Tag Archives: Gordon Noble

Digging the Pictish Fort at Burghead

by Anji Hancock (NOSAS)

My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent excavations.

The original fort occupied over 7 acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.

However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’  (Photo Anji Hancock)

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy MacIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy with the copper-alloy finger ring (photo Northern Picts).

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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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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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