Category Archives: Pictish

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.

Rosemarkie Man fully revealed (J McComas)

Rosemarkie Man fully revealed.

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.

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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).

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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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NOSAS in Forres: A Visit to the Medieval Burgh

by Dr John R Barrett

Forres folk are suspicious of strangers – and especially suspicious of foreign strangers who pretend to know something about Forres history. And I should know. Having worked as an archivist in the royal burgh for barely thirty years, and lacking at least three Forresian grandparents, I am still a couple of generations short of qualifying as any kind of expert on Forres history.

And Forres is suspicious of people from the North. Long local memories recall a time when Moray held the front line against the Vikings; and longer memories of local independence are now reinforced by academic research that places Pictish Fortriu in Moray (or Moray in Fortriu) – the Pictish kingdom persisting as the heartland of the Cenel Loarn branch of the Dalriadan Scots.

But, despite this history (and also because of it) I rashly accept an invitation to guide NOSAS around the royal burgh.

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We choose a day of icy wind and leaden skies. We gather in a draughty car park for the prelims (safety check, head count, toilet break). And then there are the necessary explanations: this will be a walk in feet and inches – a concession to my age, and also because (notwithstanding modern archaeological practice) the place was built to an older yardstick.

We note the regular snaking roods[i] of burgh biggid land that curve sinuously from high street frontage to head dyke (at the foot of the feu) with back passage beyond.  The linked head-dykes formed a continuous wall to define (if not effectively defend) the liberties of the burgh. Beyond extended unfenced commonfield arable, with pasture and peatbog to support the burgh community. On the north side the burgh was originally defined by the Mosset Burn. And even after the Burn abandoned its medieval course, cautious burgh notaries conservatively continued to draft sasines by reiterating the descriptions contained in older deeds – defining feus by the old run of the river.

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The Picts at Garbeg and Whitebridge

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The Pictish people of the mid to late first millenium AD once inhabited what is now northern and eastern Scotland. They left very little written record and the evidence of buildings so far identified are sparse. Perhaps their most obvious remains in the landscape are the enigmatic symbol stones and the imprints of their burial sites.

Although modern Angus and Perthshire have traditionally been seen as the Pictish heartland, in recent years new research is reveavaluating the importance of the northern picts, north of the Mounth. Two highland burial sites which feature impressive upstanding remains are to be found on opposite sides of Loch Ness; at Garbeg near Drumnadrochit, and at Whitebridge in Stratherrick. Pictish funerary practices appear to have been diverse (see our earlier blog post), however barrow* cemeteries have been identified as one recognisable form. Round and square type ditched barrows appear alongside each other at both Garbeg and Whitebridge – a feature thought to be unique to the Pictish cemetery.

Side by side comparison of a plan of part of the Garbeg cemetery and a quadcopter aerial photo by Alan Thompson. (The brown patches on the photo are the result of recent gorse clearance, and dark green areas are piles of cut vegetation.) The barrows excavated by Wedderburn and Grime on this plan are nos 1,2,3 and 8.

Side by side comparison of a plan of part of the Garbeg cemetery and a quadcopter aerial photo by Alan Thompson. (The brown patches on the photo are the result of recent gorse clearance, and dark green areas are piles of cut vegetation.) The barrows excavated by Wedderburn and Grime on this plan are nos 1,2,3 and 8.

Garbeg and Whitebridge were visited by NOSAS field trips in 2014/ 2015 and Garbeg has also been the subject of gorse clearance, quadcopter photography (blog post section 4) and QGIS survey by the group. Subsequently in 2015 many NOSAS members were involved with survey and excavation by the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts Project on possibly contemporaneous building remains at Garbeg.

The cemetery at Garbeg (Canmore ID 12281, HER MHG3361) consists of 23 square and round barrows with surrounding ditches. The barrows are thought to cover single long cist burials. They are situated on a natural plateau at an altitude of some 300m on open moorland used for rough grazing.  The immediately surrounding landscape is one rich in archaeological remains, including prehistoric field systems, groups of hut circles and a series of burnt mounds which are largely thought to predate the Pictish period.

Members of NOSAS at a field visit to Garbeg, November 2014

Members of NOSAS at a field visit to Garbeg, November 2014

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