The Rosemarkie Caves Project

by Simon Gunn (NOSAS)

The subterranean section of NOSAS, the Rosemarkie Caves Project (RCP), is planning more work in the caves this year (2015). The RCP was set up to research the archaeology of the caves on the Moray Firth coast near Rosemarkie.

The group started its work in 2006 with a weekend excavation of Learnie 2B when evidence was found of occupation and leatherwork in the 19th century, probably by summer travellers. This was followed by a more ambitious 14 day dig at Cairds’ Cave in 2010, when we confirmed that the cave had been excavated 100 years before by local doctor William MacLean. Through analysis of bone and charcoal, the cave was found to have been in use as far back as 300BC, the time of Alexander the Great.

2006 dig at Learnie 2B

2006 dig at Learnie 2B

Outside Cairds' Cave in 2010

Outside Cairds’ Cave in 2010

There are 19 caves on this 2.5 mile stretch of coastline, they have been high and dry for over 4000 years and apart from interest by RCP and Dr MacLean, their archaeological potential has never been explored. Since 2010, the RCP members have surveyed all 19 caves and then in 2013 started a program of test-pitting. The purpose of this was to get a feel for the archaeology that might be there, but mainly to find deep samples of bone and charcoal for dating which would ascertain in which periods the caves were used and to find out, if possible, the earliest occupation.

Samples were taken from pits dug in the cave entrances, as we believed charcoal from fires would tend to have been lit there. This seemed wise, but Learnie 3C was the exception, as dates of 300 AD were found in a pit well into the cave. More typically the caves have revealed Pictish dates of 400-800AD, typically from samples taken at a depth of 1 to 1.4 metres. In addition to the results from these samples, 3 pieces of medieval pottery were found in an ash deposit in Learnie 2B.

The RCP’s investigations have begun to hint at domestic use of the caves from the Iron Age through to Pictish times before the arrival of the Vikings with some re-use in the later Medieval period. In more modern times it seems that (gypsy) travellers used the caves in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The group hope to conclude the test pitting this summer by concentrating on four caves, two close to Rosemarkie, the Through & Through Cave (which has a tunnel through a headland) and Ivy Cave, which we have investigated before, but without any dating material of note, but a fine engraved slab. The other two are more northerly ones which have not been test-pitted before. Broad Cave is a bit like a French “abri”, more of a rock shelter than a cave, while Three Peaks Cave is the opposite, with a low entrance and stalactites inside.

Ivy Cave engraved stone 1

Engraved slab from Ivy Cave

The view from Broad Cave

The view from Broad Cave

For further information go to the Rosemarkie Caves Project website and see Introducing Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Period Cave Burial on the Black Isle.

current archaeology RCP

Above is an article from the November 2015 issue of Current Archaeology, written by Mary Peteranna.

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