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Strathbrora Quern Stone

The illustrated artifact is a broken upper rotary quern stone discovered in October 2003 in the Uarachoile area of Strathbrora - a landscape of former settlement going back to the prehistoric era. For many centuries, quern stones were used for corn-grinding and were generally much larger than this one. Grain was poured into the central hole or hopper and the quern rotated manually on a flat stone underneath it, typically by winding with a stick inserted in a hollow near the rim. This action ground down the corn and produced flour.


The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has some intriguing examples in its collection, including some real heavy weights that must have taken a huge amount of energy to rotate. One monster drum-like quern from the Roman period would surely have required a mule or an ox to turn it productively. By contrast, there are also some tiny stones that are thought to be toy querns for children to play with - a very human perspective on our remote neighbours.

Photographs, measurements and the grid reference of the find were sent to the Treasure Trove Advisory Panel Secretariat at the National Museum and proved to be of particular interest. Unusually for querns, the fragment was subsequently requested for evaluation and duly delivered in person to Stuart Campbell, Assistant Treasure Trove Administrator in November.

Stuart was especially struck by what he considered to be an especially small and quite rare example and explained that such stones are thought to have been used for preparing herbs or pigments rather than for grinding grain. The quern was subsequently passed on to Fraser Hunter, an Iron Age specialist, and his assessment was that it was from the Scottish Iron Age-approximately 600 BC to the middle of the first millennium AD. Similar miniature Iron Age querns have also been discovered in Angus and Fife.

Interestingly, Ian Armit, an Inspector of Ancient Monuments with Historic Scotland, has thrown further light on their archaeological importance (Armit I. 1991), namely their contribution to structural dating sequences by way of what is known as the 'quern transition' or the 'quern replacement horizon', these indicating a technological shift from the earlier saddle querns to the rotary types around 200 BC. Additionally, these essentially domestic tools seem on occasion to have assumed symbolic significance and examples have been discovered in the walls or floors of round houses and in potentially transcendent or sacramental settings.

It is worth recalling that Scotland interprets its archaeological 'treasure' to be all artifacts that might extend understanding of past cultures - not only precious materials but also the more common stuff made of stone, wood, bone, ceramics, glass and so forth. This is a more explicit application of the spirit and intention of UK law on what are known as portable antiquities. In practice, what it means for Scotland is that all ownerless finds - bona vacantia to use the still relevant Latin term - are, in the first instance, the property of the Crown (in effect the State) and should be declared when discovered.

The quern was claimed as Treasure Trove by the Crown and in July this year and its finder received £30 for an item that will have its home in Inverness Museum. Members of NOSAS may be interested to know that the Crown Office has very recently decided to present finders with certificates acknowledging their contributions to cultural heritage and such a document - complete with the seal of the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer - is now in the possession of the present writer!

Norman Gibson

Armit I. 1991. The Atlantic Scottish Iron Age: five levels of chronology,190-195. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

The website for the Advisory Panel is www.treasuretrove.org.uk


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