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!
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.
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 a couple of days later 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 cow. 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 cow 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 cow’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 second upper hearth was built to the east of the stone setting covering the animal’s 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 cow was deposited during the post-medieval period.
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 cow 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 cow skeleton below right.