top of page

Yellow Clay & the Iron Age
by Stephen Jennings

Although we ordinarily leave this space for focus on a particular site or two, we thought this would be a good place to introduce an often overlooked piece to Iron Age architecture.

A compelling element to Iron Age building in Shetland is the use of ‘yellow’ clay. Found still embedded in areas of the walls and, in some instances, the floors during the Old Scatness excavations, it was subsequently discovered whilst excavating the later roundhouse/wheelhouse inserted into Channerwick Broch. A look at some earlier literature indicates it was found also at Jarlshof and again at Stanydale Temple, a site we have in the past demonstrated a late Iron Age reuse of the building which could, in part, explain its layout (see the Archives and here).

At Old Scatness, a closer look at the clay during the excavation determined much of it was Munsell colours 2.5y 6/6 and 10yr 6/8 (see below). These are distinctly brownish in hue. A recent visit to the neighbouring broch at Eastshore surprised us with pockets of this clay still in situ which compares very favourably with that found at Old Scatness.

Frequently overlooked, especially during past excavations, there is something fascinating going on here with the use of clay. Aesthetically, it indicates that some interior decoration may have taken the form of lining the walls. This potentially brightened the space, provided a smooth and pleasing surface and allowed further interior adornment that has not survived to us in the small pockets where it is still visible today. It was also likely functional, the building made wind and water tight with sealed walls.

For excavations moving forward and the review of much older excavations, this clay can provide an important diagnostic clue. From Old Scatness the use may not extend any earlier than the middle Iron Age and continues through the late Iron Age. This is a simple – though very broad – indication of during what period a building may have been in use. As stated with Stanydale Temple, the presence of it can further indicate reuse and reorganization of a building with foundations much deeper in the past.

Considerable work still needs to be done on this fascinating aspect of prehistoric architecture. In our case, from where did the clay originate, was it a natural hue or had the people tinted existing clay deposits? It does, nonetheless, open an avenue of exploration toward a deeper understanding of construction processes and decorative choices during the middle and late Iron Age.

Munsell 10yr 6-8.png
Munsell 10yr 6-8.png
Eastshore Broch Clay

Eastshore Broch 'yellow' clay.

For Further Reading:

Calder, C. (1950) ‘Report on the Excavation of a Neolithic Temple at Stanydale in the Parish of Sandsting, Shetland’. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 84, 185-205.

Dockrill, S., Bond, J., Turner, V., Brown, L., Bashford, D., Cussans, J. and Nicholson, R. (2010) Excavations at Old Scatness, Shetland Volume 1: The Pictish Village and Viking Settlement. Lerwick: Shetland Heritage Publications.

Dockrill, S., Bond, J., Turner, V., Brown, L., Bashford, D., Cussans, J. and Nicholson, R. (2015) Excavations at Old Scatness, Shetland Volume 2: The Broch and Iron Age Village. Lerwick: Shetland Heritage Publications.

Hamilton, J. R. C. (1956) Excavations at Jarlshof, Shetland. Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Past Site in Focus articles can be found in the Archive.

bottom of page