The Galloway Glens ‘Can You Dig It’ Community Archaeology project is leading a search for Bog Iron in Galloway, seeking to better understand a now largely forgotten method of iron production, powered by the peatlands of South West Scotland.
Approximately one third of the Dumfries & Galloway region is classed as peatland, and this constitutes about 20% of Scotland’s entire peat ‘estate’. Nowadays we see the Galloway Peatlands as an amazing asset for the region, providing biodiversity hotspots, water control and quality benefits, as well as forming one of the most effective carbon capture habitats found anywhere on earth. Scotland’s peat soils hold captive around 140 years’ worth of Scotland’s current national greenhouse gas emissions.
A feature of our peatlands which has been largely forgotten is that they were prime locations for the discovery of Bog Iron. Bog Iron is a crude and impure iron deposit which can be extracted and worked to yield valuable metal products. Due to the simpler smelting techniques required, most iron used in the Viking age and through pre-Roman times was obtained through smelting Bog Iron deposits.
Bog Iron forms due to the flow of iron-bearing groundwater into the unique habitat that peatland bogs offer. Specific types of ‘iron bacteria’ within the peat concentrate the iron into useable deposits as part of their life processes.
The presence of Bog Iron is highlighted through reddish-brown secretions in local rivers or streams, withered grass or unusual depositions. Small, pea sized nodules of Bog Iron can be collected by hand and is a renewable resource, with bogs being able to be harvested repeatedly.
The ‘Can You Dig It’ Community Archaeology project, part of the broader Galloway Glens Scheme in the Ken/Dee valley in South West Scotland, wants to better understand local Bog Iron production and is looking for any sites that might be worth investigation. The hope is that Bog Iron can be harvested once again in Galloway, and even smelted to yield workable iron ore, as an example of living archaeology.
Leading the search for sites that might yield Bog Iron is Tom Rees from Rathmell Archaeology. Rathmell is delivering Can You Dig It project for the Galloway Glens Scheme. Tom said:
“The use of Bog Iron as an ore for smelting was an ingenious solution to the need for iron. Through experimental archaeology we can rediscover these techniques, enabling us to understand this critical technological innovation. But to start the process we need to return to the peatlands and find new Bog Iron deposits – and we need help to do that.”
Claire Williamson, also from Rathmell Archaeology, added:
"We can't wait to see this ancient practice in action - reading about it doesn't always come close to actually experiencing it for yourself. And watching it stood amongst new friends in the beautiful scenery of Galloway will make for an unforgettable experience! We just need your help to find something to smelt first..."
The Galloway Glens Scheme’s Helen Keron added:
‘Can You Dig It’ is one of the Galloway Glens’ flagship projects, aiming to connect people with their built and cultural heritage in very concrete ways. If we can harness people’s local knowledge of the area to find some Bog Iron sites, and even better if we could then re-create a Bloomery to smelt some iron from it, that would be amazing.
Dr Emily Taylor, from the Crichton Carbon Centre which is focussed on peatland restoration and raising the profile of our bogs in South West Scotland, added:
“Our brown, wet, boggy peatlands often get overlooked and I think we struggle to appreciate how important they were to people in the past. Bog iron is such an intriguing part of the history of Galloways’ peatlands so I am very excited to see this project bring this peaty past to life. Although we are getting much better at appreciating bogs for their carbon and biodiversity, their cultural significance is equally as important and fascinating.”
If you know of a site which may be of interest to the Bog Iron quest (or if you’d like more information about the ‘Can you Dig it’ Community archaeology project), please contact Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can You Dig It is funded by Historic Environment Scotland, matching the Galloway Glens core funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It started in February 2019 and will run until September 2022. For more information about current online events and other projects, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, @GGLPArchaeology.
The Galloway Glens Scheme is a suite of projects taking place up and down the Ken/Dee valley in Dumfries & Galloway seeking to connect people to their heritage, while boosting the local economy and supporting sustainable communities. It is a partnership of the public and private sectors, supported primarily by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For more details about the scheme or the projects supported, please visit www.gallowayglens.org.