Digging the Pictish Fort at Burghead

by Anji Hancock (NOSAS)

My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent excavations.

The original fort occupied over 7 acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.

However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’  (Photo Anji Hancock)

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy MacIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy with the copper-alloy finger ring (photo Northern Picts).

Cathy’s sharp eyes and years of experience spotted 2 special finds in amongst the midden debris of bones, shells and clag- a simple copper alloy finger ring and a bone pin with a head decorated with cross-hatching.

The bone pin found by Cathy (photo Northern Picts).

Later, another volunteer found a second mace-headed bone pin whilst sieving Cathy’s spoil. These bone pins are comparable to 7th- 9th AD pins from the Brough of Birsay and Whithorn.

The second bone pin (photo Northern Picts).

The second excavation into the rampart wall was on the upper level overlooking the sea. The grassy bank is all that is visible of the previously 8m thick wall. Now the shoreline is directly below this and it’s amazing to think how much the coastline has changed since the time of occupation.

We had barely been aware of the two diggers who seemed to keep themselves isolated in their lofty, upper level until they announced they’d found a dog skeleton. Intrigued we clambered up to take a look.

Sticking out from the trench wall was the front of the dog’s head with all its teeth bared. A bit grisly looking, our bone expert was very confident it was a recent addition to the headland. For a novice digger like me it was interesting to identify the cut of the pit in the section which A poor, deceased ‘Fido’.

This trench became more interesting as it went down. Stonework and burnt timber was uncovered. Excitement grew that an undamaged section of the inner wall might be found. In order to safely deepen the trench it also needed to be widened. Enter team Hancock.

Trench wall with dog skull in situ. (Photo-Anji Hancock)

We were to be ‘promoted’ to the upper level! I might have felt more privileged if there hadn’t been a strong wind blowing from the west which was resulting in sandstorm-type conditions I was a bit more familiar with in my previous life in Saudi Arabia. In true Middle East style I wrapped my head up in a scarf and begun to attack the tumble of stones and rubble. The layer of sand that was building up on the tarpaulin for our spoil made sense of the layers of sandy soil we had dug through in the trenches on the lower level. Looking across the bay to Findhorn we were reminded of the 2 previous villages which had to be abandoned because of severe sandstorms which had buried them. Had the previous occupants of the fort also had to suffer the unpleasantness and inconvenience of sandstorms? I always find when digging I begin not just to try to make sense of what I see before me but to wonder about exactly what the landscape was like and how this would impact on the inhabitants of the time.

By now I was so sandy it wasn’t bothering me anymore. As we dug down we created our own sheltered space out of the wind and we begun to find bones- lots of them, including a mandible. They appeared this time to be more in keeping with the occupation layer and as far as we could tell they were cattle. Although, the important focus of this trench was to find the inner wall of the rampart I got far more excited by my bone discoveries! Clearly, I haven’t quite moved on from an amateur ‘it’s all about the finds’ mentality!

A bag of cattle bones. (Photo Anji Hancock)         

By the end of the day the ‘real’ archaeologists were rewarded with uncovering  the intact inner wall face.

I will not attempt to explain it but instead include the link to this fantastic 3D graphic by James of Aberdeen University.

This is the remarkably intact upper citadel rampart with burnt horizontal wall timber preserved in situ in the wallface of the Pictish fort (taken from Northern Picts Facebook Page).

So, after my 3 days of ‘scratching below the surface’ of Burghead I was certainly right in thinking there was more to Burghead than fishing and a good harbour. As the site of the largest known Pictish Fort in Scotland it must have once been a place of great importance.

References

Current Archaeology Article: https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/unpicking-pictish-burghead.htm

Canmore, Burghead: https://canmore.org.uk/site/16146/burghead

http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/grampian/burghead_pictish_fort.html

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/moray/1294849/burghead-fort-dig-leads-to-surprise-discoveries/

3D model of wall excavation:

Northern Picts Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NorthernPicts/

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