sometimes found on Iron Age settlements in other parts of the UK.

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
Rather than a church, the team discovered evidence of early Christian practices and sophisticated trading contacts reaching as far as Gaul and Tunisia© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
Secondly, the fact that the object was found at all is puzzling, since pottery is virtually never found on Iron Age sites in Wigtownshire, despite being common in both earlier and later periods.

It seems that Iron Age communities in the area simply did not use pottery, perhaps preferring wooden, textile or bark containers instead which leave no archaeological trace.

Watch a video about the project



This makes the Black Loch thumbpot intriguing, since it shows a familiarity with pottery and its manufacture.

A large number of explanations are possible: perhaps the pot had a very specific function, such as in crushing pigments for dyes. Alternatively, it could be attributed to a child experimenting with the clay which is found in deep deposits around the site and which was used to line the massive stone hearths within the roundhouses.

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
Early burial stones at Whithorn are now thought to indicate an early monastery© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
Close analysis of the pot and the uses to which it might have been put will be undertaken in the coming months. We will report back.

Such was the importance of the site that archaeologists returned in 2016 with the aim of uncovering the doorway to the house and investigating outdoor areas. They were rewarded by the unprecedented discovery of massive oaks surviving as sills for the door, which were flanked by imposing vertical oak slabs.

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
A palimpsest of cultures, languages, artistic styles and technologies were found during the digs© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
Outside, a walkway between two of the roundhouses and leading across the marsh was uncovered, as well as a specialised cooking area with a clay, oven-like structure.

Archaeologists will now use dendrochronology to give an accurate felling date for the oaks.

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
The site suggested 16 centuries of continued occupation© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
To share the discoveries, the Whithorn Trust ran community activities during its Iron Age summer.

Primary schools planted and harvested early crops and there were foraging and crannog cookery sessions, ancient craft days and dry stone dyking workshops to build an ancient kitchen garden.

A photo of a small round iron age artefact excavated by archaeologists in scotland
Whithorn's beginnings are defining for the post-Roman Christian era© Courtesy Whithorn Trust
The activities were filmed by young people trained by Urbancroft Films, who created the DigTV online channel broadcasting nightly interviews with archaeologists about daily finds, and updates on community activities.

From July 2016, the trust will reconstruct a full-scale roundhouse based on the carpentry details of joints, slots and toolmarks still visible on the original oaks.

Volunteers are welcome to join craftsmen. Email enquiries@whithorn.com to find out more.


More on the British Archaeological Awards 2016

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British Archaeology Awards 2016: MOLA on winning in 2014

“You always find the best stuff on the last day”: Unearthing a medieval tile floor at Westgate Oxford