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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

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 (a NOSAS Blog post on the dig is forthcoming).

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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Bronze Age Beaker and Cist Burial in Drumnadrochit

by James McComas (NOSAS)

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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.

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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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