Have you ever sat in the traffic by the BP garage at the bottom of Cliftonhall Road in Newbridge waiting to get onto the roundabout, and wondered what that strange little hill is, surrounded by the low stone wall?
It's one of several tantalising clues that this area was a very important focal point for thousands of years. The wee hill ahead of you as you wait at the T junction is a bronze age burial mound (tumulus) dating from around 2500BC. Three standing stones surround it within the fenced area, and there is a fourth stone the other side of the motorway. The area beside Edinburgh Airport runway, the end of which is just half a mile from our tumulus, was a burial ground where cists dating from the around the fifth century AD have been found, along with another standing stone, the Cat Stane, which has been there for thousands of years.
We don't know which of these various monuments are related to each other, if any. The stones around our tumulus may have been part of complete stone circles; it has never been subject to detailed modern archaeological study, although was opened in 1830 when a spearhead or dagger, animal charcoal and small fragments of bones were found.
When I visited on a rare sunny day last month, I found that within the grassy circle the din of the roads is muted; the hustle and bustle of the interchange, the industrial estate with its heavy commercial traffic, the garage ... all seem to fade. Viewed from the footbridge over the motorway, it sits broodingly mysterious in the incongruous modern landscape, its three stones standing eloquently silent sentry as they have for countless years.
The fact that Huly Hill survived for millennia suggests it was very important. Which may be why this spot was chosen some two thousand years later for a very important burial – a Celtic chariot. When the Edinburgh Exchange estate was being built at Newbridge in 2001, remains of a chariot were found under what is now the commercial unit just before the turning for … Chariot Drive. It had been buried intact, most likely as part of a human burial (although no trace of a body remained), in the fifth or early fourth century BC.
To find out more I contacted Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator of Iron Age and Roman Collections at the National Museum of Scotland. “Owning a chariot at all at that time was like owning a Ferrari - especially this one, which was built for speed” he says. The two-wheeled chariot was designed to be pulled by two horses (although as he points out, Iron Age horses would look like ponies to our eyes). So this was the burial of someone undoubtedly wealthy and possibly of special social status. Detailed study of the remains revealed a utility vehicle that had worked hard, showing wear and tear and replacement parts. The wheels are not a matching set, being of slightly different diameter, rim form and fastenings, so one of them may have been a replacement. The iron tyres were well worn; some of the fixings where the harness attached to the yoke look like replacement parts.
But particularly intriguing is that the Newbridge chariot burial has more in common with continental burial rites than British ones. Chariot burials have been found in Yorkshire where the chariots were dismantled before being buried. The Scottish one however was intact, in common with chariot burials on continental Europe. It was buried up to its axle with slots cut in the ground for the wheels, before being covered with earth. Dr Hunter says, “This chariot is unique in Scotland and extremely rare in Britain. The best parallels are in France and Belgium, showing the wide-ranging contacts at the time.” So Scotland was not cut-off on the fringes of Europe, but had links with the continent even then – as a few other features of this chariot show. The horses' bridle bits (undecorated two-link snaffle bits) are unusual for Iron Age Britain but common in France and Belgium. The chariot itself however was of British manufacture, so this wasn't a visitor from the continent. As Dr Hunter explains, “Vehicles need suspension if they are to move at any speed. On the continent, this was achieved by various metal fittings which suspended the body of the chariot and allowed it to “float” and absorb the shock. In Britain, no such metal fittings are found. Instead, organic components were used – either a rawhide floor which absorbs the bounce, or by hanging the chariot body off leather straps.” Similarly, there were no nails to hold the tyres to the wheels, which indicate British make as continental chariots of the period used nails.
So our Newbridge burial could have been someone who spent time on the continent. We don't know why people buried chariots - it's easy to speculate but difficult to establish facts.
But we do know that Newbridge was a special site for a significant person. It's also an ancient crossing point of the River Almond (which we whizz over on the A89 next to the luxury car village, barely noticing it's there).
A replica of the Newbridge Chariot was the centrepiece of the “Celts,” exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in 2016 (photo above)
The iron tyres for the replica, which was made in 2001, were forged by local blacksmith Pete Hill of Ratho Byers Forge. Pete recalls, “We did some of the work in exactly the same manner as the original craftsman would have, with the forge anvil and hammer. The shaping into the ring was done using a modern roller and the tyres were joined using modern techniques to ensure accuracy of size. The most interesting aspect for me was the privilege of touching and inspecting ironwork of such an age, made by someone much like me, working in more or less the same manner centuries later. While some of the equipment has changed, the processes of thinning, stretching, punching and joining iron - or nowadays steel - have remained unchanged since the dawn of the iron age. If you could transport a smith through time either back or forward, they would recognise the work and tools and would no doubt share an immediate connection with the craftsman of the time.”
First published in Konect March 2016
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer