Category Archives: Archaeology by Time Period

Sarclet Harbour, Caithness

by Anne Coombs

Figure 1: Looking out to sea

Caithness at the end of the 18th century was an exciting place to be.  While maybe not the centre of the world, it was home to some of the big names of the time.  Sir John Sinclair, ‘Agricultural’ Sir John, of Ulbster is a name we should all know.  He instigated the Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland, an amazing resource which is often the first place we look for details of life in the 1780s and 90s.  His name appears in many of the forward-thinking documents of the time, not just the OSA, he was author of the General View of the Agriculture of the Northern Counties.  He was a member of the British Fisheries Society and a Trustee of the Board for the Improvement of Fisheries and Manufactures along with his near neighbours in Sutherland, George Dempster of Dunnichen, founder of Spinningdale mill, and Lord Gower, later the Marquise of Stafford and then the Duke of Sutherland. 

This group instigated several moneymaking (Improvement) schemes, one of the most successful was the development of the herring fishing industry off the coast of Caithness during the 19th century.  The British Fisheries Society was responsible for building Pultneytown immediately south of the Wick River.  It was laid out by Thomas Telford in 1786 and was so successful it became known as ‘Herringopolis’ with the harbour so full of fishing boats which meant you could walk across it without touching water.  But Pultneytown was just one of many harbours developed along the coast of Caithness during this period.

Figure 2: Storehouse, well and track to top of cliff

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Etching and engraving Pictish symbols and figures on to wood

by John Wombell

The Conan Stone on wood by John Wombell see A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

First the excuse.  I tried this in the Autumn of 2019 to boost entries for the Tarradale Through Time art competition with a new interpretation of Balblair man, on a panel long since removed from a position beside Kilmorack School to Moniack Castle.  Despite being a Mercian through and through I have lived and worked in the land of the Picts for over half a century. This, as well as being married to someone with Pictish genes for sure, has led one to develop an ongoing interest in the mysterious Picts.   Living not far away, we visited the Sueno’s stone in Forres more than once with the children many years ago.

For a decade plus I had responsibility for a number of burial grounds in Kincardine and Deeside with fine Pictish stones in them (Fordoun, Tullich and Migvie). Then came one of those special moments in archaeology; when digging at Birnie I discovered the Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble and that  kept my interest going.  Stories of discovery are rarely told unless it is the likes of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the story of the discovery of the Birnie pebble has never been told so why not now?

I had been patted on the head and set to cleaning and defining an area within what was thought to be a small Pictish house built in the ruins of a roundhouse.  What was revealed was a small setting of smooth cobbles looking like it might have been a crafting workplace.  When I first encountered the pebble it was tilted slightly on its long axis.  Fortunately that day I was in ‘careful mode’ and as soon as the top edge of the pebble was revealed it was clearly quite different and it looked like quartz or quartzite.  I left it firmly in place and carefully cleaned away another cm or so of sand from round about it. It continued to look interesting so I called over Alan Braby, who’s trench I was in, for a look see.   Alan came over, peered at the pebble, plucked it out of the sand and asked me if I had a wee brush of some kind, which I had.  Then he cleaned the pebble off and said ‘have you any idea what this is?’  ‘Haven’t a clue,’ I replied, ‘other than a finishing stone for some kind of craft work maybe’.   So then he showed me the feint decoration on the stone that was becoming clearer as the pebble dried out.  Well Alan says, ‘it is a Painted Pictish Pebble and the first to be discovered on the South side of the Moray Firth.’ Then we realised that it was decorated on both sides.   It was most exciting day.

Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble

Painted Pictish Pebbles are rare artefacts and most have been found at Caithness and Shetland broch sites.  They are at the very bottom of the Pictish art spectrum and I remain convinced that the designs on them reflect the Picts knowledge of cup and ring marked rocks, which in Pictish times would have been far more numerous than today.  Since then I have never stopped looking for blanks of the same size and shape and they are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Beach pebbles of quartz tend to be rounded and if oval they tend to be too large and too heavy.  The nearest I have found are quartzite and the replica I made of the Birnie pebble is on such a blank.  There is plenty of information on Painted Pictish Pebbles free online.

Selection of painted pictish pebbles from Shetland.

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Was there mineral extraction in the Highlands in prehistoric times?

by Jonathan Wordsworth

The recent Zoom lecture by Matthew Knight on the Late Bronze Age Hoard found in a peat cutting behind Poolewe in 1877  (the talk can be viewed on the Gairloch Museum Youtube channel at Poolewe: The last Bronze Age hoard in Scotland? by Dr Matthew Knight) and the recent Feats of Clay project (http://archhighland.org.uk/feats-of-clay.asp) led by ARCH relating to a metal-working site with rare clay mould fragments found during excavations at Bellfield, North Kessock, demonstrate bronze casting was occurring in the Highlands.  Together with the Stittenham Axe Mould these are important finds for Late Bronze Age Scotland.

Stittenham Axe Mould © ARCH

But this is a speculative blog examining the possibility that there might have been copper and other ores extracted in the Highlands during the Bronze Age and is meant to stimulate research by NOSAS members on some of the ore sources.  While current research has not identified any prehistoric mining in Scotland, except possibly in South West Scotland, there is certainly nothing on the scale of the Great Orme mine in North Wales. The received wisdom is that the copper and other metals alloyed with it such as tin, zinc and to a lesser extent lead, were brought into the area as ingots from metal extracted from elsewhere in the British Isles or from further afield in continental Europe.  Recent metallurgical analyses have shown very mixed compositions for the metal tools and the recent work on the Poolewe Hoard shows at least 5 different mixes of metals to produce the surviving material (see the research results at https://www.academia.edu/44587605/Poolewe_The_last_Bronze_Age_hoard_in_Scotland).

Certainly by the end of the Bronze Age it is likely that a variety of broken or discarded objects would be thrown into the mix for melting down, making it difficult to identify the original ore source from trace element analysis.

Copper Ore in the Highlands

However research over a number of years by the British Geological Survey has mapped extensive copper ore sources in Wester Ross and some of these have even been looked at commercially (e.g. https://resources.bgs.ac.uk/meiga_reports/meiga/ae173.txt) and the ‘gossan’ at Gairloch is even used as the frontispiece for the British Geological Survey report Minerals in Britain – Copper (which can be viewed online at https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/downloads/start.cfm?id=1324)

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The Demolition of a Cruck-Framed Building near Beauly

by Roland Spencer-Jones

Fig 1: Removing the corrugated iron reveals a modern timber roof and a cruck-frame

In early June 2020, I became aware that a neighbour on the braes below me was doing up an old cottage, with a 1970’s extension, that he had inherited from his father. He was one of four children brought up in the old cottage in the 1960’s. Once he had removed the corrugated iron roof from the cottage, a peat and heather roof was revealed. When that was removed a wooden cruck-frame appeared. I showed a photo (fig 1) to colleagues who immediately suggested that I should survey and record it. Cruck-framed buildings are not so common these days. There was additional interest in that the cruck-frame had been overlaid by a more modern roof and that the building is likely to be demolished.

Extract of 1:250000 OS map showing location of Ruisaurie crofting settlement. ©Ordnance Survey

How old is it? The online Lovat Estate maps show that the braes above, ie W of, Beauly were increasingly brought into crofting, gradually extending into moorland, between the mid-18th century and the early part of the 19th century. According to those maps, one of the crofts, Ruisaurie, had two croft numbers in 1757, eight numbers in 1798-1800, seventeen in 1823 and twenty-four in 1839. The crofts increased by both being sub-divided, and by new croft settlements being established on the higher ground. Confusingly, the numbering of the crofts changed over time, although by 1876 the croft numbering had become established to reflect the croft numbering now.

Fig 3: Extract of 1876 map showing extent of the Ruisaurie 11A croft © Lovat Highland Estates Ltd.

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Raigmore Hospital, Inverness: From EMS to NHS

by Marion Ruscoe

Raigmore Hospital, 1948 © HES (Aerofilms Collection)

Raigmore Hospital was erected as part of the Emergency Medical Scheme (EMS) on part of  the Raigmore estate and opened in 1941.  The Emergency Medical Scheme was established to provide adequate medical facilities for expected wartime casualties and Raigmore was one of seven new hospitals built during the war.  They were all built to a standard design, but because of restrictions in the use of timber and steel, the buildings at Raigmore were brick, single storey and flat roofed.  An aerial photograph, taken in 1948, of the new hospital shows the layout to the south of Raigmore House on the east side of Inverness.   There were 16 individual wards and an isolation unit providing about 670 beds.  Staff accommodation was provided at the north-west corner of the site and a further collection of individual blocks between the staff accommodation and the wards housed administration, kitchens, dining rooms, laboratories and other services.

After the war, Raigmore continued to provide hospital services to Inverness and the surrounding area along with, principally, the R.N.I., Culduthel Hospital and Hilton Hospital but by the 1960s the facilities in Inverness were not meeting modern needs and in 1962 plans for a new general hospital to serve Inverness were put in place.   As an EMS hospital Raigmore was never designed to last for ever.  By 1966 work had begun on the new hospital for the Highlands and it was decided that it had to be at Raigmore, because that was where there was enough space to develop the facilities.  Phase 1 of the development was opened in 1970.  It incorporated the Outpatients Department, laboratories, pharmacy, physiotherapy and records.  Dr. James Bruce, who in 1947 was appointed consultant biochemist, finally got the new laboratory that he was promised at interview.

An aerial view of the hospital in 1972 shows Phase 1 at the bottom of the photo, but the original hospital buildings are still there and in use.  When comparing this view with the earlier view taken in 1948 the only other differences are that the walled garden has become part of the hospital car park, and the College of Nursing has been built to the right of the wards.

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Barrow-Loads of Barrows: Excavating a Monumental Pictish Cemetery at Tarradale on the Black Isle

by Eric Grant

Drone aerial photo showing barrows of different sizes and shapes (Drone photo: Andy Hickie)

In the first three weeks of September 2019 volunteers from the North of Scotland Archaeological Society supported by members of the local community excavated a suspected Pictish cemetery in a field near Tarradale House. Aerial photographs had previously shown the possible existence of a number of barrow graves in the area but there was little to see on the surface as the mounds had been almost totally ploughed away but their surrounding ditches appeared as ghostly outlines on the aerial photographs. A small, but growing, number of barrow cemeteries has been identified in Scotland but only a few excavated. Aerial photographs show the remains of at least 28 square and round barrows at Tarradale making it currently the second largest burial ground of this type in Scotland. The site could originally have been more extensive as parts of it have either been ploughed out or are too deeply buried to show in aerial photographs. Recent high-resolution photographs taken by drone have suggested the existence of more barrows towards the perimeter of the field and possibly into an adjacent field. Our excavations showed that Tarradale was a barrow cemetery of monumental proportions and potentially one of the most important in Scotland.

Although we are still waiting for radiocarbon dates from the Tarradale excavation, the presence of round and square barrows and their spacing and distribution leaves little doubt that we are dealing with a Pictish cemetery potentially from the 5th or 6th century AD, an important period in the formation of early kingdoms in northern Britain. Tarradale lies in the eastern side of Ross-shire on the Beauly Firth and only six miles from Craig Phadrig, an important stronghold and regional capital in the Kingdom of Fortriu. Part of this centralisation of power was reflected in the creation of monumental cemeteries and Tarradale may have been the burial place of the local elite. No Pictish symbol stones have been found at Tarradale, although symbol stones, including cross slabs with symbols on them have been found in adjacent parishes, the nearest being the recently discovered Conan stone three miles from Tarradale. However, in the same field as the barrow cemetery, a fortified settlement was excavated in the 1990’s; no primary dating evidence for the Picts was obtained but on stylistic grounds pottery from the fortified site has been dated to between AD 300-800 so this may well be the settlement focus of some of the people buried nearby.

Plan of barrow cemetery trenches (plan by Steve Birch)

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David’s Fort Revisited – and a Strange Coincidence?

By Meryl Marshall

With movements restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic it was inevitable that I would find myself at David’s Fort, near Conan House, just 2kms from my home. This impressive earthwork, variously interpreted as a “motte”, a “moated homestead” (OS map) and a “moated site” has received lots of attention from NOSAS in the past, see Marion Ruscoe’s blog of 2016, but the site remains as mysterious as ever. I was pleased to see that the area is much more open than it used to be, but the surrounds are rapidly becoming overgrown with scrubby brambles, broom and whins. The visit set me thinking once again about the origins and history of the site, with more time at home I set about some online investigations.

David’s Fort (Canmore ID: 12866, Highland Council HER: MHG8986) is at NGR NH 5394 5328 and consists of an impressive wet ditch 4m deep enclosing a trapezoidal area measuring 25m from N to S and 26m to 32m transversely. The ditch is enclosed by an external bank standing up to 3m height but 1.5m externally. Internally the only feature visible is a circular depression 7m in diameter and 1m in depth in the western half; traces of what may have been a bridge spanning the ditch on the west side have also been reported (June 1979) The moat still contains water and was originally fed by a waterway running from an artificially constructed pond possibly of more recent origin 100.0m to the east, to a cut in the bank at the NE corner.

The site is located on the forested slope above the River Conon 1km to the east of Conan House. It is close to what, in the Medieval period, was a crossing of the River Conon. Here too was the old church of Logiebride (or Logie Wester), and the site of the Battle of Lagabraad in 1481. This area, at the “neck” of the Black Isle, will almost certainly have been a meeting point of routeways for centuries, if not millennia.

David’s Fort looking SW

A processed image of Davids Fort from a lidar survey (contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0) © A Thompson. This model has also been uploaded to Sketchfab and can be seen in 3D at https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/davids-fort-d26cbff5d5184af18d157f7b6be94dad

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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. Continue reading

Droning on about Tarradale

by Andy Hickie

Drone image of Tarradale Through Time barrow cemetery dig, as featured in “Current Archaeology” November 2019.

Back in 2017, I caved in to the demands of consumerism, and purchased a new quadcopter, a Phantom 3 Advanced, which is equipped with a camera and GPS unit. I flew multiple flights around Avoch but, after a while, the novelty of seeing one’s house from the air at different angles and altitudes begins to wear thin, and I began to wonder what I could actually do with a drone. Having always had an interest in archaeology and, spurred on by seeing some of the images Alan Thompson of NOSAS had created, I decided to carry out a few experiments of my own.

My first flights took in locations such as the distillery and settlement at Mulchaich, and the features of Kinbeachie castle – sites which had already been mapped by Alan by drone, the results of which I could use as a ‘benchmark’ against which I could compare those of my own.

At the same time, I began experimenting with various flight planning apps which allow for off-line autonomous flight planning, as well as online platforms for image processing. I found that “DroneDeploy” and “Mapsmadeasy” combined provided a fairly user-friendly pipeline, whereby image capture and photogrammetry can produce georeferenced photomosaics and digital surface models (DSMs). These can then be imported into software such as QGIS for further processing.

Having found the software which satisfied my needs, I then turned my attention to potential sites which I could map – and decided on the cropmarks of the Barrow Cemetery at Tarradale. At this point, my intent was purely to satisfy my own curiosity – just to see what I could see, and how it would compare with the archaeology found at the forthcoming 2019 dig.

And so, on 10 June 2018, accompanied by my daughter Emma to act as co-pilot and “spotter”, I visisted Tarradale to map the area with the drone. I can still recall the excitement I felt as the images began to appear on the monitor of the remote controller, which showed the cropmarks were developing. However, my satisfaction was tempered somewhat when I got home and began to process the photographs. Although the cropmarks were indeed evolving, the crop was insufficiently ripe, and many of the details remained hidden (see image below).

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Pictish Eagles and the Strathpeffer Stone

by John Wombell (NOSAS)

There are 12 known Pictish Eagle carvings, all in the RCAHMS publication of 2008 ‘The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland’.  They vary considerably and by far the best known and the best preserved is on the Clach an Tiompain at Strathpeffer (HER MHG43542) meaning the ‘sounding stone’ but known more widely as the Eagle Stone.

There are many images of it in circulation but a week ago I took a new set of photos which Alan Thompson kindly processed for me using photogrammetry (see images above and below, as well as on Sketchfab).  The reason behind this was that I wanted to try to produce an engraving of it on wood and needed to see more detail that is not visible to eye or touch at the stone.

The Eagle Stone has had several lumps bashed off it in the past removing part of the horse shoe symbol and the eagle’s rear end.  Otherwise damage to the carving is minimal with only part of the eagle’s leading leg either fallen or bashed off.

My dilemma was whether to give the eagle a tail or not.  I feel sure that unlike most Pictish eagles this one was drawn from a live eagle depicted walking.  It is correct in a lot of detail even though the carving is full of symbolism.  I decided to give my version a short dipped tail represented as two feathers after one of the Orkney eagles. Continue reading