Category Archives: Iron Age

Initiating CAERoS: Coastal Archaeology and Erosion in Wester Ross

by Stephanie Piper, Newcastle University (stephanie.piper@newcastle.ac.uk)

In April 2019 myself, two Master’s students from Newcastle University – Callum Hardman and Holly Holmes, and Paco Martínez-Sevilla, a colleague from Durham University, based ourselves in Poolewe to begin a week-long walk-over survey of the coastline around Loch Ewe. The aims of the survey were to:

  1. Establish the potential of eroding coastlines to yield early prehistoric sites in the north-west Highlands.
  2. Contribute to active monitoring of archaeological sites at risk of erosion.

Why were we drawn to this remote part of the Scottish Highlands? Precisely because it is remote! The evidence for early prehistoric occupation is sparse across much of the Highland region. For example, there is no evidence for Mesolithic occupation along the coast between Redpoint, in Gairloch parish, and Smoo Cave, Durness parish (although this has not been fully confirmed). By contrast, the coasts around the Inner Sound of Skye and Applecross were intensively surveyed by the Scotland’s First Settlers project from 1998. The project identified over 130 new archaeological sites, including the Mesolithic rockshelter site at Sand, Applecross. We felt sure that the absence of sites to the north was due to a lack of research, primarily because of the remoteness of the region and lack of ‘visible’ archaeology, rather than an absence of people in the past. CAERoS was therefore initiated to investigate the next stretch of coastline, north of where Scotland’s First Settlers had finished and with the hope of finding further evidence for Mesolithic coastal occupation.

As this was just the start, our methodology was simple: walk, and look. I spent several years during my postgraduate degrees working on a project in the Western Isles with Durham University. During the field seasons, we identified a number of Mesolithic sites exposed by coastal erosion (two on Harris, and three around the Bhaltos peninsula in Lewis). Because early prehistoric sites are often deeply buried under peat or machair, they are invisible to traditional means of initial identification such as a field-walking, and are so ephemeral they rarely respond to geophysics. The destruction caused by erosive processes therefore provides opportunities to investigate hidden archaeology, including early buried landscapes. This then, was to be our ‘window’ to the past, and we struck out across the headlands to observe and record any archaeology within c.50m of the coastline using the ShoreUpdate App, developed by the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk project (SCHARP).

Fig.1 Exploring the circular stone structures and raised beach deposits at An Sean Inbhir

On the first day, we walked west, covering the stretch from Cove Battery to Camas Mor. We noted several sites along the way, including circular stone structures and modern fisherman’s bothies at An Sean Inbhir (Fig.1), a turf-covered wall at NG763921, which is probably associated with the abandoned township and head dyke at Camustrolvaig, and a sheepfold built against a rocky outcrop at NG805925. The building recorded at Camas A’Chall wasn’t identified, nor does it appear on the current OS map. By far the most interesting aspect of this stretch was the World War II memorial and three abandoned lifeboats (centred on the memorial at NG796926, Fig. 2). The memorial is in commemoration of those who lost their lives after the American Liberty Ship USS William H. Welch ran aground at Foura Island, on 26th February 1944. The plaque is also dedicated to local community members who were involved in the rescue efforts. The plaque does not appear in the HER and the abandoned lifeboats are at serious risk, situated in the intertidal zone. These have been logged with SCHARP who are very interested in incorporating them into a future project. If anyone happens to be in the area and visit them, it would be worthwhile continuing to take photographs of their condition.

Fig.2 The memorial at Cove, and barely-surviving lifeboats (midground, left)

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Tarradale Through Time: 2018 Excavations

by Eric Grant

In September 2018 two sites were investigated by TARRADALE THROUGH TIME near Muir of Ord. These were a fortified enclosure just west of Gilchrist church and a rather enigmatic and possibly ritual site south of Gilchrist church, but located on Balvattie Farm.

Gilchrist Promontory Fort

The Gilchrist fort is a rather unusual monument  and walking past it gives no clue to its existence, size or age. Canmore describes it as a promontory fort based on their interpretation of crop marks as the arcs of three concentric ditches “Apparently designed to cut off approach to a tongue of low-lying and comparatively level ground running NW into marshland, they are in effect part of the defensive system of a promontory fort measuring about 85 m by 30 m”.

In addition to the black-and-white photographs on the Canmore database, the late Jim bone, who was an enthusiastic archaeologist and also a pilot, took some good colour photographs of the site. Jim’s aerial photograph shows three dark green curved features representing the fort’s ditches on the east side of the promontory. The ditches are now under cultivation and have been filled in and ploughed flat so there is nothing to see above ground; it is only the aerial photographs that have encouraged archaeologists to see this as a fortified promontory. It is unusual to find a promontory fort inland unless it is in a situation like this where it is surrounded by water or marshland. Most hill and promontory forts in Scotland appear to have been constructed during the late Bronze Age and Iron Age and the latest ones were built or reoccupied in Pictish times.

Aerial photograph of Gilchrist showing ditches as dark green curves (JS Bone Collection)

Our research agenda sought to identify and characterise the ditches, and to ascertain when the fort was constructed, how long it was occupied and what activities may have taken place there. Three large trenches were initially opened, one running at right angles across the defensive ditches, a second running from the long side of the fort down into the bog and a third on the highest part of the interior of the fort. We were very quickly able to establish that the three ditches seen on aerial photographs did exist, with a hint of a fourth ditch closer into the fort. The outermost ditch was reasonably shallow but the second ditch was a massive construction 5-6 m wide at the top and sloping steeply to about 1.5 m below the plough soil though we consider that the upper part of the ditches have been lost due to ploughing and the intervening banks of excavated material flattened. The third innermost ditch was not quite so deep, but right on the edge of the actual fort area we found what may be an inner ditch that might have continued round the fort perimeter as a wall and perhaps with a timber fence palisade on top or just in front.

Plan of Gilchrist excavations showing crop marks and trenches (HAS)

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Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past

by Susan Kruse (ARCH and NOSAS)

Thanks to funding from Historic Environment Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, ARCH launched an exciting project ‘Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past’ in October 2017. The project had three main strands. In the first year, 13 experimental archaeology days and 10 school visits took place where craftspeople demonstrated and explained different technologies used in the past. The workshops were filmed and the edited videos and blogs for each workshop can be accessed on the ARCH website.

Jim Glazzard at the Viking ring silver workshop

In the second year, the objects resulting from these workshops will then be used to create loans boxes which will be freely available to borrow. Our workshop leaders often generously provided more than one object. An archaeologist and teacher will now work together to create learning materials, so that the loans box and videos of the experimental sessions can be used in schools and other groups. The project already has attracted a wide and diverse audience, and we hope that the loans boxes will also contribute to this legacy.

The idea for the project emerged from North Kessock & District Local History Society’s Feats of Clay project, where ARCH helped facilitate a visit by Neil Burridge who demonstrated Bronze Age metalworking. Everyone in the audience was caught up in the excitement of the day, and learned so much about how objects were made, what raw materials were needed, and how craftsmen in the past managed without gauges and modern equipment.

Neil Burridge at the Bronze Metaworking workshop

In the first year 13 workshops took place, one a month, each showcasing a skill from the past, spanning from earliest settlers to more recent times. The workshops were exciting to attend, but were also filmed. Continue reading

Clachtoll Broch Excavations 2017: Part Two

by Dave McBain (Historic Assynt)

Image: AOC Archaeology.

Three months ago, I was asked to write a piece on the Clachtoll excavation (see the post here), and when I was asked to do a follow up, I thought it would be best to have a look back and see where to start from. That was a revelation. When I penned the last piece,  we were a month in, enjoying every minute and let’s be brutally honest – not finding too many artefacts.

As time went on, we dug deeper, the finds became more frequent – much more frequent and in amongst it all, a mini dig on top of the Split Rock and the creation of a corbelled cell (soon, we hope,  to be otter holt) made for a fantastic summer.

So much to share, so few words – so let’s not waste any more.

View of 3d model of the broch towards the end of excavation, Sep 2017.

I suggested that the occupants may have had sheep or goats in my last blog report – we can confirm those sheep, from some of the bones found. Curiously, if a good few years later, Ptolemy’s map of Scotland listed the people of the North West as Caereni – or “sheep people”. I can only wonder if it was those same Caereni who built the Broch?

There were also cattle, pig, deer, whale, seal and possibly boar bones recovered on the site. I am pleased however, to report that to the best of my knowledge, no human bones came from the site, so we can hope our Caereni survived the collapse.

Clachtoll has turned out to be something amazing. Although several hundred brochs were built around Scotland, most it seems, fell gradually out of use before being abandoned. Finding another that collapsed dramatically in the iron age is a bit like searching for hens’ teeth. What we uncovered this summer was a two thousand year old time capsule. One has to wonder if one of the thousand plus visitors to the site was H.G. Wells time traveller looking for an update?

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Digging in to digital – A summer of photogrammetry in Orkney

by Jim Bright

Standing in Structure 1 while undertaking photogrammetry

I have just completed undertaking an MSc in Archaeological Practice at the Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands. This entails completing a placement and as my specialisation and undergraduate dissertation has been researching the use of digital techniques to record and disseminate our heritage, the placement would offer an ideal opportunity to test some techniques in the field.

After discussions with site directors Martin Carruthers and Nick Card, I was offered the opportunity to work throughout the season at both The Cairns and Ness of Brodgar excavations. This would enable me to make 3D models of trenches and structures during different phases of excavation. I could also develop my skills with creating models of small finds, the idea being that there could be 3D models of items made just as they have been excavated, or while in-situ. I wanted to identify the value of having what could be termed as a ‘digital archaeologist’ on a site for the entire duration of an excavation, primarily using the photogrammetry technique, and working on these sites throughout the summer would provide the opportunity to do this.

Before I go in to detail about how I undertook the digital work at both sites, I’ll give a little bit of background information into the excavations. The Cairns was the first excavation where I was to undertake digital work. These excavations overlook Windwick Bay in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, and were undertaken from 12th June to 7th July 2017 with previous excavations having taken place from 2006-2010 and 2012-2015.

View from inside the broch during excavation season 2017 at The Cairns

Initially, excavations took place in order to confirm the presence of a souterrain which had been described in a 1903 text, and during the 2006 excavation season, evidence of what is described as a ‘massive roundhouse’ was uncovered, which today is considered to be a broch or broch like building. The excavation is primarily concerned with the Iron Age period, however evidence of Neolithic activity is also present.

The second excavation where digital recording took place was at The Ness of Brodgar, situated on an isthmus between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, in Stenness, Orkney. This site is positioned between the lochs of Stenness and Harray and lies within the inner buffer zone of the World Heritage Site known as the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’. I expect many will be familiar with this site due to its numerous appearances on the television, most recently on the BBC documentary, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney. Excavations have taken place here since 2003, after geophysical surveys in 2002 revealed the extent of a large structure and areas of interest. Today the Ness of Brodgar is arguably the most significant Neolithic site in Britain. Continue reading

Clachtoll Broch Excavations 2017: The First Month

by Dave McBain (Historic Assynt)

Exterior view of the broch

The excavation at Clachtoll broch has been running for just over a month and with each passing day, the excitement seems to be growing. Clachtoll ticks so many boxes in this aging student’s checklist, it’s hard not to ramble on about it.

Carbon dating tells us that two thousand years ago, someone piled stones forty odd foot high – current estimates from the amount of rubble put the broch at 12-14 metres.  I’m far from a pro and not a great judge of distance, so like to describe that as a little higher than a three-storey house. What were they thinking? Was Clachtoll a key location on the West coast in the iron age? Why put what is surely the largest broch on the West coast there?

Image of 3D Model, created from photos taken 29th July (James McComas). Full model at the foot of the post.

The excavation is a community run project. After some frankly amazing fundraising, Historic Assynt have raised enough to get in a team of professionals for not just the dig, but a series of workshops, site tours, a little bit of experimental archaeology – next week, a corbelled cell will be built and potentially some local otters may get a new home as an outcome and most importantly it will result in a legacy attraction (complete with new path created from the spoil heap) for future visitors.

Then there’s the manner of the collapse. Most broch’s fell out of use gradually. For one reason or another, their occupants abandoned them, died out or may even have been removed. Many have suffered a gradual collapse over the years – in some cases tens of centuries after their initial construction.

The belief is, that Clachtoll is different. Like many others it collapsed, but in Clachtoll it might have been catastrophic, contemporary, and conclusive enough to prevent re-entry or re-use. Continue reading