Category Archives: Bronze Age

The Achavanich Beaker Burial Project: New Research on the Bronze Age of Northern Scotland

by Maya Hoole

In 2014, whilst working with the Highland Council Historic Environment Team, I came across the record of a Bronze Age beaker burial from Caithness in the Highland HER records (MHG13613). Although the site was discovered and subject to a rescue excavation in 1987, and some preliminary post-excavation had been undertaken, it had never been fully researched or published. The burial was positioned in a rare rock-cut pit with a stone lined cist, complete with cap stone. Inside were the remains of a young female (fondly known as Ava, her name an abbreviation of the place of discovery), aged 18-22 years old, accompanied by: a highly decorated beaker, three pieces of flint and the scapula of an ox or cow. Within seconds of opening the file and starting to read I was completely captivated. At that moment, I had no idea of the impact of my curiosity. I was totally clueless as to what was in store and completely oblivious to the fact that two years down the line my passion for the site would not only have increased but it would have extended far beyond myself.

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The project began with my own research: I sorted the paper archives, located the artefacts at the Caithness Horizons museum, and subsequently photographed, measured, recorded and illustrated them. I went on to: re-discover the exact location of the site, re-create site plans, analyse the decoration on the beaker, make comparisons on a national scale and build a database and complete record of the artefacts. I bashfully presented my findings at a couple of conferences and… then things started to get interesting. At the very heart of the project was research. The initial goal was always to find out more about the individual buried at this site and to increase our knowledge of Bronze Age society in Northern Scotland. With the help of many different organisations and individuals, I applied for funding and soon found myself talking to experts (and to BBC news reporters, twice!) who were interested in developing our understanding of the site.

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

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Tarradale Archaeological Project – Findings to Date

by Dr. Eric Grant (NOSAS)

Background to the project. The Tarradale Archaeological Project started as a private initiative around 2008 and was incorporated as an approved NOSAS research project in 2011. The Tarradale archaeological project aims to investigate and record the surviving archaeological evidence of the multi-period archaeological landscape of the Tarradale area and to interpret the chronological development of settlement and resource utilisation in the study area. The main activity of the project so far has been field walking which has been very successful and as data has been collected and analysed the parameters of the project have moved and the aims extended.

Aerial photo of Tarradale area with Tarradale house in the foreground. Tarradale Castle (destroyed 1308) was probably located above and below the steep bank in the field immediately below Tarradale House. ). (Picture by courtesy of Jim bone).

Aerial photo of Tarradale area with Tarradale house in the foreground. Tarradale Castle (destroyed 1308) was probably located above and below the steep bank in the field immediately below Tarradale House.. (Picture by courtesy of Jim bone).

1. Location and extent of the Tarradale study area. The study area comprises about 750 hectares of mainly agricultural land at the eastern end of the parish of Urray on the northern side of the inner Beauly Firth in Ross-shire. Historically the area was co-terminous with the old landholding unit of Tarradale  estate and the ecclesiastical parish of Gilchrist or Tarradale, which was a separate parish until becoming amalgamated with the parish of Urray in the late 16th The historical centre of Tarradale was the old parish church, now surviving only as a mausoleum at Gilchrist. Following the building (or rebuilding) of Tarradale House in the 17th century, Tarradale House became the administrative centre (caput) of the estate.

A large part of the area is raised estuarine beaches and that area today is flat or gently undulating high-quality agricultural land that is regularly ploughed. To the north of the former raised beaches the land rises towards the Mulbuie Ridge as undulating hillside mainly covered with boulder clay. Apart from Gilchrist Chapel and some standing stones probably erected in the Bronze Age, there are few visible archaeological monuments in the area that is intensively ploughed, although aerial photographs show cropmarks that can be interpreted as ring ditches, pits and enclosures. This contrasts with the more upland and less intensively cultivated area where there are standing monuments including Tarradale chambered cairn and an indeterminate feature which has been called a henge but is better referred to with the more general term of earthwork.

Tarradale chambered cairn

Tarradale chambered cairn

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Exploring High Pasture Cave with NOSAS

by Karen Clarke (NOSAS)

As part of a NOSAS trip organised by Beth Beresford to explore the exceptional archaeology of the Scottish Island of Skye Martin Wildgoose, and George Kozikowski guided us through Uamh an Ard Achadh (Cave of the High Field or High Pasture Cave).  Situated on the Broadford to Torrin road, it has been the focus of late Bronze and early Iron Age archaeological research.  Our guides were key members of the excavation team.  Since reading Martin Wildgoose’s excellent article in Skye Magazine 2011/2012 and hearing his colleague Steven Birch speak on the subject (both of which are major references for this blog and an article in the forthcoming NOSAS Newsletter) visiting this unique location has long been on my wish list.  It certainly proved to be one of the high-lights of an excellent weekend exploring diverse terrains across Skye with timelines extending over thousands of years as described in Martin Wildgoose’s recent blog post for NOSAS.

I am neither a geologist nor an archaeologist but enthusiastic about both disciplines and will try to do the cave justice from a civilian perspective.  I remain mindful that High Pasture Cave (HPC) was a burial place where the remains of three humans and a number of animals including, cattle, deer and a high ratio of pigs were placed.  With respect to HPC’s location within the wider landscape Martin Wildgoose emphasised how it lies within a natural amphitheatre as shown in my photograph.

High Pasture Cave Natural Amphitheatre

Martin Wildgoose’s sketch depicts how it might have appeared c600BC.  Note the pathway to the cave entrance, also the horseshoe shaped midden (rubbish tip) which contained deposits of discarded shells and other detritus.

HPC Sketch Martin Wildgoose

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Rubh’ an Dunain, Skye: 8000 Years of History

by Martin Wildgoose

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Aerial view of the Rubh’ an Dunain peninsula

Rubh an Dunain James McComas

Members of NOSAS walking towards the tackman’s house on Rubh’ an Dunain. Canna is on the skyline.

A warm sunny Sunday in early June saw NOSAS members gathering in the Glenbrittle campsite, at the foot of the Cuillin Mountains. The view south was spectacular, Canna seemed unusually close and South Uist and Barra lay in the haze on the horizon. Close at hand the Rubha an Dunain peninsular stretched out to the left of the bay with a ribbon of made-up path promising an easy walk to the point where 8000 years of Skye’s history lies exposed to view. Just an hour and a half later the group paused to enjoying a mid-morning coffee prior to crossing the Slochd Dubh (Black Hollow) where a late 18th century wall marks the boundary between Clan MacAskill and Clan MacLeod – but more of that later.

The first people to leave tangible evidence of their stay on the peninsula were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who travelled throughout the islands off the west coast of Scotland on a seasonal round, in pursuit of food and tool resources. A site excavated at Kinloch on Rum (HER MHG 3987) between 1984 and 1986*, only a day’s boat journey away to the south west, may be the winter base for these pioneers. A small rock shelter (HER MHG4898) at Rubh an Dunain, partially excavated in 1932 by W Lindsay Scott**, contained many worked stone tools and the debris from their manufacture – evidence of repeated visits to the site during this period. Additionally a recently recorded lithic scatter on a terrace close to Loch na h-Airde shows that more sites of this period await discovery (the day in fact finished with NOSAS members happily picking fragments of worked bloodstone and mudstone out of a nearby burn).

Rock Shelter Rubh an Dunain James McComas

Martin points towards Loch na h-Airde from just outside the rock shelter.

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Lament for a once Magical Place – or “the Agony of a severely traumatised pair of Archaeological Sites”

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

This is the story of two archaeological sites which have suffered severe damage through a catalogue of assaults by man in the name of “development”. The “patients”, for so they can be regarded, lie in Balblair Wood (read Ward!), near Beauly. They have received repeated injuries over the last 20 years and today are in a sad, sorry state – they have been in the wrong place at the wrong time!

BBalblair OS 1st Edition Map

Patient A is (or was) an extensive linear prehistoric site, centred on NGR NH 501444; it once comprised 13 hut circles, 2 chambered cairns, burnt mounds and a field system of clearance cairns and trailing banks occupying an area of 750m x 200m (maybe more) along the SW edge of the wood. Only 12 years ago this beautiful site with clearly identifiable features was well preserved and within open pine woods which had a mossy forest floor. The site was unusual in that it occupied a low lying river terrace quite close to the River Beauly and the Beauly Firth. It was the subject of one of the first NOSAS survey projects; see report on the NOSAS website.

Balblair survey for 2015 piece

Patient B is the fort known as Corffhouse or Lovat Bridge in the NE part of the wood, NGR NH 5135 4480, Canmore ID 12745, HER No MHG3401; it also has been the subject of a NOSAS survey.

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Bronze Age Beaker and Cist Burial in Drumnadrochit

by James McComas (NOSAS)

Latest Updates at foot of the post

Drumnadrochit, by Loch Ness. On the flat former croft land between the Rivers Coilte and Enrick a new NHS Medical Centre is under construction. In January 2015 workers on the site removed a large stone slab. Beneath the slab, undisturbed for perhaps 4000 years, were the crouched remains of an individual resting in a stone lined cist, approximately 0.7 metres deep.

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Burial Cist in Drumnadrochit (Courtesy of Mary Peteranna/ AOC)

Initially Highland Council archaeologists assessed the site, concluding it was probably bronze age.  A skull and possible femur were clearly visible, but there were no obvious sign of grave goods. However it was still clearly an significant discovery. Nothing similar had been found in Drumnadrochit before, and whilst there is a profusion of archaeological sites in the area, nothing of this antiquity is known to have been found in the flat lands around Urquhart Bay. The next step was for NHS Highland to appoint an archaeologist to excavate the burial.

I called in briefly to the site several days later to find that the archaeologists appointed were well known to NOSAS – Mary Peteranna, now of AOC, and Steve Birch. Steve was kind enough to give me a brief rundown on what they had found.  It was apparently a fairly typical stone lined cist burial of the early bronze age. The large cap stone, which had been removed by digger when clearing the area, had possibly already been broken in antiquity. There was a thickness of several cm of gravel above the cap stone before digging work began.

The cist during excavation (Courtesy of Mary Peteranna/ AOC)

The cist during excavation (Courtesy of Mary Peteranna/ AOC)

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Clava Type Cairns of the Inverness Area

by Anne Coombs (NOSAS)

Clava cairns are unique to a small area of Eastern Highlands of Scotland.  Identified originally along the valley of the River Nairn, a good start point for any tour of these sites is at Balnuaran of Clava near Culloden. Here Historic Scotland cares for a well preserved group of three circular burial cairns in a small area with a car park and interpretation panels (see the H.S. leaflet). Surrounded by trees beside the river this location can provide an atmospheric even ‘sacred’ sense of the past, especially at mid-winter or in the spring.  Two small chambered passage ‘Clava’ cairns with their associated stone circles are sited on either side of a ring cairn with its own stone circle.  The ring cairn (Highland Council HER MHG4366) appears to have been built at a similar time as the other cairns but is likely to have been used for a different purpose as it seems to have no entrance and may never have been roofed unlike the other cairns.  On the west of the site there is a later small kerb cairn part of later reuse of the cemetery 1000 years later.

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The NE Cairn at Balnuaran of Clava, as seen on a NOSAS field trip in January 2015 (Alan Thompson)

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The NE Cairn from the air (Scotavia Images)

The two chambered passage cairns (See HER MHG3013 and MHG3002) fit the ‘standard’ ‘Clava’ type with large stones on the inner and outer faces forming a kerb with a substantial fill of smaller stones between.  The passages are aligned to face the mid-winter sun at the solstice and experiments have shown that the sun arcs across the back wall of the cairn during the day.  The inner and outer facing stones have been selected carefully for size and colour and set into the cairn according to some lost pattern presumably in line with the use and beliefs of the builders of the cairns.  Many of the ‘Clava’ cairns have carefully positioned cup marked stones built into the cairns.  Some of the cup marked stones are visible on the outer face of the cairns, for all to see.  Others are hidden inside the cairn available originally only to those with access to the interior. Some stones are even placed so the cup marks are facing into the rubble fill of the cairn so only accessible to the builders and possibly a limited number of people, maybe the priests who knew their position?

The whole cairn would have had a corbelled roof.  Around the edge of each of the cairns at Clava a low platform was constructed.  The whole structure with its associated platform and stone circle was built in a single phase.  In the case of the ring cairn the platform was extended to three of the standing stones forming a sun ray appearance.  Although some of the stones of the associated stone circles are massive, investigation suggests they have relatively shallow socket holes as do all the inner and outer kerb stones of the cairns.  The stone circles provided another opportunity to include a carefully selected range of different types of stone of graded sizes.  The largest stones are often placed on the same axis as the passage facing the direction of the mid-winter solstice sun.

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