Category Archives: Excavations

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

Rosemarkie Caves Excavations 2017

by Steve Birch

2017 saw a second consecutive season of excavation by the Rosemarkie Caves Project in the series of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. Four caves were chosen for targeted excavation by the team. This included further work in Smelter’s Cave (2B) where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made last year (see blog post), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metal working .

Some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, and working in bone/horn. We also recovered good economic evidence for the use of the caves during this period, which once analysed, will provide some detail with regards to how the people lived and what they ate!

Above: A child’s leather boot in situ. Below: A 3 holed bone button. Probable 19th C. artefacts from Cave 1B.

Unfortunately, the hard work to uncover further evidence of the metalworking activity outside 2B failed to materialise…..here, we found evidence for the deposition from material generated within the caves through time such as fire-cracked stones, charcoal and ash, shellfish, animal bone (cattle, sheep and pig) and some large fish (including cod and ling). This area, below the drip-line of the cave, was also probably quite a dangerous place to carry out any activities. A number of large rocks were uncovered here that had fallen from the cliff above. We did recover some metalworking residues including a hearth base, three pieces of iron slag, and one fragment of vitrified furnace wall.

The trench outside Cave 2B, aka Smelter’s Cave

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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

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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Cromarty Medieval Burgh Excavations 2013-2016: An Overview

by Mary Peteranna and Steve Birch.

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Aerial view of Reeds Park during excavation 2015, looking towards the modern town and the Cromarty Firth (Garry MacKay).

The Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project, which has been investigating the lost remnants of Cromarty’s historic medieval centre, has uncovered evidence of a catastrophic burning event along with a wealth of information about the development of a small Scottish burgh. The archaeological site in Reeds Park, Cromarty had been buried below a farmer’s field for over 120 years, before began investigations in 2013 after coastal erosion revealed hints of settlement. The project, which has attracted over 700 volunteers and thousands of visitors, has been dubbed by medieval specialists ‘one of the most important medieval excavations happening in Scotland.’

Although the core of the medieval burgh of Cromarty was thought to have been located at the base of the castle brae, to the southeast of the present town, the presence of any surviving remains of the settlement were completely unknown before digging began. Now, working with a range of specialists, including historians and artefact experts the archaeologists are piecing together the exciting archaeological results spanning periods of settlement between the 13th to 19th centuries. In 2015-2016, after several seasons of digging, the excavation has come down to the earliest layers and provided a detailed look at the layout of the medieval town

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Two corrected aerial photographs of the Cromarty excavation site by Alan Thompson. Above is the view towards the end of excavations in 2015.

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…and this image shows the substantial progress made by the end of the 2016 season.

The burgh of Cromarty was set in a strategically important location, controlling the entrance to the Cromarty Firth and the ferry crossing on the coastal route north of Inverness via Nigg, the most direct route to the medieval shrine of St Duthac’s in Tain. Cromarty was a natural location for a medieval power centre, with good coastal access and rich agricultural hinterland, strategically located on a key frontier zone in Northern Scotland. Unlike other areas of the north and Highland regions that were under clan control, Cromarty fell under the feudal authority of the Scottish crown. Although there is little documentary evidence for the town’s medieval history, it has been suggested that it was the logical location for a thanage in the 11th/12th centuries. A castle situated at Cromarty would have been a sensible location to establish royal authority on this borderland. While it was documented that the town’s sheriffdom had been established by 1266, little was known about the early history and layout of medieval Cromarty.

The archaeologists’ work from 2013-2016 has provided a detailed picture of the transitioning burgh, showing the buildings, property boundaries and zones of activity within an area focused on a former road alignment, referred to mysteriously as Thief’s Row in the 18th century. The latest buildings recorded on the site, dating to the 19th century  were located on the north side of the road; rectangular stone-built structures running parallel to Thief’s Row and set within plots of land demarcated by single coursed stone boundaries. The foundations of earlier buildings, most likely constructed during the closing stages of the 17th century mirrored the footprints of those latest buildings, displaying multiple phases of restructuring within these centuries. Artefacts associated from this period consist of low status ceramics and glass, and personal objects representing general subsistence living. Continue reading