Rosemarkie Caves Excavations 2017

by Steve Birch

2017 saw a second consecutive season of excavation by the Rosemarkie Caves Project in the series of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. Four caves were chosen for targeted excavation by the team. This included further work in Smelter’s Cave (2B) where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made last year (see blog post), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metal working .

Some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, and working in bone/horn. We also recovered good economic evidence for the use of the caves during this period, which once analysed, will provide some detail with regards to how the people lived and what they ate!

Above: A child’s leather boot in situ. Below: A 3 holed bone button. Probable 19th C. artefacts from Cave 1B.

Unfortunately, the hard work to uncover further evidence of the metalworking activity outside 2B failed to materialise…..here, we found evidence for the deposition from material generated within the caves through time such as fire-cracked stones, charcoal and ash, shellfish, animal bone (cattle, sheep and pig) and some large fish (including cod and ling). This area, below the drip-line of the cave, was also probably quite a dangerous place to carry out any activities. A number of large rocks were uncovered here that had fallen from the cliff above. We did recover some metalworking residues including a hearth base, three pieces of iron slag, and one fragment of vitrified furnace wall.

The trench outside Cave 2B, aka Smelter’s Cave

As usual, potentially important discoveries were made on the last day! In 2B, around 1.5 metres away from where we had recovered Rosemarkie Man in 2016, Tim Blackie uncovered articulated ribs within a roughly-built, cist-type structure. By the end of the day, it was obvious that these remains were animal, probably from cattle or deer. I returned to the cave yesterday (Tuesday) to complete the excavation of these remains, with assistance from Allan Mackenzie (unfortunately, Tim had been struck down by a bug)!

We now have a good sequence and date for the animal remains, which proved to be from an adult red deer. A post-medieval hearth had been constructed in the back of the cave, between two bedrock ribs on the natural sand, and using a large and fat inclined slab of rock. At some stage during the use of this feature, a pit was cut through the ashy spreads to the west of the hearth and the almost complete (the only bits missing were the cranium and one lower mandible) articulated remains of the red deer was laid on its side. The pit did not quite accommodate the animals remains, so its legs protruded upwards at an angle to rest on accumulating midden deposits. A stone setting some 1.4 metres long was then constructed over the animal using angular rocks, aligned N-S, on the same alignment as the animal remains. The deer’s spinal column was partially covered by the setting on the east side, while stone were placed across the limbs on the west side. Therefore, the setting did not contain the animal, but rested on top of it – after which two larger stones were placed within the setting covering the lower abdomen area, and smaller stones over the chest area.

The stone setting covering the deer skeleton prior to excavation.

The second upper hearth was built to the east of the stone setting covering the animals remains, using the stones on its east side as a back for the hearth (to which were added additional smaller stones to form a more circular setting on this side of the hearth). Ash from the use of the hearth had filtered down into the cist-like feature, after which midden and floor deposits accumulated, completely burying the setting and hearths.

Excavation of the deposits within the stone setting produced glass, ceramics, clay pipe fragments, a small button, burnt wood, a couple of copper-alloy nails, iron nails and leather off-cuts. When Allan removed the lower half of the rib cage, he uncovered the complete leather sole of a small shoe or boot, proving that the carcass of the deer was deposited during the post-medieval period.

Above and Below: Paul carefully excavates the animal remains.

Although the cranium was missing from the remains, we did not notice any butchery on the animals bones – although this will require confirmation from a specialist. So, the million dollar question…………why place the remains of a complete deer carcass in the back of the cave, where you were living and carrying out craft activities? Me thinks we will have to conduct some research on Tinker/Traveller beliefs and customs………….

I have attached a couple of images showing the excavation of the stone setting; the first after removal of the stones covering the legs on the west side (below left); and a shot revealing the deer skeleton below right.

Cave 1B

Cave 1B is the largest of the Rosemarkie caves at around 21 x 10 x 5 metres high. In the upper deposits a number of hearth/ spot fire settings were found dating to the 19th C period of “traveller” occupation. We also uncovered layers of bracken matting and a number of evocative artefacts – see the boot and button pictures at the top of the post.

This is a previously dug test pit in 1B that was re-excavated this year. It originally reached a depth of 1.4 metres with a possible stake hole at the base. The substantial charcoal rich/ ashy layer close to the bottom yielded 7th to 9th century dates.

This picture shows the trench cleaned back to the early medieval horizon on the last day of excavation 2017, including the remains of the test pit in the foreground. The very firm ash deposit on stone slabs appears to form a horseshoe shaped setting in the area where the ranging poles have been placed. It is hoped that this feature will be resolved when RCP return to the cave next year.

Some further excitement for this year’s dig was provided by the appearance of the BBC to film us for Landward (due to air Friday 13th October – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b097thcg) and record us for Scotland Outdoors on the radio (listen here).

Thanks to all the hard working 2017 volunteers from NOSAS and elsewhere. See our other RCP articles here and here.

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