Review Article

A milestone in medieval urban archaeology

David H. Caldwell

Books reviewed

DAVID PERRY, HILARY MURRAY, TOM BEAUMONT JAMES & NICHOLAS Q. BOGDAN. Perth High Street: archaeological excavation 1975–77. Fascicule 1: the excavations at 75–95 High Street and 5–10 Mill Street, Perth. xii+242 pages, 166 colour and b&w illustrations, 14 tables, CD. 2010. Perth: Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee; 978-0-9561783-4-3.
DEREK W. HALL & numerous other contributors. Perth High Street: archaeological excavation 1975–77. Fascicule 2: the ceramics, the metalwork and the wood. xi+400 pages, 217 colour and b&w illustrations, 9 tables. 2012. Perth: Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee; 978-0-9561783-6-7.
P.Z. DRANSART & numerous other contributors. Perth High Street: archaeological excavation 1975–77. Fascicule 3: the textiles and the leather. xv+383 pages, 169 colour and b&w illustrations, 14 tables. 2012. Perth: Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee; 978-0-9561783-6-7.
G.W.I. HODGSON & numerous other contributors. Perth High Street: archaeological excavation 1975–77. Fascicule 4: living and working in a medieval Scottish burgh. Environmental remains and miscellaneous finds. x+169 pages, 65 colour and b&w illustrations, 40 tables, CD. 2011. Perth: Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee; 978-0-9561783-5-0.
A milestone in medieval urban archaeology

The appearance of these four volumes, encompassing the complete publication of the Perth High Street dig, is a significant milestone for medieval studies. The excavations from 1975–77 on the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer are amongst the largest and most rewarding ever undertaken in Scotland and the evidence from them, had it been published more promptly, should have made a greater contribution to informing subsequent urban archaeology in Scotland. It is also abundantly clear that the results have a significant contribution to make to a wider study of urbanisation, trade and industry in medieval Europe and Scotland’s place in that world. Their non-publication until now has been a dark cloud hanging over Scottish archaeology.

Thankfully, all four volumes are as complete and thorough a job as could be wished for. For that, we have to thank in the first place, the excavations’ director, the late Nicholas Bogdan, and the efforts of his team who did so much during and after the excavations to compile the reports in these volumes (and at this point this reviewer should own up to the fact that Fascicule 2 contains a modest contribution, on weapons, that he originally provided in the 1970s). Bogdan was a man of vision with a healthy desire that the importance of his work should be fully appreciated and understood by an interested public as well as a wide range of experts and professionals. These volumes remain true to that aspiration. Alas, Bogdan died unexpectedly at the early age of 55 in August 2002, and it seemed evident to many long before that, including this reviewer, that the chances of full publication were very slim. Although Bogdan had put a great amount of effort into the project, much of it did not seem to advance it greatly, and he seemed destined to fail in eliciting the right support from those who most wished to see a good outcome.

That publication has now been achieved is thanks to the determination and efforts of many, not least Olwyn Owen of Historic Scotland who did so much to encourage Bogdan before his death and secured the funding for these volumes. A great debt of gratitude is also owed to the Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee which took on the task of bringing the four fascicules to fruition, and the actual editors and contributors who have updated and improved old drafts and provided new content.

Perth, with a population of over 40 000, is a large town by Scottish standards, but would now not be viewed as one of major importance, or indeed, a major route centre. Although a county town, it is neither a cathedral city nor a university centre. For much of the medieval period, however, Perth could be considered the de facto capital of Scotland and an important centre for trade and industry, positioned in a relatively fertile countryside at the lowest bridging point on the River Tay. Only a short distance away was the important ceremonial centre of Scone where Scottish kings were crowned. When the Perth High Street excavations commenced there was little clue of what archaeology could tell us about this past.

The excavations covered four adjacent plots or ‘rigs’ on one side of the town’s main thoroughfare and revealed water-logged deposits up to 4m in depth dating from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. The south sector excavations stretched backwards from the street frontages through the ‘back-lands’ for a distance of almost 50m and the north sector trenches exposed evidence of the town’s defences. The remains of 29 buildings and 3 smaller structures were excavated, mostly of timber—the largest group of medieval buildings excavated anywhere in Scotland, demonstrating among other things a developmental sequence from wattle structures to timber-framed houses on stone sills. Over 40 000 sherds of local and imported pottery, 6000 pieces of leather, over 400 examples of textiles and fabrics, and numerous metal and wooden artefacts were recovered, along with an impressive array of environmental remains. Much of this gives a fascinating insight into local industry and trade. Appendix 3 in Fascicule 1 provides an overview of the industries and crafts represented in the different rigs and phases on the basis of artefactual evidence. Included is the production or working of textiles, leather, metal, horn and wood.

In terms of structures, one of the highlights is Building 18 (phase 2) in one of the back-lands, some 6m × 15m, consisting of a hall with a more private room at one end, and a room with a latrine at the other, dating to the thirteenth century. Much of this building was constructed of vertical planks, with the less visible walls of wattle. The finds include a gilded spur, an arrowhead, a spearhead and mail, perhaps suggesting occupation by a knight. The tradition, however, that a building known to have been in the area of the excavations was the meeting place of medieval parliaments turned out to be groundless.

Amongst other artefacts from the site must be noted two hair-coverings of embroidered silk net (lacis) of the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, one possibly of German origin, and a fourteenth-century walrus-ivory anthropomorphic handle. It is not the splendour of these individual objects that makes the Perth High Street assemblage of such importance but its overall size and completeness. These volumes will be a necessary source of information and parallels for all sorts of artefacts made of metal, ceramic, wood, stone and other materials by specialists working in European medieval archaeology generally.

The account and analysis of the excavations in Fascicule 1 are the work of David Perry (the unidentified young lad shown holding the first egg found in the excavation; illustration 93 in Fascicule 1). Perry’s expert summing-up not only provides a mass of detailed information for the history of Perth but is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of urban life in Scotland. So are the conclusions provided by Catherine Smith in Fascicule 4 about the environment of medieval Perth.

When the excavations commenced, one of the key questions to which Scottish medieval historians sought an answer was ‘how old are the first towns in Scotland’. Many believed they were no earlier than c. 1100. It is known from written sources that from early in the twelfth century Scottish kings founded burghs, trading and manufacturing centres with defined rights and responsibilities. Perth, documented as one of King David I’s burghs from 1124–27, is one of the earliest—but would it be possible to show archaeologically whether David had founded his burgh on a virgin site or had privileged an existing settlement? The results from these excavations, and since 1977 elsewhere in Perth, favour the latter explanation.

The nature and date of this pre-burgh settlement still remain obscure. There is little more to go on than dated ceramics and a few artefacts of eleventh-century date. Nor has work elsewhere in Scotland given us a particularly full picture, with the notable exception of Whithorn in Galloway where a town was developing at an old monastic/bishopric centre from about 1000. It was then, of course, not part of the kingdom of the Scots. Whithorn’s excavator, Peter Hill (1997: 56), detected considerable Hiberno-Norse influence at Whithorn, and Perry (Fascicule 1, p. 105) has adduced Scandinavian influence in early Perth and the surrounding area. Identifying the extent and nature of this should now be of prime concern to archaeologists in Scotland.

One of the key pieces of research in realising Perth’s early origins is the study in Fascicule 2 of the Perth High Street ceramics by Derek Hall and George Haggarty, along with the late Alan Vince. They identified a group of Shelly Sandy Ware, believed to originate in the south-east of England (which, incidentally is also to be found in some quantity in Bergen in Norway). At first it was thought to date on typological grounds to the mid to late twelfth century, but radiocarbon dating of carbonised sherds from the Perth High Street site indicates an eleventh-century date. This work at Perth has led to a dating programme on similar ceramics from London and a reassessment of the London ceramics chronology. There was no pottery industry in the general region of Perth in the eleventh century, and it remains a major challenge to understand why and how the locals felt a need to import pots from so far away.

An issue tackled by Penny Dransart in Fascicule 3 is the evidence for dress in medieval Perth, relying primarily on the fragments of textile recovered from the excavations. Amongst other topics covered is clothing and ethnic identity, in this context attempting to recognise and characterise the clothing of those Gaelic speakers who were considered wild Highlanders as distinct from civilised, Scots-speaking Lowlanders. She draws attention to how shaggy mantles came to be seen as a mark of the former. A possible fragment of such a garment was recovered from a mid-twelfth-century context. Also in Fascicule 3, Clare Thomas (with Nicholas Bogdan) has given a very thorough account of the leather, pointing to the evidence for a flourishing leather-working industry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the evidence for leather-working goes hand in hand with quantities of mammal bones, to the extent that the authors of the animal bone report in Fascicule 4 (Hodgson, Smith & Jones) puzzle over why so few people in twelfth- to fourteenth-century Perth should be associated with the remains of so many cattle, sheep and goats. They suggest that in large measure this is a result of a major export industry in hides. It also demonstrates how meat was an important element in the Scottish diet. A question that might be asked is to what extent this dietary peculiarity was a side effect of the export business, or even, might the trade in hides be to some extent dependent on a Scottish predilection for meat? It must be a future research aim to understand how far from Perth all these animals were being raised.

The excavations uncovered evidence for the town’s defences in the form of a robbed-out wall and a ditch, but it has not been possible to date these precisely or relate them confidently to the documented campaigns to fortify the town, outlined by Tom Beaumont James in Fascicule 1. This is a pity, since its fortifications were an important part of Perth’s history, and their strength set it apart from many other Scottish towns. Perhaps too, in the future, it will be possible to review the archaeological evidence, especially known imports, and consider whether it has been affected in any way, or shows the signs of the town’s occupation by English forces in the early fourteenth century, including long stays by Edward I, the Prince of Wales (later Edward II) and Edward III. They were reliant on supply by sea.

A detailed examination of the data from the excavations suggests many other research questions, but this is not to deny the completeness of what is presented in these four volumes in terms of providing an understanding of what life was like in an important European town in the period from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. The four fascicules together are a splendid achievement, a credit to Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee, and will now underpin plans for any future urban archaeology in Scotland.

References

  • HILL, P. 1997. Whithorn & St Ninian: the excavation of a monastic town 1984–91. Stroud: Sutton.

Author

  • David H. Caldwell
    Independent researcher, Burntisland, Fife KY3 9EW, UK (Email: dh [dot] caldwell [at] btopenworld [dot] com)
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