by James McComas (NOSAS)
Drumnadrochit, by Loch Ness. On the flat former croft land between the Rivers Coilte and Enrick a new NHS Medical Centre is under construction. In January 2015 workers on the site removed a large stone slab. Beneath the slab, undisturbed for perhaps 4000 years, were the crouched remains of an individual resting in a stone lined cist, approximately 0.7 metres deep.
Initially Highland Council archaeologists assessed the site, concluding it was probably bronze age. A skull and possible femur were clearly visible, but there were no obvious sign of grave goods. However it was still clearly an significant discovery. Nothing similar had been found in Drumnadrochit before, and whilst there is a profusion of archaeological sites in the area, nothing of this antiquity is known to have been found in the flat lands around Urquhart Bay. The next step was for NHS Highland to appoint an archaeologist to excavate the burial.
I called in briefly to the site several days later to find that the archaeologists appointed were well known to NOSAS – Mary Peteranna, now of AOC, and Steve Birch. Steve was kind enough to give me a brief rundown on what they had found. It was apparently a fairly typical stone lined cist burial of the early bronze age. The large cap stone, which had been removed by digger when clearing the area, had possibly already been broken in antiquity. There was a thickness of several cm of gravel above the cap stone before digging work began.
The bones inside had already been recorded and removed for analysis. These were in poor preservation and included a few teeth. As suspected they appeared to represent a single probably adult individual, and there was no sign of any grave goods within the cist.
However the team had also uncovered an adjacent area around a metre away from the cist which proved to be the remains of an oval pit. Here there was significant evidence of burning and the bottom portion of a beaker pot was still in situ. Steve showed me a few sherds of pot that had already been bagged – these had obvious decoration on them and looked to be bronze age. The Inverness Courier later quoted Mary as saying
The shards are of around two-thirds of a beaker pot which will probably have been around 20-30cm high. What makes them particularly interesting is that there is some organic material adhering to the base of the pot, so we may find out something about its contents. The shards have a distinctive decoration which may have been made on the clay before firing in a stabbing movement with something like a feather quill.
Interestingly a few fragments of charcoal were also found within the cist, although there was no evidence of burning there. It was surmised that this may have been historic contamination from the area where the beaker pot had been found. This would imply that both areas had been open at the same time and were therefore contemporary. However this is conjecture only at this stage. Mary points out that they couldn’t directly link the two features during excavation, although the presumption is that they came from the same period. In any case it seems possible that two burial practices are represented here; a crouched cist inhumation and a beaker burial.
At the time of my visit to the site though the most exciting find had yet to been discovered. This was a worked stone artefact which was also recovered from the same pit as the beaker pot. The item appears to be a wrist guard, prompting media speculation that it may have belonged to an archer. The guard features drilled holes which would have allowed it to be tied to the wrist with a leather strap. Its use may have been practical or entirely ornamental.
Steve told me that there was evidence that the pit was situated next to an old river channel. The selection of the site as a burial location may therefore have been prompted by a reverence of water. It is possible that before the land improvement of recent centuries the whole area was wet and fen-like. Indeed it is still very wet today in the wooded area immediately next to the Loch, known locally as “the cover”. It was therefore surmised that this was unlikely to have been an area of settlement, with the surrounding higher ground being more favoured for this.
As mentioned, no bronze age archaeology is known to have been found previously in the flat land around the village and bay. In the nineteenth century two bronze flat axes of early Bronze Age type had been found a mile to the south, near the promontory of Urquhart Castle (see RCAHMS entry). A middle Bronze Age blade was also found nearby at a now unknown site (RCAHMS).
For previously known Bronze age burials we need to look a little further afield. Several miles to the North west, a cist was found containing a collared cinerary urn and a bronze razor at a kerb cairn near Balnalick, above Glen Urquhart (RCAHMS). A further short cist was also exposed in the mid 90s near Kilmartin Farm above Loch Meikle. However this had been almost entirely destroyed (RCAHMS).
Meanwhile the nearest known bronze age settlement sites are immediately to the north at Garbeg, Balnagrantach and Culnakirk where there are hut circles, field systems, rock art and the remains of a Clava type cairn, all at an altitude of 200 to 300 metres. For this reason it might be argued that settlement of this period was concentrated on the south facing higher ground where it was drier, less densely wooded and open to direct sun for a greater part of the day.
According the Inverness Courier however, Highland Council archaeologist Andrew Puls thought that bronze age people may well have settled on the low land near the site:
People settled all around the loch and probably at this particular place because Drumnadrochit is fairly flat. There are hills to the north and south so it is fairly well defended. You can see who is coming from all around. It is at the confluence of two rivers. The ground is fairly fertile. It ticks most of the boxes.
What is for certain is that, until more evidence is gathered, no firm conclusions can be reached about settlement in the immediate vicinity. There is a large housing development due to be built on fields opposite the new Health Centre on the other side of the A82. It may be that this will bring more bronze age features to light so that some questions may be answered, and no doubt some further ones posed.
We now eagerly await the post ex radiocarbon dates and analysis results from the site’s finds, In the meantime arguments rage as to whether a permanent home should then be found for these in Drumnadrochit. Inverness Museum seems a more likely destination, although photographic panel displays are likely to adorn the foyer of the new Medical Centre.
With kind thanks to Mary Peteranna and Steve Birch.
On 6th November 2015 Cathy MacIver of AOC gave a very well attended talk at the public hall in Drumnadrochit on the “Secrets of the Surgery Bones”. Cathy subsequently gave an updated presentation in October 2016 at the Highland Archaeology Festival Conference in Inverness. The following further information can now be added:
The Beaker Pit From phosphate analysis of soil in the beaker pit it is now certain that this is indeed a second burial site which was perhaps truncated in antiquity. Additionally pupae were found in this pit which are indicators of the decomposition process. Therefore we can now say that the beaker and the stone wrist guard were grave goods. Similar analysis results were also produced by the cist pit.
The Beaker The beaker has now been classified by Alison Sheridan of NMS as a zone decorated short necked beaker c. 2250 – 1950 BC. This a type already recognised in North East Scotland. The beaker was possibly smashed in situ and contained a residue of so far uncertain identification. However it is most likely to be foodstuff of some description, perhaps dairy.
The Wrist Guard. The stone wrist guard or bracer is composed of a fine grained igneous rock of a similar type to Great Langdale tuff. A small piece of stone is missing from the guard and was not found during excavation.
It is thought a soft percussion technique using an antler or bone borer was used to drill the holes in it, which were presumably used to attach a thong. Originally grooves had been made guard, however the holes seem to been added later in the item’s use to create a different method of attachment. There are signs of oxhide or fur fibre residue on the guard and there is residue of perhaps cord in the holes.
The wrist guard is one of seven that have been found in the Highland region. Wrist guards found at Culduthel and Fyrish are of an especially similar type, although they are composed of different stone and feature only holes with no grooves.
The Cist Burial. The bones were in a poor state of preservation due to highly acidic soils. It was not possible to positively determine the height or sex of the individual. Isotope analysis of the teeth also failed to yield results. However C14 radiocarbon results from the bone were possible giving a result of 2140 – 1960 cal. BCE. This is very close to dating of the beaker and indicates that both burials were indeed broadly contemporary.
It is open to conjecture why two very different funerary practices were carried at the same location in roughly the same period. This could perhaps signal a difference in status of the persons being buried. Equally though it might merely indicate personal preference by the deceased or their family, much as we might have for burial or cremation in the modern era.
Carn Glas. Local historian Duncan MacDonald also stated that the area where the burial was found was formerly known as Carn Glas (grey green cairn or rocky hill). If so the name could conceivably refer to burial cairns that once covered the graves.
Following correspondence with Duncan, I have found that Carn Glas appears on an 1801 estate map as a rectilinear stony area that has been avoided by cultivation. Furthermore this area does indeed appear to correspond with the general location of the find site. It can be clearly seen in the detail below in the top left corner:
2017 Cist and Beaker
June 2017: Evaluation by AOC for a housing development in the field immediately north of the Drumnadrochit surgery revealed a large stone slab. Despite this resembling another possible capstone, no cist was found beneath it (see pictures below). The evaluation also “uncovered areas of significant prehistoric archaeology containing prehistoric pottery, burnt plant remains and a collection of stone tools including a flint scraper”, which suggest more activity than just funerary practices.
However, further work on the same site in October 2017 revealed another large sandstone capping stone covering a stone-lined short cist. Soil had infilled the cist, but once this was excavated a beaker pot was revealed in situ upon a cobbled surface. The weak Carinated/Low Carinated beaker with simple decoration would have been placed inside the cist as an offering at the time of burial. No human remains were apparent during excavation but sample analysis may reveal their presence, as well as possible traces of any substance that was originally in the beaker.
The discovery of a second Bronze Age cist on the site provides increasing evidence for the special selection of this site in the prehistoric landscape as a location for ceremonial funerary activity. This cist, along with the medical centre cist and a second burial pit, is generating much more information about the prehistory of Glen Urquhart. Historically, there was a large cairn shown on maps of the area but you can imagine that centuries of ploughing in these fields have removed any upstanding reminders of prehistoric occupation.
Mary Peteranna, AOC Archaeology Inverness.
It will be fascinating to see if there are further prehistoric discoveries in this area, from this or subsequent building developments. It would be particularly interesting to find further evidence of Bronze Age graves in the vicinity of the Carn Glas feature shown on the early 19th Century estate map (see above), which might add further credence to the theory that these were indeed prehistoric burial cairns.