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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

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