The Archaeology of the Findhorn Dunes

by Michael Sharpe

Findhorn Dunes Site from the NE. In the upper left is the caravan park, and beyond the Cromarty Sutors.

Introduction

This story begins back in 2002 or so, when during a conversation about local history and archaeology, a local farmer and digger driver I had worked with mentioned to me that he knew of a site in the dunes east of Findhorn Village, Moray, where people had found flint in the past (Figure 1). I decided to go and have a look, and before long was finding not only flint tools and debitage, but also pot sherds, beads, fragments of copper alloy, and the remains of a midden. It is likely that this is the site of a flint scatter and old land surface (OLS) reported by Ian Shepherd (1977) and recorded on the Moray Sites and Monuments Record (NJ06SE0010 – Findhorn), although there is a discrepancy of 0.5km as to location. He probably wouldn’t have had even a basic GPS unit at his disposal, and it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint locations among the dunes.

Fig. 1 Location map

What follows is summary of the results of 15 years of surface collecting of finds, and recent efforts to investigate the site more systematically: namely a few test pits in 2016, but mainly a weekend of work in 2017—an informal dig staffed mostly, if not entirely, by NOSAS members. Permission for the collecting and minimal digging was given early on by the Findhorn Dunes Trust, which has a duty of care for the land surrounding the site.

Shore section showing eroding old land surface. The figure is standing on top of the east dune.

The local archaeological context

I won’t attempt an exhaustive summary of the archaeology of the area, as there are many good publications that do that, including numerous papers in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Suffice it to say that broadly, within the coastal lowlands of the south Moray Firth coast, there is ample evidence of prehistoric occupation from the Mesolithic onwards. This ranges from Mesolithic and Neolithic arrowheads at Culbin; numerous Bronze Age (BA) cist burials, such as those at Burgie Lodge Farm near Rafford, one of which contained a jet necklace (Callander 1916); and larger BA burial monuments, such as the Clava Cairns near Culloden. As at Rosemarkie, there are numerous caves on the coast between Hopeman and Lossiemouth where excavations—most recently by Ian Armit—have found evidence of occupation from the Mesolithic onwards, including BA burials, and the remains of decapitated individuals from the IA. Excavations by Fraser Hunter at Birnie—south of Elgin—and at Clarkly Hill near Burghead revealed IA farming settlements on the productive farmland of the coastal lowlands, and also evidence of probable contact with the Romans.

Findhorn and its immediate surroundings have offered up: a BA hoard containing two spear-heads and a socketed axe (Callander 1920); a rich BA burial from Findhorn Village in which a large cinerary urn contained the cremated remains of a young woman and a neonate as well as a substantial number of faience beads, a rare find in the UK (Shepherd and Shepherd 2001); and the remains of two cremated individuals among the dunes east of the village (Black 1891).

Bradley et al. (2016) have proposed the new site type of Maritime Havens: areas which developed early on after the Pleistocene Ice Age, and which went on to become centres of trade and industry, with extensive links across both water and land. The exceptional quantity of artefacts found at Culbin Sands during the 17th to 19th centuries led him to propose that the Culbin Sands was one such haven. Due to its proximity, the people using the Findhorn Dunes Site were likely connected with this activity. The one artefact type which connects this dunes site, the Findhorn burial, and Culbin Sands also happens to be one of the rarest—faience beads.

Investigations 2016/17

The site

This site is initially visible as an extensive spread of fire-cracked stones between two high dunes, and a discontinuous, black, old land surface (OLS), in places out in the open, in others visible in section in the dunes, and at the coast edge (Figure 2).

Fig. 2 The Findhorn Dunes Site, approximately 300 m east of the Dunes Road, Findhorn. The distribution of various artefacts, location of midden, and the cross-section illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3 shows the relationship between the OLS and the sand dunes: at the junction between lower, water-deposited sand dating from the marine re-advance of the early Holocene (Ross 1992), and the later wind-blown sand dunes, well attested since at least the early 18th century and causing, for example, the inundation of the Culbin Estate a few kilometres to the west in the late 17th early 18th c. The excavations at Clarkly Hill also uncovered plough scars at several levels, including ard marks, separated by layers of blown sand.

Fig. 3 A cross section of the dunes showing the position of the old land surface (OLS) in relation to the sand dunes. See Figure 2 for the location of the section.

Areas between the dunes are gently undulating sand and shingle, and the whole site is within 100m of the current shoreline, and less than 3m above mean high water spring tides. The northern edge of the site is being eroded by wave action.

It could be said that the dunes are in a state of dynamic equilibrium, more or less stabilised by the marram grass, heather, and other vegetation, and the fact that the bulk of the sand is permanently damp below the surface. The wind and rain continually chip away around the edges, but leave them substantially intact. The erosion progressively cuts into the old land surface between the dunes.

TR 3, Old Land Surface

The lack of intact archaeological surfaces and deposits is likely due to this steady erosion, and to war-time activities associated with nearby Kinloss Air Base: shore defences, and training exercises leading up to the D-day landings of 1944. This is known to have included the attempted landing of duplex drive tanks, target practice, the erection of barbed wire, and mortars. All in all, not a good recipe for archaeological preservation.

Methodology

The purpose of the archaeological evaluation in July 2017 was to determine whether any intact archaeological deposits could be found at the site. To date all of the artefacts found had been fragmentary and unstratified. Three small, shallow trenches (Figure 4: Trenches 1, 2, and 3) were opened up to investigate the OLS, visible as a discontinuous dark layer approximately 0.1m thick, in some places largely covered by sand dunes, in others exposed at the surface, and with fire-cracked stones embedded in it.

Fig. 4 The location of shallow trenches and slots dug in 2016/17.

Slot 1, west dune. Hardboard and canes are used to retain the dry sand, as the stony layer is chased into the dune.

Slot 1

Eleven slots were dug less than 0.5m horizontally into the foot of the dunes, chasing the current land surface (sand and shingle), to see whether any intact deposits might survive under the dunes (Figure 4). This very act causes sand to slide down from higher up the dune face. This can only be contained in a limited way, hence the minimal depth of the trenches. Visiting the site several days later, I noticed that no sign of our excavations remained, as we had backfilled them as best we could, and the wind did the rest.

During the years of surface collecting, and the excavations, no intact features or deposits were found, apart from the burnt OLS—only highly fragmented artefacts, flint debitage, fire-cracked stone, and apparently redeposited midden material. Very little new material was recovered from the slots and trenches, only a few pieces of flint debitage, a stone tool, and one faience bead fragment (2016). The bulk of the finds were recovered during the years of surface collecting, out in the open, from the current land surface.

TR 4, Buried soil/burn layers buried in the sand of a low dune

TR 4, Buried soil/burn layers

Results

The Findhorn Dunes Site (FDS) reported on here has offered up artefacts predominantly from the BA and minimally from the IA. It’s a truism in Scottish archaeology that in the IA people only lived, while in the BA they only died: for the former we tend to find round houses, settlements, and field systems, but few burials; and for the latter, monumental burial sites (for example Clava Cairns) and other sorts of burials, such as cists and cremations in urns, but little evidence of habitations or settlements, though this picture has improved over time. This site seems to be neither strictly a habitation nor burial site.

Decorated beaker sherd

Coarse pot sherds (approx. 25mm thick).

One suite of artefacts suggest that this location was used for burial during the BA on the old land surface prior to the arrival of the sand dunes. This includes: faience beads; one split dark stone bead; numerous fragments of copper alloy (possibly degraded brooch body and pin); numerous small, turquoise-stained burnt-bone fragments; several lumps of ochre; several decorated pot sherds, likely BA beaker; coarse, thick pot sherds (likely cinerary urns or food vessels); thin-walled clay vessel sherds. Many of these objects are the sort found in BA graves—both inhumations and cremations.

Copper alloy fragments. Photo Alison Sheridan, NMS.

Cu alloy fragments from different parts of the site: UL, near SL 3; UR,near Tr 2, coast edge; bottom, near SL 2, foot of W dune.

Two faience beads: on the left a fragment from the FDS; on the right, a bead fragment from Culbin Sands.

The faience beads are very similar to some of those found at Culbin Sands, and in a collared urn burial in Findhorn Village (Shepherd and Shepherd 2001). Once thought to be imports from the Near East, it is now recognised that faience beads were being manufactured in Britain, and it is quite possible that they were being manufactured in or around Culbin Sands (Shepherd and Shepherd 2001; Sheridan and Shortland 2004). Interestingly, it is the high tin content of the faience that separates these beads from faience produced in the Near East.

A second suite of artefacts are of IA date and includes two glass beads, pictured below (I Shepherd and A Sheridan, personal communication) Though unstratified (not from intact archaeological deposits), all but one of the faience bead fragments and the cylindrical blue IA bead were found in a tight cluster. This suggests the possibility that someone in the IA had found the abandoned BA faience beads and strung them along with their own, many centuries later, only to lose them in turn. A cluster of steatite vessel sherds was found on the site, away from the bulk of the finds. To date it has not been identified to a particular period, but could equally be IA or BA. The sherds were very small and reveal little about the form of the vessel.

Two Iron Age beads. Photo Alison Sheridan, NMS.

The redeposited remains of a midden—shellfish and bone— flint tools (numerous thumb scrapers and a probable strike-a-light), large quantities of flint debitage and of fire-cracked stone suggest at least seasonal use of the site for harvesting and preparation of marine resources (possibly including wildfowl on nearby Findhorn Bay), likely in the BA.

Flint strike-a-light found near Tr D

Assorted worked flint objects. One simple arrowhead (UL); and several thumb scrapers.

Struck stone flakes. Three flint thumb scrapers in UR corner for comparison

Charcoal in samples from the OLS proved to be almost entirely very fine twigs, characteristic of the heathers that still cover much of the dune surfaces today, and so could be from a natural burn post-dating the BA occupation of the site. Larger charcoal fragments were rare. Trench 4—cut down into the top of a low dune at the south end of the site—revealed a series of buried vegetation/soil layers separated by layers of cross-bedded blown sand. These included episodes of burning, and highlight the dynamic nature of the dune surfaces and the vegetation, while not revealing any archaeology.

Radiocarbon dating would confirm whether the burnt material and OLS are contemporary with the BA or IA use of the site, or indeed post date it. Fire-cracked stones are commonly found embedded in the dark OLS.

Discussion

The diagnostic BA finds—faience beads, copper alloy, beaker sherds, copper-stained burnt bone—along with the midden, fire-cracked stones, and flint debitage suggest that this site was a gathering place—if not a settlement—connected with hunting and gathering, and also a cremation/burial site. What we cannot know yet is whether these two uses of the site were concurrent or represent different phases.

The faience bead fragments found here, along with the assumed copper-stained burnt-bone fragments, beaker sherds, and food-vessel/cinerary urn sherds suggest one or more cremations, with at least one of them roughly contemporary with the Findhorn burial, which was dated to 1880–1600 cal BC (90.9% prob.; Shepherd and Shepherd 2001). In the Findhorn burial, the turquoise staining of the burnt bone was found to be copper alloy, and it was assumed this was due to the bone being in contact with a disintegrating copper alloy object in the burial urn, though no trace of the object was found.

Treasure Trove

The Treasure Trove process, which was begun in 2008, is not yet complete, as some of the finds are in the care of the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh where they are being examined by specialists (steatite vessel sherds, beads, copper alloy fragments, and beaker sherds). I hope to complete the declaration process in the next few months.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Findhorn Dunes Trust for permission to carry out these investigations; Alison Sheridan at the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, for photographs and for her help with identification of finds; members of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society for their help over a weekend of digging (especially John Wombell, who brought a much needed portable potty); Ian Shepherd, former Council Archaeologist, Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service, who also helped with identification of finds and with Treasure Trove reporting, and especially John Bichan, who told me about the site all those years ago.

Break time on day two, which was much sunnier.

References:

Black, G.F. (1891) ‘ Report on the archaeological examination of the Culbin Sands, Elginshire, obtained under the Victoria Jubilee Gift of His Excellency Dr R H Gunning, FSA Scot ‘. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 25, 498-511

Bradley, R., Rogers, A., Sturt, F., Watson, A. (2016). Maritime havens in earlier prehistoric Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 82, 125–159

Callander, J.G. (1916) ‘Notice of a Jet Necklace found in a Cist in a Bronze Age Cemetery, discovered on Burgie Lodge Farm, Morayshire, with Notes on Scottish Prehistoric Jet Ornaments.’. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 50, 201-240

Callander, J.G. (1920) A hoard of Bronze Age implements found at Cullerne, near Findhorn, Morayshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 54, 124–131

Ross, S. (1992) The Culbin Sands—fact and fiction. Aberdeen: Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen

Shepherd, Ian A.G. (1977) Findhorn Back Shore—Erosion Site. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1977, 24.

Shepherd, I. & Shepherd, A. (2001) ‘A Cordoned Urn burial with faience from 102 Findhorn, Moray’. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131, 101–128

Sheridan and Shortland (2004) “…beads which have given rise to so much dogmatism, controversy and rash speculation”: faience in Early Bronze Age Britain and Ireland.
Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh 263–279, 0903903318.

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