Category Archives: Pictish

Rosemarkie Caves Excavations: Interpreting the results of three years of excavations – 2016 to 2018

by Steven Birch

This article is a repost from the Rosemarkie Caves Website – see original here.

June 2018 saw a strong team from the Rosemarkie Caves Project carry out a third consecutive season of excavation in a group of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. The fieldwork took place in two of the Learnie Caves, continuing the excavations to investigate cave function in Learnie 1A and Learnie 1B (Dead Horse Cave). The caves are located in the same headland below Learnie Farm, which also houses Smelter’s Cave (Learnie 2B), where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made in 2016 (see previous blog posts here and here), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metalworking.

As in previous excavations, some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th to early 20th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, sherds of window glass and worked bone/horn. The excellent preservation found in many of these caves also produced other organic remains including worked wood in Dead Horse Cave. Some of the more recognisable wood elements comprised fragments of roundwood around 6-8mm in diameter, some of which had trimmed ends. Further analysis of these finds is required, but it is possible that some of this material derives from the manufacture of baskets or fish traps. Other artefacts associated with this period of use included ceramics, bottle glass, a metal spoon, knife blades and handles, the remains of a small penknife including a part of the finely decorated bone handle, iron fittings, bone and mother of pearl buttons, several potential stone tools, and the ubiquitous clay pipe fragments. Several objects manufactured from copper alloy were also recovered including studs, pins, three low-denomination coins and fragments from an oil or paraffin lamp. In the upper levels of Learnie 1A, we recovered a large number of old shotgun cartridges, which may have been used to shoot rabbits and birds (the recent analysis of the animal bones from previous year’s excavations by Karen Kennedy has indicated high numbers of rabbit bones in the faunal assemblage from this period).

Composite pipe fragment from Learnie 1B.

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Digging the Pictish Fort at Burghead

by Anji Hancock (NOSAS)

My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent excavations.

The original fort occupied over 7 acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.

However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’  (Photo Anji Hancock)

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy MacIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy with the copper-alloy finger ring (photo Northern Picts).

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TARRADALE THROUGH TIME: community engagement with archaeology in the Highlands

by Dr Eric Grant (NOSAS)

Trench 2B at Tarradale during excavations in October 2017.

Background to Tarradale through time

This blog sets out some of the recent developments in the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project (see website), a NOSAS led project that commenced in 2017 and is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Environment Scotland and private donors. TARRADALE THROUGH TIME grew out of the earlier Tarradale Archaeological Project which is still ongoing as a mainly field walking and data gathering exercise – see Tarradale Archaeological Project blog . Field walking over the last few years has produced a great deal of data which has been recorded and mapped and the patterns emerging from mapping and analysis suggest that there were several important archaeological sites within the Tarradale study area that merited further investigation. A detailed research project was drawn up as a multiperiod investigation and given the name of TARRADALE THROUGH TIME. The sub title of the project is community engagement with archaeology in the Highlands, as one of the aims of TARRADALE THROUGH TIME is to engage with the local community in order to widen access to heritage through research and understanding and to underline the premise that archaeology belongs to the community and not just to the archaeologists who explore it. The Tarradale Through Time website can be found at www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk.

Community volunteers at the Tarradale castle site excavations, September 2017.

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the project a grant in 2017 and additional funding for specific aspects of the project was sought from Historic Environment Scotland. TARRADALE THROUGH TIME is focusing on five specific subproject areas for excavation and one subproject for detailed surface survey. These were chosen to give as wide a chronological range as possible in order to investigate the relationship between the inhabitants of the Tarradale area with their environment and landscape through time. The currently formulated subprojects are

  • investigating through test pitting and larger scale excavation Mesolithic (and potentially later) shell middens
  • a large barrow cemetery potentially dating from Bronze Age to Pictish
  • a large ditched enclosure with internal structures also likely to date from Bronze Age to Pictish
  • a small Inland promontory fort of unknown age
  • a ditch defended enclosed settlement of possible medieval date
  • the site of the historically recorded Tarradale Castle but whose exact location is unknown
  • surface survey and investigation of deserted postmediaeval agricultural townships or settlement clusters.

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Introducing Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Period Cave Burial on the Black Isle

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The Pictish period skeletal remains, c . 430 – 630 AD, of a robust young man with severe cranial and facial injuries was found by archaeologists in a cave on the Black Isle in 2016. As has been widely reported, a facial reconstruction of the man was later produced by Dame Sue Black and her team at the University of Dundee. This is an account of the story from a digger’s perspective.

The Rosemarkie Caves Project (RCP), founded and led by Simon Gunn as a part of NOSAS, has since 2006 investigated the archaeological potential of a range of 19 caves on a 2.5 mile stretch of coast north of Rosemarkie. Activities have included comprehensive surveys, test pitting and fuller excavations (see our earlier blog post for an introduction).

In September 2016 it was decided that a full two week excavation would be carried out at “Cave 2B” where previous test pitting results had been revealing some interesting results. Here animal bone and charcoal excavated from depth of over one metre had yielded calibrated radio carbon dates of 600 – 770 AD, which is generally regarded as the Pictish period in Scotland. In addition this particular cave also had an unusual built wall structure spanning its entrance. It was felt by the RCP Committee that these factors made it a prime site for more detailed excavation.

Cavefull (JMcComas)

View of the cave towards of end of the 2016 excavation. The excavation area had now been divided into quadrants. Note the substantial wall in the entrance.

The Rosemarkie Caves Project was extremely fortunate to have experienced professional archaeologist Steve Birch volunteer to direct the excavation full time. In addition Mary Peteranna was also in attendance on a number of days when her duties as Operations Manager at AOC Archaeology would allow. I had signed up as a volunteer for almost the full term along with the rest of a small but enthusiastic team.

What was meant to be the final day of the dig started like any other. We had already had a successful two weeks, having identified a potentially important iron working site. That morning I was hoping to be able take out a section in the wall entrance in pursuit of a possible slot feature there. However I was somewhat disappointed to be deployed in the NW quadrant at the back of the cave, where a cobbled surface had previously been removed and a depth of midden material still remained to be worked back. Continue reading

Rhynie Excavations Season 4 (2016)

By Cathy MacIver (on behalf of the REAP Project Team)

A fourth season of excavation took place at the Craw Stane, Rhynie over August – September 2016. The project was led by REAP Project Directors Dr Gordon Noble, University of Aberdeen and Dr Meggen Gondek, University of Chester.

Aerial photographs and geophysical surveys had identified curvilinear enclosures around the Craw Stane, one of the few symbol stones remaining in situ in Scotland (Plate 1).

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Plate 1: Craw Stane with Tap O ‘Noth hillfort (©Cathy MacIver)

Previous seasons of work at the Craw Stane (one of seven Class I Pictish symbol stones from the area) in 2011, 2012 and 2015 had demonstrated that these enclosures took the form of an inner and outer ditch and a later palisade structure with associated postholes.

Excavations in past seasons had revealed a number of high status objects including fragments of Late Roman Amphora, glass beads, metal pins, glass vessel fragments and evidence of metal working in the form of metal working tongs, slag (metal working waste) and clay moulds for metal objects. The features date the site to the early medieval period and radiocarbon dates from the ditches and other internal features confirmed a relatively short 5th-6th C construction, occupation and abandonment of the site.

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Plate 2: Rough draft of the excavations from 2011, 2012 and 2015. A work in progress!

The 2016 excavations aimed to investigate areas of the site that hadn’t been looked at before, continuing to use the successful strip and map approach employed in previous years. This involved 4 large areas or trenches (Plate 3) where the topsoil was removed by machine and watched by archaeologists. The areas were then cleaned by hand by a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers, using hoes, krafses and eventually trowels. This made archaeological features more visible and easier to record. Plans of the site were created using DGPS (accurate to the nearest cm) and aerial photography using a drone. Areas with more complexity were drawn by hand.

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Plate 3: Aerial view of the 2016 trenches

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Dun Deardail Vitrified Hillfort Excavations

by Duncan Kennedy (NOSAS)

Dun Deardail (Canmore ID: 23727, HER: MHG4348) is a hillfort located at a height of 1,127 ft (347m) on a prominent knoll on the western flank of Glen Nevis (Figure 1).  It is thought that it was originally occupied in the Iron Age, and saw later periods of reuse by the Picts.  August 2015 saw the first ever archaeological excavation of the site, as the first of three seasons of the Dun Deardail Archaeological Project, which forms part of the ambitious Nevis Landscape Partnership.

2893 Dun Deardail 2011 (copyright FCS by Caledonian Air Surveys) 2

Figure 1: Dun Deardail, centre, sits in a commanding location above Glen Nevis (©2011 FCS by Caledonian Air Surveys)

Although currently known as Dun Deardail, the site has in the past been known by a variety of names – it’s Dundbhairdghall on the 1873 OS map for example, and has also been noted as Deardinl, Dun Dear Duil and Dun Dearg Suil.  The meaning of the name is uncertain, and the site has been tenuously linked with Deirdre, a tragic heroine of Irish legend who fled to Scotland.

Dun Deardail is one of Scotland’s many vitrified forts (see also our blog post on Craig Phadrig), where the walls have been subjected to burning so intense that some of the stones have fused together.  Vitrification has been the subject of much debate, with proferred theories including it being either accidental or the result of attack. However, it requires that very high temperatures are sustained for long periods, so the fires would need to have been carefully managed and maintained – possibly for several days.  This suggests that the process must have been intentional, but questions still remain.  Were these fires built by an enemy after capturing the fort, for example, or was this a ritual act of closure of the site marking the end of its use? One thing for sure is that the fires would have been spectacular, particularly at night, and would probably have been visible for miles.  Part of the project involves the University of Stirling, in partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland, investigating the process, purpose and significance of vitrification in the Scottish Iron Age and Early Historical period.

AOC REPORT TEMPLATE 2008

Figure 2: 2015 Plan © FCS by AOC Archaeology

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Craig Phadrig Vitrified Hillfort, Inverness

The following is based on a transcript of notes by Mary Peteranna (AOC) for her presentation at the Highland Archaeology Festival Conference 2015. It describes fieldwork at Craig Phadrig hillfort carried out by AOC Archaeology in early 2015 on behalf of Forestry Commission Scotland, see Data Structure Report.

Craig Phadrig (Canmore ID 13486, HER MHG 3809) is located on the west side of lnverness, a prominent position overlooking River Ness and entrance to the Beauly/Moray Firth. The Beauly Firth marked a southern boundary of an area defined in the north by the Dornoch Firth landscape, supposedly held by the Decantae tribe in the lron Age as shown in Ptolemy’s map. Knock Farrell and Ord Hill hillforts are in line of sight, and a third possible fort is at Torvean In Inverness (Canmore ID 13549, HER MHG 3749).

2892 Craig Phadrig AP 3 (low res)

Aerial view of Craig Phadrig, Inverness, the Kessock Bridge and Ord Hill (Forestry Commission Scotland).

Craig Phadrig LANDSCAPE (low res)

A visualisation of the same scene as it might have appeared in prehistory (Forestry Commission Scotland).

Craig Phadrig is a prominent landscape feature, referred to at the time of James Vl in 1592. It is an oblong fort, a type which clusters around the Moray Firth region. Similar forts in East Scotland such as Finavon, Dunnideer and Tap o’ Noth also feature lack of entrance and massive walls suggesting an exclusive use. Many show evidence for lron Age construction, abandonment and secondary re-use.

Previous survey and excavation. Numerous previous surveys have been conducted on Craig Phadrig, probably sparked by Penant’s 1769 Tour of Scotland where he mentions vitrified stone. Plan shows the 2013 RCAHMS survey with the estimated area of these excavations.

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Craig Phadrig. Plan of fort incorporating results of RCAHMS survey (Sept 2013) and earlier surveys (Canmore).

Finally, in 1971/72 Alan Small and Barry Cottam dug for two seasons, from which only an interim report after the first season was produced. lmage of the inner rampart from 1971; Small found that the inner rampart had been built sometime in the 4th Century BC and that the wall core was significantly vitrified. He also noted significant disturbance by other earlier excavations.

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