Tag Archives: Excavation

Clava Type Cairns of the Inverness Area

by Anne Coombs (NOSAS)

Clava cairns are unique to a small area of Eastern Highlands of Scotland.  Identified originally along the valley of the River Nairn, a good start point for any tour of these sites is at Balnuaran of Clava near Culloden. Here Historic Scotland cares for a well preserved group of three circular burial cairns in a small area with a car park and interpretation panels (see the H.S. leaflet). Surrounded by trees beside the river this location can provide an atmospheric even ‘sacred’ sense of the past, especially at mid-winter or in the spring.  Two small chambered passage ‘Clava’ cairns with their associated stone circles are sited on either side of a ring cairn with its own stone circle.  The ring cairn (Highland Council HER MHG4366) appears to have been built at a similar time as the other cairns but is likely to have been used for a different purpose as it seems to have no entrance and may never have been roofed unlike the other cairns.  On the west of the site there is a later small kerb cairn part of later reuse of the cemetery 1000 years later.

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The NE Cairn at Balnuaran of Clava, as seen on a NOSAS field trip in January 2015 (Alan Thompson)

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The NE Cairn from the air (Scotavia Images)

The two chambered passage cairns (See HER MHG3013 and MHG3002) fit the ‘standard’ ‘Clava’ type with large stones on the inner and outer faces forming a kerb with a substantial fill of smaller stones between.  The passages are aligned to face the mid-winter sun at the solstice and experiments have shown that the sun arcs across the back wall of the cairn during the day.  The inner and outer facing stones have been selected carefully for size and colour and set into the cairn according to some lost pattern presumably in line with the use and beliefs of the builders of the cairns.  Many of the ‘Clava’ cairns have carefully positioned cup marked stones built into the cairns.  Some of the cup marked stones are visible on the outer face of the cairns, for all to see.  Others are hidden inside the cairn available originally only to those with access to the interior. Some stones are even placed so the cup marks are facing into the rubble fill of the cairn so only accessible to the builders and possibly a limited number of people, maybe the priests who knew their position?

The whole cairn would have had a corbelled roof.  Around the edge of each of the cairns at Clava a low platform was constructed.  The whole structure with its associated platform and stone circle was built in a single phase.  In the case of the ring cairn the platform was extended to three of the standing stones forming a sun ray appearance.  Although some of the stones of the associated stone circles are massive, investigation suggests they have relatively shallow socket holes as do all the inner and outer kerb stones of the cairns.  The stone circles provided another opportunity to include a carefully selected range of different types of stone of graded sizes.  The largest stones are often placed on the same axis as the passage facing the direction of the mid-winter solstice sun.

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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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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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Excavations on the Tarbat Peninsula: Cnoc Tigh (Iron Age Round House)

by Oskar Sveinbjarnason (University of Aberdeen)

The excavation started as planned on the 22nd June. A 15m long trench and 10m wide was opened over the northern part of the dun. It took 2 days to open up the area (gorse removal and grass) and as the surrounding field was under crop, a JCB was not able to access the site and speed up the opening. It soon became apparent that the site has been largely robbed of stones, likely during the 19th – 20th Century, possibly to make the enclosure which sits on top of the dun. The quarry holes can still be seen. It was a hard task to plan and remove this later enclosure, mainly due to the amount of rubble and the fact that the enclosure was little more than tossed up earth and stone bank (we can firmly assume that this is not the Castle Corbet) and blended in with the dun itself.

outer dun wall at cnoc tigh

Picture showing the surviving outer dun wall. The rubble to the left is a collapse which hid this outer wall face.

In the trench the outer dun wall face was harder to find than we expected and is it due to the large amount of collapse from the dun wall core outwards and collapse from the enclosure on top of it as well. It was towards the end of week 2 when we finally figured out where the outer dun wall was located and which made the site nicer and easier to understand.

The dun wall turned out to be a complex construction with multiple stages of construction now visible. Initially it seems to have started out as a round house with about 1.5m thick wall. Up against this wall, additional 2.5m of extra wall was added, making the wall about 4m thick.

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