Tag Archives: Archaeological dig

Lament for a once Magical Place – or “the Agony of a severely traumatised pair of Archaeological Sites”

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

This is the story of two archaeological sites which have suffered severe damage through a catalogue of assaults by man in the name of “development”. The “patients”, for so they can be regarded, lie in Balblair Wood (read Ward!), near Beauly. They have received repeated injuries over the last 20 years and today are in a sad, sorry state – they have been in the wrong place at the wrong time!

BBalblair OS 1st Edition Map

Patient A is (or was) an extensive linear prehistoric site, centred on NGR NH 501444; it once comprised 13 hut circles, 2 chambered cairns, burnt mounds and a field system of clearance cairns and trailing banks occupying an area of 750m x 200m (maybe more) along the SW edge of the wood. Only 12 years ago this beautiful site with clearly identifiable features was well preserved and within open pine woods which had a mossy forest floor. The site was unusual in that it occupied a low lying river terrace quite close to the River Beauly and the Beauly Firth. It was the subject of one of the first NOSAS survey projects; see report on the NOSAS website.

Balblair survey for 2015 piece

Patient B is the fort known as Corffhouse or Lovat Bridge in the NE part of the wood, NGR NH 5135 4480, Canmore ID 12745, HER No MHG3401; it also has been the subject of a NOSAS survey.

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The Rosemarkie Caves Project

by Simon Gunn (NOSAS)

The subterranean section of NOSAS, the Rosemarkie Caves Project (RCP), is planning more work in the caves this year (2015). The RCP was set up to research the archaeology of the caves on the Moray Firth coast near Rosemarkie.

The group started its work in 2006 with a weekend excavation of Learnie 2B when evidence was found of occupation and leatherwork in the 19th century, probably by summer travellers. This was followed by a more ambitious 14 day dig at Cairds’ Cave in 2010, when we confirmed that the cave had been excavated 100 years before by local doctor William MacLean. Through analysis of bone and charcoal, the cave was found to have been in use as far back as 300BC, the time of Alexander the Great.

2006 dig at Learnie 2B

2006 dig at Learnie 2B

Outside Cairds' Cave in 2010

Outside Cairds’ Cave in 2010

There are 19 caves on this 2.5 mile stretch of coastline, they have been high and dry for over 4000 years and apart from interest by RCP and Dr MacLean, their archaeological potential has never been explored. Since 2010, the RCP members have surveyed all 19 caves and then in 2013 started a program of test-pitting. The purpose of this was to get a feel for the archaeology that might be there, but mainly to find deep samples of bone and charcoal for dating which would ascertain in which periods the caves were used and to find out, if possible, the earliest occupation.
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Experiments using a Quadcopter for Archaeological Aerial Photography

by Alan Thompson (NOSAS)

Introduction

I’ve had my Quadcopter for over a year now, had great fun flying it, and have produced many interesting images.  I recently showed a selection of images at a NOSAS evening, and was asked if I would write this blog and share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Of course the pictures are what it’s all about and even if you’re not interested in my comments, I hope you enjoy looking at them.

Background

Inspired by some of the wonderful aerial photos (APs) I’ve seen (for example on Canmore) I have long thought how good it would be to be able to take such pictures of our own archaeological sites.

For several years I have been interested in photogrammetry and experimented with that, especially of rock art where the production of a 3D surface and use of computer generated lighting and shadows can give some great effects.

In 2013 I began to investigate kite aerial photography (KAP) but the possibility of using a Quadcopter also emerged and I realised that technology and prices were moving so quickly that it might be a better option.  In early 2014 I decided that the only way to learn was to buy one.

The Quadcopter – getting ready to fly

Most amateur Quadcopters are sold with very wide angle cameras, with the intention of video recording, and also providing a pilot’s view (called first person view or FPV).  This is less than satisfactory for archaeological aerial photography, and so I bought a Quadcopter without a camera, with a view to fitting my own.

The camera is obviously critical, and it needed to be light (ideally <300g including battery), robust, of good enough quality, and with an interval timer.  Unfortunately I could find no such camera.  All those with interval timers are heavier, for example those used for kite aerial photography.  A solution can however be found in that a group of people spend their time hacking the software of Canon cameras (google CHDK) and provide a hacked version for some models which enables an interval timer to be run.

Having bought and hacked my camera and got the interval timer working I had to fit it to the Quadcopter.  The main problem is the high frequency vibration from the rotors which renders the pictures useless.  A suitable anti-vibration mounting was needed, all within the weight limit.

Next, to prepare for the first test flight.  The web (YouTube) is full of videos of alarming crashes and fly-aways.  The Quadcopter instructions are daunting saying that a first flight should be from the middle of a large field, with no wind and no people about.  There is also the matter of insurance (it could certainly hurt someone badly), and the possible need for a CAA licence.  The regulations here are changing quickly but at present as a hobby flier I can insure through the British Model Flying Association (BMFA), and (unlike a professional archaeologist) have no need of a CAA licence provided I fly within line of sight, avoid certain areas (eg near airports) and limit the height.  I would again emphasise that this is all very much in the news and changing and my observations here will quickly be out of date.

Quadcopter flying

The first flight is bit nerve-racking, but set to auto mode the Quadcopter uses its own GPS and compass and is set so that (more or less) if you let go of the controls it just hovers where it is.  Flying in this mode is reasonably straightforward.  I have not dared try any of the advanced modes as yet.

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Bronze Age Beaker and Cist Burial in Drumnadrochit

by James McComas (NOSAS)

Go to foot of post for discoveries at the Compass Housing Development 2017 -2018.

Drumnadrochit, by Loch Ness. On the flat former croft land between the Rivers Coilte and Enrick a new NHS Medical Centre is under construction. In January 2015 workers on the site removed a large stone slab. Beneath the slab, undisturbed for perhaps 4000 years, were the crouched remains of an individual resting in a stone lined cist, approximately 0.7 metres deep.

DSC_0016 - Copy

Burial Cist in Drumnadrochit (Courtesy of Mary Peteranna/ AOC)

Initially Highland Council archaeologists assessed the site, concluding it was probably bronze age.  A skull and possible femur were clearly visible, but there were no obvious sign of grave goods. However it was still clearly an significant discovery. Nothing similar had been found in Drumnadrochit before, and whilst there is a profusion of archaeological sites in the area, nothing of this antiquity is known to have been found in the flat lands around Urquhart Bay. The next step was for NHS Highland to appoint an archaeologist to excavate the burial.

I called in briefly to the site several days later to find that the archaeologists appointed were well known to NOSAS – Mary Peteranna, now of AOC, and Steve Birch. Steve was kind enough to give me a brief rundown on what they had found.  It was apparently a fairly typical stone lined cist burial of the early bronze age. The large cap stone, which had been removed by digger when clearing the area, had possibly already been broken in antiquity. There was a thickness of several cm of gravel above the cap stone before digging work began.

The cist during excavation (Courtesy of Mary Peteranna/ AOC)

The cist during excavation (Courtesy of Mary Peteranna/ AOC)

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Excavations at Rhynie 2014

by Cathy MacIver (Rhynie Community Archaeologist, CMS Archaeology)

Earlier in September the Village Square in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire was a bustling hive of activity. Archaeologists, artists and locals got together for a week-long celebration of heritage and hospitality during the Art and Artefact Project (funded by HLF). This project was a collaboration between Dr Gordon Noble (University of Aberdeen) and Rhynie Woman, a local artists collective. The project capitalised on the research and fieldwork undertaken in and around Rhynie since 2005 by Gordon (Aberdeen) and Meggen (Chester) as part of the Rhynie Environs Archaeology Project (REAP). This work looked at the Craw Stane, the site of an in situ Pictish Symbol Stone and associated high status settlement as well as nearby square barrows with high status burials, including a female stone lined cist burial.

Following on from the success of the Pop-up Pictish café run by Daisy and Debbie during the 2013 season the Rhynie Woman collective applied for funding for a weeklong event in 2014. The project consisted of: a variety of art workshops; a Curiosity Café, displaying art created in and of the village; a programme of excavation to explore the Pictish past in Rhynie itself; an ever welcome stream of home baking and meals and hospitality for the archaeologists staying in Rhynie.

The archaeological side of the project consisted of a transect of 1 by 1m or 2 by 2m test pit excavations between the Village Square and the Surgery. This was to explore the find spots and concentrations of activity marked on the old OS map from 1866. This map marked the location of several symbol stones, human remains and an urn which had been discovered when the current main road was put through Rhynie. In addition to the Craw Stane, which is still in its original position to the south of the village, many other Pictish symbol stones have been found in and around Rhynie and are on display. We hoped to investigate the context for some of these stones in the area we were digging.

Craw Stone, Rhynie

Craw Stone, Rhynie

Our initial test pits in the Village Green and nearby gardens produced a lot of material from the 19th century (pottery, an old track, a couple of possible structures and a hard packed surface that was probably the original square surface). The depth of material covering these deposits suggests that the green has been used over a long period and several attempts to level the area have been made by the introduction and spreading of material.

The excitement started to build a couple of days into the project. By this time we had opened several test pits in gardens further to the south nearer the stone findspots. One test pit contained a large post or stone hole (possibly the socket for one of our stones??). This hole was surrounded by a low, rough cobbled structure foundation, possibly the base for a turf built wall. Another test pit in a neighbouring garden uncovered the remains of cairn material. This could be linked to the cairn reputed to have been at the site of one of the symbol stones. A quick glance over the wall showed a freshly harvested field and the rest of the low natural rise we were situated on, flat, open, inviting……

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Belladrum Excavation, 31st August – 7th September 2014

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

The Belladrum drama has a Prologue and two Acts, three main protagonists, and a horde (sic) of extras.

The Prologue:

Enter first Joe Gibbs, landowner at Belladrum and host to the annual August Tartan Heart Festival.

During clearing his fields after the Festival, he employs a metal detectorist to identify and get rid of all the left-behind tent pegs. Enter next that said detectorist, Eric Soane, who in August 2009 scanned the site and discovered a scatter of Roman denarii and some mediaeval coins. Enter third, Fraser Hunter, a principal Curator at the National Museum of Scotland, with an interest in hoards and Roman coins. He excavated the site in October 2012 to see if there were any more coins and to identify any obvious archaeology. Enter last, the cast of thousands – well, maybe 20-30 – human diggers from around Scotland.

On their knees in Trench 1

On their knees in Trench 1

There are two possible narratives, Fraser says. The coins were a hoard, a cache. Someone in the Iron Age wanted to find a good safe place to store his (presumably his) treasure. Or, second narrative,  these scattered coins were a votive offering to the gods. There is evidence from other sites such as Birnie, Fraser says, that the hoards of coins do seem to have been placed in special previously holy places.

And, why place the coins here? Birnie and Rhynie had hoards placed within settlement areas. Is there evidence of that at Belladrum? Or, if the coins were a votive offering, what was there at the time to focus the offering? A spring? An ancient site? And, most intriguingly, why 1000 years later were some mediaeval coins placed in the same area?

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Cromarty Medieval Burgh Dig 2014: A Volunteer’s Perspective

by Rosemary Jones (NOSAS)

The 2013 dig had been great fun, so we offered our help for 2014. Bob was set to work, using a mattock, a draw hoe and a barrow, though not necessarily in that order. For me, the choice was a little harder: my back is troublesome, but I had been told to keep active, so I was asked to tidy up one of the uncovered 2013 trenches so that it could be photographed. Eventually Paul, the finds ‘cataloguer’, told me he didn’t want my offering of several fish bones, which was all I could find for the first few days. Michael joined me to uncover more of the trench, more tidying. Then things looked up: med pot appeared and half of a glazed, ceramic spindle whorl – I was on a roll. In the wall was what appeared to be part of a quern, then another (which wasn’t). I moved onto another trench to do some trowelling where I uncovered a whole quern stone.

Meanwhile my original trench was in danger from Bob and Dave: their dug area had impinged on one longitudinal wall. Hours later there was no trench, just a vast uncovered area, out of which a total of 5 pieces of quern stone were removed, 3 of which fitted together. Why anyone would break such an object is a mystery, but several such broken, and at least one unbroken, were found incorporated into the walls of the buildings. Likewise, Bob, among others, found a broken iron pot with a large stone on top of it, under what appeared to be the entrance to one of the medieval houses. Why would anyone break an iron pot? I can see that you could bury broken pottery, to avoid having to explain how it came to be in such a state, but iron?

Pieces of Quern Stone Cromarty

Pieces of quern stone (Bob Jones)

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Cnoc Tigh and Tarlogie Dun Excavations (Iron Age Round Houses)

by David Findlay (NOSAS)

These excavations, in April and July 2014, were led by Candy Hatherley and form part of the University of Aberdeen Northern Picts Project. Cnoc Tigh (see also our earlier blog entry) and Tarlogie Dun are Iron Age round houses situated on the north coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross. They are both on the high ground about 200m back from the coast giving them spectacular views across the Dornoch Firth to Sutherland and up the Sutherland coast. Neither site is naturally defensive and, though both have watercourses to one side creating a gorge and a steep bank to the sea on another side, that still leaves two sides open to the surrounding countryside.

The NOSAS Team Tarlogie Looking N April 2014 P1030613

The NOSAS team at Tarlogie, looking N (David Findlay)

They differ from the three duns excavated by the Aberdeen University Team in 2013 in that these were all on the south side of the Tarbat Peninsular and were relatively defensible due to the natural features, although Tarrel is overlooked by the cliff on the landward side.

Both Cnoc Tigh and Tarlogie appear to date from about 400 BC with occupation at Tarlogie lasting for 800 years to about 400AD. I do not know of any dates yet for the latest occupancy at Cnoc Tigh although I understand that suitable charcoal samples have been taken for dating.

The 2014 excavations at both sites reveal severely robbed and damaged stone walls; there are discernible facing walls in a few locations but largely only the fill remains. Both sites show a lot of evidence of the structures changing with time.

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Excavations on the Tarbat Peninsula: Scotsburn (Iron Age Broch or Dun) Part 2

By Vaidutis Žutautas (University of Aberdeen)

Just above the left bank of steep wooded ravine of the Balnagown river, remnants of a prehistoric dun (NH77NW 6, NH 7148 7616) sit on the sloped eminence surrounded by a complex of structural features, arguably belonging to it. The site has been known for a long time, as it still stands prominently and it is likely that it has not been disturbed by agricultural activities throughout centuries, although some possible robber trenches can be seen on the E side of the dun wall. Prevailing arguments suggesting that the roundhouse could carry the title of ‘a broch’ were usually subjected to narrow over-surface interpretations by only taking into consideration structural features such as the diameter of the house (13m), wall thickness (~6m on the surface) and its elaborate compounds that skirt the dun. However no comprehensive evaluation has been done since 1968 when OS did a basic descriptive survey and designated the structure as a dun.

In order to expand the distributional scope of the late prehistoric structures in Tarbat peninsula and its environs, the team of archaeologists from the Aberdeen of University has targeted Scotsburn Dun in seeking to evaluate the underlying archaeology. A permission to locate 3m x 20m trench and extract effective dating material that would provide a chronological framework for the site was given by Historic Scotland Scheduled Monument Consent. Additionally, to answer perhaps the most intriguing question­- whether the structure is a broch or a complex dun – authorisation was given to uncover the roundhouse wall and identify its external morphology that would allow drawing assumptions regarding its structural classification.

Since this excavation was ongoing along other two digs in the area (Cnoc Tigh and Tarlogie Dun), the logistics were relatively subordinate especially in terms of people on the site. At least two archaeologists were working at Scotsburn with a kind help from volunteers living in the region. Yet even said that, the dig has not been crowded and therefore dealing with exceptionally complex archaeology and nearly 40m3 of deposited rubble extended original ten day dig to a four and a half week mattocking paradise.

Realising the complexity of the site on the first day, it was decided to open 2m x 20m trench stretching NW-SE encompassing area between the roundhouse and the enclosure wall and another two earthworks giving another 6,8m extension for vegetation, top soil and limited latest collapse deposit clearance from the dun wall. Unsurprisingly, it has been a highly demanding task to define structural features and reach occupation horizons by removing tons of collapsed stones; this process took nearly two weeks mainly allocating labour in two areas: a) between the roundhouse wall and the enclosure wall, and b) between the enclosure wall and the first earth bank.

Scotsburn full trench

Aerial picture of the entire trench showing mid-excavation.

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Excavations on the Tarbat Peninsula: Scotsburn (Iron Age Broch or Dun) Part 1

Mid Excavation Report by Oskar Sveinbjarnason (University of Aberdeen)

The excavation at Scotsburn House aims at dating the occupation as well as trying to discern if the site is a broch or a dun.

Outer wall face of Scotsburn "house" with Roland.

Outer wall face of Scotsburn “house” with Roland.

A single trench 20m long and 2m wide was placed over the building wall and extends northwards over four rampart banks. The round house wall has been revealed but it has not shown yet if it is a broch or a dun. The ramparts have so far shown a nice stone facing. The site is getting more complex as “new“ walls have been uncovered in the trench. The relationship between these walls and the ramparts and ditches is being investigated.

Photo from the trench with Leaf and James.

Photo from the trench with Leaf and James.

The lower left corner of the picture shows one of the banks. Behind Leaf and James is another bank and towards upper right corner is the Scotsburn house wall.

Following Oscar’s report an iron age road surface was uncovered in this ditch.

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