Category Archives: Neolithic

A Year of Highland Archaeology

by James McComas (NOSAS)

A Year of Highland Archaeology book cover, showing Tarradale Through Time excavation trench with the settings of a possible stone hut. The same trench yielded several rare antler tools.

NOSAS has just published A Year of Highland Archaeology: A Collection of the Projects and Activities of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society . This new book includes 10 articles which explore some of the diverse recent projects that we has been involved with. These range from large scale funded excavations through to group surveys and small scale research projects. They highlight Highland locations from the west to the east coast, from Speyside to Sutherland.

Projects featured include the lottery funded Tarradale Through Time Project, which in 2017 saw 6000 year old antler tools uncovered near Muir of Ord on the Black Isle.  These very rare finds included the remains of a harpoon point and two “T axes” left behind by hunter gatherers on the shores of the Beauly Firth. The T axes are two of only five examples so far known in the whole of Scotland. The trench where these were found also tantalisingly revealed the possible stone setting of a Mesolithic hut. Tarradale Through Time continues in Autumn 2019 with the excavation of potentially one of the largest barrow cemeteries in Scotland (further information at www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk).

One of rare antler “T axes” found during Tarradale Through Time’s 2017 excavations.

Another chapter focuses on Torvean Hillfort, a neglected structure on the edge of Inverness. Torvean was perhaps constructed more than 2000 years ago, but it is today sadly under threat from persistent trail bike damage. A different chapter tells the much more positive story of how a collection of 400 historic maps relating to the Lovat Highland Estates, covering extensive areas west of Inverness, have now been scanned and made available online.

Map of Torvean Hillfort, Inverness showing destructive trail bike tracks

A different chapter still focuses on the NOSAS’s work with Scotland’s Rock Art Project. ScRAP aims to log as many as possible of the mysterious carved “cup marks” which appear on Scotland’s boulders and rock faces over a 5 year project. The precise date of these carvings, of which there are many good examples in the Highlands, is unknown but they are thought to have been mainly created in the Neolithic period around 6,000 to 4,000 years ago. Other archaeological locations explored in the book include Ormond Castle in Avoch, a prehistoric roundhouse landscape in Glen Urquhart, and Gruinard Island in Wester Ross.

3D Photogrammetry model of cup marked stone at Kinmylies, Inverness

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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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Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP): An Update

by Alan Thompson (NOSAS)

Led by Dr Tertia Barnett, ScRAP is a five-year project which “aims to enhance understanding and knowledge of Scotland’s rock art through community co-production and research”.

NOSAS has been involved with the project since it began (see previous post), and members have tested and contributed to the design of the fieldwork during the pilot phase. For some time now we have been clear to make progress with the fieldwork, and as a result we are getting to know the prehistoric rock art in our area and beginning to appreciate its many different forms.

For our members, the attractions of rock art and of the ScRAP project are many, indoor and outdoor, group and individual. The challenge of making sense of the records in Canmore and the local HER; the challenge of finding the panels, known as well as new; fossicking (prospecting); cleaning and recording on site; examining the 3D models to confirm or amend our field observations; and getting a panel firmly and correctly on the record.

The process is now well established, and ScRAP has an excellent website at www.rockart.scot.

This blog post is an opportunity to present a few of the more interesting panels we have recorded to date, along with some personal observations.

Some Examples

When most people hear about ‘cup and ring boulders’ they think of the famous panels at Kilmartin – wide, flat outcrops of smooth rock onto which cups with multiple concentric rings have been carved. Few panels in our area are like this, but we will start first with one that is, at Easter Backlands of Roseisle.

Easter Backlands of Roseisle

This sandstone panel is both damaged and worn, but the rings around at least 9 and possibly 11 cups can be seen.  One cup has 3 concentric rings, and three others have two. Looking more closely the radial grooves which go out from some of the cups are also visible.

Easter Backlands of Roseisle

More typically in our area we find one or more simple cups generally on the highest point on rough (medium grained) schist boulders; for example Balnafoich 2.

Balnafoich 2

Balnafoich 2 is a large boulder of schist, 4.3 m by 3.0 m by 1.5 m high, with three well formed cups at its highest points. The panel is on an east facing slope, near to the confluence of the Rivers Nairn and Farnach (just visible in the background). It is one a group of four panels. A few meters away is Balnafoich 1 which is a flat slab of schist, flush with the ground. It boasts 25 cups and is quite different in character to its neighbour. Continue reading

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

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

Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) – Progress so far

SCRAP banner

The story of the Project and NOSAS’s involvement up to the end of May 2017

by Alan Thompson (NOSAS)

Background to the Project and NOSAS involvement

Scotland’s Rock Art Project is a five-year project to record and research prehistoric rock art. The scheme is run by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The aim of the project is to improve understanding and awareness of Scotland’s rock art through research.  In order to research the carvings, we need to first develop a comprehensive, detailed record of where they are and what they look like.

As many of you will already know, NOSAS is a partner in this project.  Our specific role in 2017 is to work with Tertia Barnett and her team to pilot and test the recording methods to be used.  Beyond that we will be one of a number of Community groups recording rock art across Scotland.

As with all such projects, there is a challenge in ensuring that small groups, working independently in the field, make their records in a sufficiently consistent and comprehensive way that the results are meaningful for analysis by Tertia and her academic partners.

Tertia has extensive experience in recording rock art in England, including in the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project (NADRAP).  At that time photogrammetry was still somewhat specialised and could only be used selectively, but despite that some great results were obtained demonstrating that rock art is an ideal subject for photogrammetry.  The progress of technology since then means that our project will major on the use of photogrammetry – we intend that all panels (each discrete exposure of a piece of rock art is called a panel) should be recorded this way.

Tertia also plans an App for recording, the idea being similar to that used by the Scharp/Scape project which some of you have used.  That will take a little time to specify and program, and so in the meanwhile (for the pilot work) we are using paper forms.

Discussing how to record this CMS. (Photo Anne Cockroft)

NOSAS Involvement in the Pilot Project

NOSAS has committed to work with Tertia to record enough panels in our local area in 2017 to fully test the methods she is developing.  35 members have indicated an interest and most of these have already become involved.  If other members are interested they should contact John Wombell or Alan Thompson.

Progress to date

The project is now underway.  We have held two ‘familiarisation’ afternoons at Clava, plus training sessions with Tertia at Dingwall and Drumore. Continue reading

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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