by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)
The Belladrum drama has a Prologue and two Acts, three main protagonists, and a horde (sic) of extras.
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.
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?
A few NOSAS members were part of the cast for the 2012 showing of “Find the Belladrum Archaeology”. That 2012 trench disappointingly revealed little archaeology, although it did show the remains of a wall running through the trench.
With a return of the show at the end of August 2014, more NOSAS members turned up, ready to kneel before the modern god of field archaeology. It proved to be a great show!
This year, two 20 m2 trenches were cut into the sloping field in which the coins were originally found, close by the 2012 trench. There were two additional trenches this year – a small trench in the middle of the field to demonstrate soil stratigraphy, and a larger trench at the top of the slope.
The first new trench this year – the one nearest the 2012 trench – had much more on offer – a continuation of the wall, a probable turf wall parallel to it, a possible cairn in the top left corner, and some interesting finds. Towards the top end of the trench fragments of (probable) Neolithic pottery turned up, together with numerous flint and quartz fragments. The next trench up the slope had three large stones in a line, towards the bottom left corner. Were these orthostats? Two of them seemed to have been carefully placed in scooped holes with packing stones. And across the trench ran a wall, associated with a large area of cobbling.
So, in summary, what did this dig find? Well, lots of structures of uncertain nature. But the Neolithic pottery is important. It is beginning to answer the question of Why were these coins found here in the middle of a now featureless field? It seems there is evidence of a Neolithic something, possibly a cairn, near to where the coins were found. Further post-ex work, including radiocarbon dating, should in time provide more evidence.
The show’s cast this year was led by Fraser Hunter and his wife Tanja Romankiewicz, ably supported by Dave Anderson, Lisa Brown and Lynne McKeggie. The unpaid extras were people from Edinburgh, Moray, NOSAS and a couple from Caithness. And even the weather was good! It only rained on the day that Alan turned up with his drone.
The following summary of the dig was supplied by Fraser Hunter. It complements the narrative drama above:
The story now goes back to the Neolithic, the time of the first farmers in the area c. 3500-4000 BC, with some typical early Neolithic pottery and a flake of pitchstone – a volcanic glass imported from Arran. Around this time or a little later, a row of small standing stones was erected – we have three of them, and one disturbed by the plough.
A thick soil layer was then deposited over the site, up to 250 mm thick. This was most likely caused by erosion elsewhere (higher up the slopes), perhaps from over-cultivation, and partially covered some of the remains. However, the tops of the stones still poked through, and people respected them when they used the area for farming in the Bronze Age (c. 2500-1500 BC) – this is represented by a series of long field walls, constructed over an extended period of time, and two cairns.
Over one end of one wall, a cobbled surface suggests a slightly later settlement in the vicinity – the style of pottery implies a date in the period c. 1200 – 400 BC ie late Bronze Age or early Iron Age.
Interestingly, there is no trace of settlement dating to the later Iron Age – the time when the coin hoard was buried. I’m sure the land was still used for farming, but the settlement was elsewhere. This does give a context for both of the hoards though – it is likely both were buried here because there were local landmarks – cairns or standing stones. The valuable coins could either have been buried for safety in a memorable location (the most likely explanation for the Medieval hoard) or on a place seen as sacred and mysterious (a possible explanation for the Roman hoard).
Our trench at the top of the field showed that there is archaeology here too – cobbled areas and a couple of stone features – but we didn’t have time to get any dating evidence. The small trench in the hollow showed that the area had been heavily landscaped in the mid-19th century, but did preserve traces of the earlier rig-and-furrow pre-improvement agriculture.