Archaeologists have found a 2,500-year-old butter dish – complete with butter – in the chilly waters of Loch Tay, a freshwater lake in the Scottish Highlands.
It is roughly hewn and marred by deep cracks, but after 2,500 years underwater this butter dish is still in remarkably good condition.
Pulled from the chilly waters of Loch Tay, a freshwater lake located in the central Scottish Highlands, about 100 kilometres north-west of Edinburgh, this Iron Age dish was first discovered by underwater archaeologists back in 1994 but only recently came to public knowledge when it was selected for display by the Scottish Crannog Centre.
What, you may ask, is a Scottish crannog? Well, a crannog was a home built in the middle of a lake on stilts. Its foundations were hammered into man-made islands connected to the shore by wooden bridges, also on raised stilts.
Crannogs were easily defensible and considered a high-status Iron Age community building that often housed as many as 20 people.
The butter dish provides a tantalizing glimpse into the everyday lives of the people who lived in the Scottish Highlands 2,500 years ago, says Rich Hiden, an archaeologist from the Scottish Crannog Centre at Loch Tay, where the dish was found.
He says the people who lived in the crannogs on Loch Tay were farmers who tilled the land around the shores of the loch growing barley and ancient species of wheat such as spelt and emmer as well as raising animals. They may also have benefited from European trade as Loch Tay is not far from known trade routes down the nearby River Tay to the North Sea.
Richard Hidden says that the butter dish fell into the lake 2,500 years ago when a group of 17 crannogs collapsed and disappeared beneath the Loch’s surface.
“Crannogs were made of wood which means they could be expected to last no longer than about 200 to 250 years before they started to decay,” Rich says. “This dish was one of a cache of artefacts recovered from the loch floor among the debris from about 17 crannogs.
“Because of the fantastic anaerobic conditions, where there is little light, oxygen, or bacteria to break down anything organic, you get this type of sealed environment.
“When they started excavating, they pulled out this square wooden dish, well around three-quarters of a square wooden dish, which had these really nice chisel marks on the sides as well as this grey stuff.”
The “grey stuff” he is talking about was subjected to scientific analysis and the results revealed that it was dairy material that most likely originated from a cow. In other words, it’s most likely to be butter.
The holes in the bottom of the dish indicate that it was probably also used in the butter making process which involved churning milk until it split into buttermilk and cream. The milk and the solids were then passed through a woven cloth – in the Iron Age, such cloth was probably made from nettles – to capture the solids, which were then transformed into butter or possibly cheese.
“This dish is so valuable in many ways,” says Rich Hidden. “To be honest, we would expect people of this time to be eating dairy. In the early Iron Age, they had mastered the technology of smelting iron ore into metal so mastering the technology of dairy is something we would also expect.
“While it may not surprise us that they are eating dairy, what is so important about this butter dish is that it helps us to identify what life was like in the crannogs and the skills and the tools that they had
“To me, that is archaeology at its finest. It is using the object itself to unravel the story. The best thing about this butter dish is that is so personal and offers us such a complete snapshot of what was happening here.
“It is not just a piece of wood. You look at it and you start to extrapolate so much. If you start to pull one thread, you look at the tool marks and you see they were using fine chisels to make this kind of object. They were probably making their own so that gives another aspect as to how life was here.”