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vitrified forts in Scotland

23 November 2014

Euan Mackie in an article, 'Can European Prehistory Detect Large Scale Natural Disasters?' came up with an interesting solution to the mystery of the vitrified forts of Scotland. Various strange ideas have been aired to account for them but the simplest solution is very often the most likely. For example, archaeologists were fond of suggesting that the wood was set alight at the point of building them, supposing they were a sort of design feature. The idea was mostly ditched when it became clear vitrification involved actually weakening the structure. The coining of the term vitrification to describe the condition of these forts also led to some unlikely ideas such as catastrophic destruction, lightning bolts, fire out of the sky etc. In reality the wooden beams in the stone defences was not universally burnt – which tended to rule out a fiery demise from an angry sky god (or whatever). Not only that, the demise of the forts occurred over a long period of time – and was most likely due to inter-tribal warfare. Possibly associated with the rise of the Picts as a major military intrusion into Scotland in the late Iron Age. C14 dates at individual forts rules out a contemporary rush of destructions – and there was an article in Current Archaeology some years ago to that effect. It is possible some of them were burnt by Roman forays into Scotland – going by some of the dates produced in that survey.

Mackie noted that in the Near East stone walls in Bronze Age cities were rendered more earthquake resistant by incorporating wooden beams in their face and cores – not unlike the Scottish constructs. This tended to make the stonework more flexible when the earth shook violently. Mackie suggested the Scottish vitrified forts were buttressed with timbers for a similar reason – as a bulwark against earthquake. The question then is when did Scotland become prone to earthquakes – and why would it have been something to incorporate in forts in the Iron Age. What about neighbouring territories – such as the rest of Britain, Ireland, and the near continent. Did they also suffer from earthquakes – and why?

The big problem here is that archaeologists don't much like earthquakes. At least, suggesting earthquake as a reason for a destruction layer. This is true of the Aegean and the Near East yet alone NW Europe which is more or less earthquake light. Claude Schaeffer got into all sorts of trouble with his peers by suggesting there were earthquake storms in the Bronze Ages – including the destruction layer which marked the end of the Late Bronze age at Ugarit. Why archaeologists are prone to avoid mentioning earthquakes is one of the mysteries of life as the Aegean and Near East are situated on a well known earthquake prone fault system. Classical records mention numerous earthquakes – and even in the modern world earthquakes are not exactly rare. And yet archaeologists are fearful, it would seem, to suggest earthquakes played a role in the repeated destructions and renewals of cities such as Megiddo. Hence, we may assume archaeologists would never have dreamed of blaming earthquakes for the vitrification in Iron Age forts in Scotland – but Mackie did. Then, he has always been a maverick in some of his ideas, many of which have turned out to be true. Euan Mackie was involved in the setting up of SIS some 40 years ago and wrote several important articles in early issues of our journals. He is now retired.


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