Ritual or Magic?

Stones from excavations at Loch Freuchie showing waterworn anthropomorphic stones at the back and cobbles at the front. Image by Steve Black.

Northlight Heritage have recently excavated a fascinating site by Loch Freuchie, Perth and Kinross. This structure, built around a spring head, housed a group of stone ‘figures’ and a collection of quartz cobbles.

The anthropomorphic figures are intriguing. They are natural waterworn forms, ranging in height from 100mm to 200mm, which have been formed by differential erosion of metamorphic blocks leaving distinctive waisted shapes.

These stones bear close comparison the group of seven stone forms from Tigh na Cailleach, Glen Lyon, Perthshire http://www.stravaiging.com/history/ancient/site/tigh-na-cailleach These are thought to be representative of the figures Cailleach and Boddach from Celtic mythology. At Tigh na Cailleach the ritual of placing the figures in the stone shelter at the beginning of winter and taking them outside every spring is carried on in the present day.

The quartz cobbles are likely to have had deeper meanings associated with their inclusion in the structure built around the spring head – from Medieval times (and probably even earlier) white and clear stones were associated with water and were placed at holy wells.  In historical times the curative or magic powers of white stones were effected by dipping them in water and then drinking the liquid. It is possible then that the white cobbles were deliberately placed at the source of this spring to purify or imbue the water with magical or healing properties. An alternative explanation for the light wear traces found on the surface of the small cobbles could link them to the practice of rubbing or striking quartz pebbles together to produce a faint glow called triboluminescence.

This was clearly a site at which ritual took place – at Tigh na Cailleach the timing of the actions appear to be linked to fertility and rebirth. At Loch Freuchie the close association with a spring head is intriguing. Is this a continuation of pre-Christian practices and if so was it a secretive and hidden ritual?

A report of the excavation is being prepared for publication by Northlight Heritage.


Further reading

Gilchrist, R. (2008) Magic for the dead? The archaeology of magic in later medieval burials. Medieval Archaeology, 52, 119-159.

Lebour, N 1914, ‘White quartz pebbles and their archaeological significance’, Trans Dumfriesshire Galloway Natur Hist Antiq Soc 2, 121–34.

Medieval Rotary Querns


An unprecedented number of rotary querns were found during excavation of Medieval and Post-medieval buildings at Cromarty.

The forty querns are broadly similar in size and style. The upper stones are flat disc querns, made by dressing a slab of sedimentary rock, or occasionally a schist slab, on the upper and lower faces. The upper stone was driven with a handle slotted into an upright stick hole. The metal frame for the spindle usually sat in a single pair of rhind slots, though a few, more complex variations are present. On some querns the stick hole has worn through the base showing the attrition of the quern arising from heavy use.

Four base quern stones were found, all made from a schist or granite and they have a socket in which the spindle sat, but which did not go through to the base. This essentially means that the spindle was not pushed upwards from the base to lift the upper quern stone, but that a washer-type system was used which made altered the gap between the upper and lower stones.

Many of the querns were found as fragments, but some have been left complete and repositioned in highly visible places where they were used in hearths, floors and walls.  The final close analysis of the phasing and context of these querns will be an important contribution to the understanding of how social space was created in Medieval times.

Stone discs from Cromarty Medieval Burgh, Scotland

An unusual assemblage of 148 flat stone discs was recovered during excavations at Cromarty Medieval Burgh http://www.medievalcromarty.org/  Many were found in middens and shell middens dating to the 13th and 14th Centuries.

Stone discs from Medieval Cromarty. Photo by Ann Clarke
Stone discs from Medieval Cromarty. Photo by Ann Clarke

The discs were quickly made by selecting whole or split cobbles and then flaking them coarsely around the perimeter to form a roughly circular outline. The intention seems to have been to produce a sub-polygonal to sub-circular disc with a flat cross-section. They range in size from 20mm to 120mm in diameter but there are distinct concentrations around 60mm and 80mm.

Were they used as stoppers for vessels such as pottery jars or perhaps baskets? Could they be net weights? The quantity of discs is unusual at Medieval Scottish/British sites and suggests they may be linked to some sort of on-site processing/storage activity.

Anvils/Crushers from Medieval Cromarty. Photo by Ann Clarke
Anvils/Crushers from Medieval Cromarty. Photo by Ann Clarke

Some of the discs were thicker and heavier than the rest and appeared to have traces of pecking on one face. Perhaps they were used as anvils or to crush material.

Does anyone know of similar assemblages in Europe? If you do then I’d love to hear from you using the contact details through my website.