Monthly Archives: September 2014

Belladrum Excavation, 31st August – 7th September 2014

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

The Belladrum drama has a Prologue and two Acts, three main protagonists, and a horde (sic) of extras.

The Prologue:

Enter first Joe Gibbs, landowner at Belladrum and host to the annual August Tartan Heart Festival.

During clearing his fields after the Festival, he employs a metal detectorist to identify and get rid of all the left-behind tent pegs. Enter next that said detectorist, Eric Soane, who in August 2009 scanned the site and discovered a scatter of Roman denarii and some mediaeval coins. Enter third, Fraser Hunter, a principal Curator at the National Museum of Scotland, with an interest in hoards and Roman coins. He excavated the site in October 2012 to see if there were any more coins and to identify any obvious archaeology. Enter last, the cast of thousands – well, maybe 20-30 – human diggers from around Scotland.

On their knees in Trench 1

On their knees in Trench 1

There are two possible narratives, Fraser says. The coins were a hoard, a cache. Someone in the Iron Age wanted to find a good safe place to store his (presumably his) treasure. Or, second narrative,  these scattered coins were a votive offering to the gods. There is evidence from other sites such as Birnie, Fraser says, that the hoards of coins do seem to have been placed in special previously holy places.

And, why place the coins here? Birnie and Rhynie had hoards placed within settlement areas. Is there evidence of that at Belladrum? Or, if the coins were a votive offering, what was there at the time to focus the offering? A spring? An ancient site? And, most intriguingly, why 1000 years later were some mediaeval coins placed in the same area?

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Highland Hillforts

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

The Atlas of Hillforts in Britain and Ireland project

Hillforts are one of the most prominent types of prehistoric monument seen across many parts of Britain and Ireland, and this hillfort project has recently been set up with the aim of producing a paper atlas and an online searchable atlas linked to Google Earth. It is a collaborative four year project between the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, and contributions from members of the public, either as individuals or as part of local field groups, are welcome.

Several members of NOSAS were interested in this project and a field day took place in May which nine attended. We visited three forts in the Drumnadrochit area which James McComas had suggested. The day was a great success even though the weather didn’t exactly co-operate and the overall impression was “damp” to say the least! The three forts of Dun Scriben, Craig Mony (Craigmonie) and An Torr were very different from each other – we took photos, made rough sketches and filled in the (reputedly) tortuous form provided on the website. The form proved to be not as formidable as we had anticipated and has been submitted to Strat Halliday who is the Scottish and Irish end of the project. If any members are interested in participating in the project or in joining the next NOSAS field day please contact Meryl Marshall.

More information about the project is available on the website

http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/hillforts-atlas.html

The form to fill in is available at

http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/files/hillforts/survey%20pro-forma%20web%20final%20v2.pdf

and notes and guidelines are at

http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/files/hillforts/survey%20notes%20for%20guidance%20web%20final%20v2.pdf

Producing drawings of hillforts

A drawing or sketch of a site, even if it is not precisely to scale, gives so much more information than a written description. Ideally it would be good to produce a plane-table drawing but this is not always a convenient method as it is time consuming and involves carrying heavy equipment to remote and inaccessible places. So when doing the recent surveys at Drumnadrochit we experimented with several methods of survey: using tape and offset, pacing and GPS waymarks. A draft sketch on permatrace was produced but, as usual, it was a bit messy – the words “dog’s breakfast” came to mind! A tidy final drawing was needed, so using a further piece of permatrace and a 4H pencil, I traced the site using hachuring as per RCAHMS guidelines, with annotations to clarify some of the features; I then scanned the result, see sketch of Craig Mony Fort. For me this method of drawing up is new and I have not perfected the technique yet, but Ian Parker of RCAHMS was helpful in giving advice and suggestions, and also his own drawing below.

Craig Mony Fort Meryl Marshall

Craig Mony, Drumnadrochit, by Meryl Marshall

Craig Mony, Drumnadrochit, by Ian Parker

Craig Mony, Drumnadrochit, by Ian Parker

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Cromarty Medieval Burgh Dig 2014: A Volunteer’s Perspective

by Rosemary Jones (NOSAS)

The 2013 dig had been great fun, so we offered our help for 2014. Bob was set to work, using a mattock, a draw hoe and a barrow, though not necessarily in that order. For me, the choice was a little harder: my back is troublesome, but I had been told to keep active, so I was asked to tidy up one of the uncovered 2013 trenches so that it could be photographed. Eventually Paul, the finds ‘cataloguer’, told me he didn’t want my offering of several fish bones, which was all I could find for the first few days. Michael joined me to uncover more of the trench, more tidying. Then things looked up: med pot appeared and half of a glazed, ceramic spindle whorl – I was on a roll. In the wall was what appeared to be part of a quern, then another (which wasn’t). I moved onto another trench to do some trowelling where I uncovered a whole quern stone.

Meanwhile my original trench was in danger from Bob and Dave: their dug area had impinged on one longitudinal wall. Hours later there was no trench, just a vast uncovered area, out of which a total of 5 pieces of quern stone were removed, 3 of which fitted together. Why anyone would break such an object is a mystery, but several such broken, and at least one unbroken, were found incorporated into the walls of the buildings. Likewise, Bob, among others, found a broken iron pot with a large stone on top of it, under what appeared to be the entrance to one of the medieval houses. Why would anyone break an iron pot? I can see that you could bury broken pottery, to avoid having to explain how it came to be in such a state, but iron?

Pieces of Quern Stone Cromarty

Pieces of quern stone (Bob Jones)

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Cnoc Tigh and Tarlogie Dun Excavations (Iron Age Round Houses)

by David Findlay (NOSAS)

These excavations, in April and July 2014, were led by Candy Hatherley and form part of the University of Aberdeen Northern Picts Project. Cnoc Tigh (see also our earlier blog entry) and Tarlogie Dun are Iron Age round houses situated on the north coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross. They are both on the high ground about 200m back from the coast giving them spectacular views across the Dornoch Firth to Sutherland and up the Sutherland coast. Neither site is naturally defensive and, though both have watercourses to one side creating a gorge and a steep bank to the sea on another side, that still leaves two sides open to the surrounding countryside.

The NOSAS Team Tarlogie Looking N April 2014 P1030613

The NOSAS team at Tarlogie, looking N (David Findlay)

They differ from the three duns excavated by the Aberdeen University Team in 2013 in that these were all on the south side of the Tarbat Peninsular and were relatively defensible due to the natural features, although Tarrel is overlooked by the cliff on the landward side.

Both Cnoc Tigh and Tarlogie appear to date from about 400 BC with occupation at Tarlogie lasting for 800 years to about 400AD. I do not know of any dates yet for the latest occupancy at Cnoc Tigh although I understand that suitable charcoal samples have been taken for dating.

The 2014 excavations at both sites reveal severely robbed and damaged stone walls; there are discernible facing walls in a few locations but largely only the fill remains. Both sites show a lot of evidence of the structures changing with time.

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A Visit to Kinloch Hourn

by Anne Coombs (NOSAS)

The now the familiar road to Kinloch Hourn was a great introduction to the walk led by John Wombell on the 29th June. Henry Birkbeck has always been very generous to NOSAS and once again he offered us the use of the Lodge for the whole weekend. Please don’t get me wrong: the camp site by the riverside is perfectly acceptable but it was much more comfortable and midge free in the Lodge. What resulted was an extended long weekend which turned into a typical KLH event and my apologies to those who were unable to attend but you missed a very good time.

The Lodge is self-sufficient with its own water supply which also runs the hydro-electric scheme providing all the electricity for the house. The weather was glorious and had been for some time, and the absence of rain meant that the burn was very low. This resulted in much hilarity as we discussed the various water economies we could employ. Bath sharing suggestions of course produced much nonsense but with a great deal of care we avoided that by just staying dirty!

Loch Hourn

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Excavations on the Tarbat Peninsula: Scotsburn (Iron Age Broch or Dun) Part 2

By Vaidutis Žutautas (University of Aberdeen)

Just above the left bank of steep wooded ravine of the Balnagown river, remnants of a prehistoric dun (NH77NW 6, NH 7148 7616) sit on the sloped eminence surrounded by a complex of structural features, arguably belonging to it. The site has been known for a long time, as it still stands prominently and it is likely that it has not been disturbed by agricultural activities throughout centuries, although some possible robber trenches can be seen on the E side of the dun wall. Prevailing arguments suggesting that the roundhouse could carry the title of ‘a broch’ were usually subjected to narrow over-surface interpretations by only taking into consideration structural features such as the diameter of the house (13m), wall thickness (~6m on the surface) and its elaborate compounds that skirt the dun. However no comprehensive evaluation has been done since 1968 when OS did a basic descriptive survey and designated the structure as a dun.

In order to expand the distributional scope of the late prehistoric structures in Tarbat peninsula and its environs, the team of archaeologists from the Aberdeen of University has targeted Scotsburn Dun in seeking to evaluate the underlying archaeology. A permission to locate 3m x 20m trench and extract effective dating material that would provide a chronological framework for the site was given by Historic Scotland Scheduled Monument Consent. Additionally, to answer perhaps the most intriguing question­- whether the structure is a broch or a complex dun – authorisation was given to uncover the roundhouse wall and identify its external morphology that would allow drawing assumptions regarding its structural classification.

Since this excavation was ongoing along other two digs in the area (Cnoc Tigh and Tarlogie Dun), the logistics were relatively subordinate especially in terms of people on the site. At least two archaeologists were working at Scotsburn with a kind help from volunteers living in the region. Yet even said that, the dig has not been crowded and therefore dealing with exceptionally complex archaeology and nearly 40m3 of deposited rubble extended original ten day dig to a four and a half week mattocking paradise.

Realising the complexity of the site on the first day, it was decided to open 2m x 20m trench stretching NW-SE encompassing area between the roundhouse and the enclosure wall and another two earthworks giving another 6,8m extension for vegetation, top soil and limited latest collapse deposit clearance from the dun wall. Unsurprisingly, it has been a highly demanding task to define structural features and reach occupation horizons by removing tons of collapsed stones; this process took nearly two weeks mainly allocating labour in two areas: a) between the roundhouse wall and the enclosure wall, and b) between the enclosure wall and the first earth bank.

Scotsburn full trench

Aerial picture of the entire trench showing mid-excavation.

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