Category Archives: Excavations

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

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.

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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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The Achavanich Beaker Burial Project: New Research on the Bronze Age of Northern Scotland

by Maya Hoole

In 2014, whilst working with the Highland Council Historic Environment Team, I came across the record of a Bronze Age beaker burial from Caithness in the Highland HER records (MHG13613). Although the site was discovered and subject to a rescue excavation in 1987, and some preliminary post-excavation had been undertaken, it had never been fully researched or published. The burial was positioned in a rare rock-cut pit with a stone lined cist, complete with cap stone. Inside were the remains of a young female (fondly known as Ava, her name an abbreviation of the place of discovery), aged 18-22 years old, accompanied by: a highly decorated beaker, three pieces of flint and the scapula of an ox or cow. Within seconds of opening the file and starting to read I was completely captivated. At that moment, I had no idea of the impact of my curiosity. I was totally clueless as to what was in store and completely oblivious to the fact that two years down the line my passion for the site would not only have increased but it would have extended far beyond myself.

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The project began with my own research: I sorted the paper archives, located the artefacts at the Caithness Horizons museum, and subsequently photographed, measured, recorded and illustrated them. I went on to: re-discover the exact location of the site, re-create site plans, analyse the decoration on the beaker, make comparisons on a national scale and build a database and complete record of the artefacts. I bashfully presented my findings at a couple of conferences and… then things started to get interesting. At the very heart of the project was research. The initial goal was always to find out more about the individual buried at this site and to increase our knowledge of Bronze Age society in Northern Scotland. With the help of many different organisations and individuals, I applied for funding and soon found myself talking to experts (and to BBC news reporters, twice!) who were interested in developing our understanding of the site.

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

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Carn Glas – A Life in Seven Acts

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

DSC_0008 The Opening of the Cairn 12.10.15

The Opening of the Cairn 12.10.15

Carn Glas is one of a cluster of six Neolithic cairns at the base of the Black Isle in Ross-shire. A trio of local archaeology groups have collaborated with the Adopt-a-Monument team of Archaeology Scotland in its restoration. The opening party for the “new” cairn happened during Highland’s Archaeology Fortnight, on October 12th. Why did it need restoring? Well, it’s a story in Seven acts:

Act One started with the construction of a Cromarty-Orkney-type chambered cairn approximately 3600 BC, as the Neolithic farming package developed in the area. The passages of the chamber at the heart of the huge cairn were aligned north-west to south-east. They consisted of an entrance passage to the south-east, leading to a middle chamber, leading to an inner chamber. An excavation over two seasons by Tony Woodham in 1955-6 produced a series of artefacts dating to this period – a leaf-shaped Neolithic arrowhead, other flints, and numerous pottery shards.

Neolithic Arrowhead from 1956 excavation

Neolithic Arrowhead from 1956 excavation    (c) National Museums of Scotland

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