Scottish History and Archaeology


Adrienne BreinganBy Adrienne Breingan, Assistant Curator of Scottish History

As Scotland counts down to the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in July the staff at National Museums Scotland have been thinking about how we can document this significant event. Within the National Collection there are already a variety of objects from the Commonwealth Games over the years. These objects have been collected to reflect the contribution of Scotland to the games and represent the 1970 and 1986 games held in Edinburgh as well as the experiences of Scottish athletes.

Commemorative baton of the 1986 Commonwealth Games

Commemorative baton of the 1986 Commonwealth Games used in the Queen’s Baton Relay. Sprinter Allan Wells carried the baton on its last leg of the journey in 1986 and was also the first person to carry the 2014 baton for the Glasgow games.

In the collection we have posters, leaflets and booklets from the games hosted by Scotland as well as batons, medals, commemorative coins and some uniforms worn by the athletes. In 2014 we would like to focus on two areas of collecting. The first is to collect objects that demonstrate the impact of the games throughout Scotland and the second is to document the experiences of a variety of people.

Official poster for the IXth Commonwealth Games

Official poster of the IXth Commonwealth Games in 1970 designed by James Hope. The poster depicts the Edinburgh games logo which incorporates a thistle and a saltire. 1970 was first time the Commonwealth Games logo was modified to include symbols representing the host nation.

Gold medal won by cyclist Sir Chris Hoy at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne

Gold medal won by cyclist Sir Chris Hoy at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. The Scottish team won 29 medals in total in 2006 and 11 of which were gold medals in cycling, shooting, swimming, lawn bowls and boxing.

In order to do this we would like to ask for help from anyone who is involved with the Commonwealth Games this year. If you are an athlete, an official, a volunteer or a spectator we would like to hear about your experiences. One way of doing this would be to keep a ‘Games Diary’. This could be written or take the form of a blog post or a video diary which the museum would then archive. If you would like to take the opportunity to have your memories preserved within the national collections you can find out more about this by reading our fact sheet.

The types of objects we would like to collect could include items such as uniforms, flags and souvenirs. Objects like this will help us to preserve the memories of Glasgow 2014 for future generations and will be made available for research and display. We are particularly interested in objects which have particular stories attached to them. If you have something to donate that you think would be of interest, we would love for you to get in touch. If you have any interesting items from previous games held in Scotland we would also be keen to hear from you. You can find out more about the project here.

By Maya Hoole, Volunteer with Collections Services

Day 1 of volunteering at National Museums Scotland and I had no idea what the next six weeks here would be like. I met Trevor Cowie (Scottish History and Archaeology Department) in the Arrivals Hall, and after a quick coffee we set off into the rabbit warren behind the scenes at the Museum.

In October I had met Trevor at an archaeology conference in Inverness. I was volunteering for the conference organisers, Highland Council Historic Environment Team, at the time. I was looking to get more experience and could not believe it when Trevor thought it might be possible for me to spend some time at National Museums Scotland.

Whilst the whole genre of Scottish Archaeology captivates me, I’ve always had a particular soft spot for the great ‘Atlantic roundhouses’: the Brochs of Northern and Western Scotland. So when I found out that the project chosen for me to work on was with the Broch of Gurness… well, you can imagine that I had a particularly large grin on my face.

Although the excavated finds from this well-known Orkney site have been part of the national collections for many years, the detailed published catalogue had never been converted into an electronically accessible format, making accessing the information and managing the collection difficult.

So there I was a few weeks later, ready to start. Whilst Trevor had agreed to be my Line Manager as it was an archaeological subject, I was to be supervised and guided by Jo Macrae (Collections Services). I was shown to my own desk with a laptop for me to use and presented with the sacred book that would be my life for the next few weeks: ‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

Maya’s sacred book: ‘Bu, Gurness and the Brochs of Orkney. Part II: Gurness’ by John Hedges.

Jo had a spreadsheet set up for me ready to input the catalogue data. She showed me what to do, guiding me along as I started to figure out the system and soon had me racing through the catalogue as I got to grips with it all. Over the next few weeks I was welcomed whole-heartedly into the Collections Services team (and cannot thank you all enough for that) and got into a routine working through the catalogue.

The Broch of Gurness really is quite a site; a complex series of stone buildings embracing the solid broch tower at their heart. It is thought to have been occupied from around the 1st to 2nd century BC, and was used on and off from then onwards through the Pictish period in the 5th to 8th century AD, and again by the Vikings around the 9th to 10thcentury AD. This long and complex history meant that a whole range of artefacts were discovered at the site: stone tools, animal bones and human remains, reworked Roman glass, bronze brooches, iron knife blades, spindle whorls, pins, rings, chains, needles, querns, pounders, grinders, gaming equipment… and lots of pieces of pottery, to name but a few. And let’s not forget the remains of an Orkney Vole or a Conger Eel.

Two of the most elaborate and intriguing objects in the collection are the pair of oval (or tortoise) brooches, with highly decorative zoomorphic ornamentation, as can be seen below.

Tortoise brooches found at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney

Tortoise brooches found at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney.

After a few weeks working away on the data, Jo and Trevor organised to take me down to the stores to have a look around. I felt like a little kid in a toy shop as every drawer held new delights. I was treated to trays full of flint arrow heads, stone axe heads, spindle whorls, pots, a log boat and we even hunted down some of the pieces from the Gurness collection that I’d been working on, including faunal remains and stone tools. I genuinely feel privileged to have had a glimpse into the vast stores of artefacts safely tucked away behind the scenes.

Scottish finds

Finds from archaeological sites in Scotland.

Stone axehead

Stone axehead.

Maya investigates archaeological finds in our stores.

Maya investigates archaeological finds in our stores.

Back in the office I finished off the data input with a good chunk of time left to spare. Jo kindly decided to show me how everything I had achieved could be integrated into the collections database. Once everything was uploaded, I went through the catalogue again and added in all of the dimensions to the 2,121 database records I had created. I only had a week left before Christmas. Jo bet me that I couldn’t get all the dimensions in before the holiday break, if I did she would eat her hat (or head, depending on who you ask). Luckily for Jo’s hat, I didn’t finish in time… However, it was a close call, as within two hours of my first day back in January, it was done!

For my final week here, I am going to be getting some more experience working in the database under the excellent supervision of Jo. So far, I have learned a great deal about working in the museum, about the things that need to be done that I had never even thought about before.

If you are interested in the Broch of Gurness collection there are a few items on display in the Early People gallery in the museum. These including: a bone die, two bone combs, a pinhead, a handled steatite bowl and an inscribed knife handle, amongst others. I have included a list of where and what you can find – so go and have a look!

I just want to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this and made it possible, I won’t forget it.

Arrowheads

Arrowheads.

Description

Gallery

Section

Case   no.

Label   no.

Handled Steatite bowl

Early People gallery

Fat of the Land

B5

6

Decorated bone handle

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E4

18

Perforated antler tine used as a   handle

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E2

8

Mount of perforated antler

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E2

17

Early People Gallery

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E2

17

Perforated sheep metacarpal

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E3

5

Long handled weaving comb of   cetacean bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E6

8

Long handled weaving comb of   cetacean bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E6

8

Perforated pinhead or playing piece   made of bone

Early People gallery

Made of Bone

E3

16

Vessel for storage, cooking or   serving

Early People gallery

Baking the Earth

K5

14

Bone rib, possibly a pottery tool

Early People Gallery

Baking the Earth

K2

6

Glass ball

Early People gallery

Broken Glass

M4

16

Ogham-inscribed knife handle

Early People gallery

Letter of Authority

T7

6

Bone die

Early People gallery

Tilling the Soil

C5

4

Alison SheridanBy Dr Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator, Department of Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums Scotland and President of the Prehistoric Society

Mystery of the Moor

It’s about a very special Early Bronze Age person whose cremated remains were buried in a cist (stone box-like grave) in a peat mound around 3800 years ago on Whitehorse Hill, one of the highest tors on Dartmoor, Devon. Because the cist was constructed in a pre-existing hillock of peat, its contents quickly became waterlogged and, despite the side of the cist being exposed for over 10 years, the contents were found to be miraculously preserved when the cist was excavated in 2011.

 Model wearing replicas of the Whitehorse Cist ear studs, necklace and armband/bracelet, filmed on Dartmoor. Photo: DNPA/BBC

Model wearing replicas of the Whitehorse Cist ear studs, necklace and armband/bracelet, filmed on Dartmoor. Photo: DNPA/BBC

The person’s cremated remains – which were probably those of a woman, aged 15–25 – had been wrapped in a pelt and carefully laid on a mat of plant material on the base of the cist. Between the mat and the bone parcel was found the remains of an exquisite garment of fine calfskin with an inset panel of woven nettle fibre, surrounded by triangular calfskin appliqués. Further traces of textile, this time burnt, were found with the bones; this must represent a funerary garment worn as the corpse was cremated on the pyre.

The wooden ear studs © DPNA/BBC

The wooden ear studs © DPNA/BBC

The most spectacular find, discovered on top of the bone parcel at one end of it and itself covered by a mat of plant material, was a finely-woven cylindrical container of woven lime bast. Inside it, and spilling out of it, was a set of precious jewellery comprising two pairs of wooden studs – one probably for ear lobes, the other possibly worn around the mouth – plus a necklace of tin, amber, Kimmeridge shale and clay beads and an arm band of plaited animal hair with tiny tin studs.

All these items, and the fine garment and the positioning of the grave, tell us that the person in this cist had been accorded very special status in Early Bronze age society.

This discovery is of national and international importance in several respects, not least because of the preservation of materials that don’t normally survive. It is incredibly rare to find well-preserved metallic tin objects: normally tin oxidises and crumbles away. The armband is unparalleled, and reminds us that there could have been many types of Early Bronze Age object that simply haven’t survived.

Making the replicas of the studs © DNPA/BBC

Making the replicas of the studs © DNPA/BBC

I have been working on these wonderful finds, with an army of specialists from across Britain has been working on the finds, on behalf of Jane Marchand (Archaeologist, Dartmoor National Park Authority) and Andy Jones (Historic Environment Projects, Cornwall Council) and with funding from English Heritage (through Vanessa Straker); and amazing revelations keep on coming. It has been my special privilege to research the jewellery, and to this end I have recently visited Hal Redvers-Jones in Whitby (the last surviving traditional Whitby jetworker) to see how the tiny disc beads of Kimmeridge shale had been made.

The fascinating television programme, Mystery of the Moor, features some amazing experimental craft-work that was commissioned by de facto films’ Andrew Brown, the programme maker and gives us a glimpse at Early Bronze Age technology.

Replicas of the studded armband and necklace © DNPA/BBC

Replicas of the studded armband and necklace © DNPA/BBC

Mhairi MaxwellBy Mhairi Maxwell, Glenmorangie Research Officer

How time has flown past! Our special exhibition Creative Spirit only has a few weeks left at the National Museum of Scotland until it closes on 24 February, when the objects will be packed away. So be quick to catch a glimpse of our attempts to breathe life again into Scotland’s rich Early Medieval craft heritage.

Creative Spirit showcases our recreations made in collaboration with artists and craftspeople, employing a wide range of traditional and innovative techniques, both hand-crafted and digital. Working with artists and craftspeople in order to reveal the sophistication of Early Medieval objects has been a privilege.

Meet the Maker day

Meet the Maker day, 7th December 2013. Left to right: Mhairi Maxwell (Glenmorangie Research Officer), Kerry Hammond (Powderhall Bronze), Colin Goldsmith (Ratho Byres Forge), Adrian McCurdy (cleft oak furniture maker), Peter Hill (Ratho Byres Forge), Jennifer Gray (designer and maker), Martin Goldberg (Senior curator of Early Historic and Viking collections), Johnny Ross (Sutherland Horncraft). Ian Dunlop (Satchel maker) and Barry Grove (stone sculptor), and digital whizzes at RelicArte could not make it along.

As an archaeologist I am familiar with rusty, incomplete shadows of objects, worn with the patina of age. Making anew these fugitive fragments from the past has given me an enriched appreciation of the skills involved in past and present craft. I am still in awe of the surprising and bright beauty of the finished pieces! Here I thought I would take the chance to highlight some of the challenges and themes which have arisen from our recreation projects.

For example, the drinking horns made by Johnny Ross of Sutherland Horncraft are glassy and luminous, causing me to re-evaluate my appreciation of horn as a material which is so often considered to be an ancient form of utilitarian plastic. I have fond memories of spending a week up in Sutherland with Johnny documenting the painstaking processes of boiling, scraping and polishing; an arduous but satisfying process!

Drinking horns

Designer and maker Jennifer Gray and Johnny Ross of Horncraft Sutherland with the finished drinking horns.

Martin Goldberg (Senior Curator of Early Historic and Viking Collections) and I have scrutinised and examined Early Medieval hand-bells in our collections and were constantly perplexed at exactly how the bells had been coated inside and out with a thin layer of bronze. In order to solve this mystery, by collaborating with the expert and specialist knowledge at Ratho Byres Forge and Powderhall Bronze, we explored four different methods of making a hand-bell. This was certainly one of the most challenging recreation projects undertaken! Indeed, in the past, there was potentially more than one way to make a brazed iron hand-bell.

Hand-bells

Hand-bells made by Ratho Byres Forge and Powderhall Bronze, using different techniques.

This film shows one of the processes we developed for our recreation based on the best preserved brazed iron bell from Scotland, kindly loaned by Birnie Kirk for Creative Spirit.

For our 3D recreation of the Monymusk reliquary, the challenge here was negotiating the line between imagination and authenticity: our result is not an attempt to make it brand new, but it functions as a complete object and allows privileged close-up and interior views.

This has also made me think about the craft of 3D digital recreation: similar considerations and decisions are involved in virtual recreation as in physical recreation, while you still get a feel of the sensory experience of objects. The opportunity to work with maker and designer Jennifer Gray, who uses a combination of 3D digital carving and traditional silver casting, effectively explored the tension between traditional and new techniques. I feel that the very ethos of the Glenmorangie project is encapsulated in her process, which effectively brings the past alive using innovative tools available to the present generation.

Bird head fitting for drinking horn

Bird head fitting for drinking horn created in ‘virtual wax’ by designer and maker Jennifer Gray.

What makes me most excited about digital technology is that it opens up the archive to everybody and offers new possibilities for interrogating objects. The crowd-sourced Pictish Puzzle online laboratory (#PictishPuzzle) developed in collaboration with RelicArte aims to refit thousands of fragments which were chipped off the face of the stunning Hilton of Cadboll stone. This has evolved to become a truly global effort. Log in at www.pictishpuzzle.co.uk to get involved and becomes authors of this recreation!

So now it’s over to you…

Dr Fraser HunterBy Fraser Hunter, Iron Age and Roman curator

The Clarkly Hill dig is done. Like the skeins of geese who’ve been flying over us for the past week, the archaeologists have migrated south to winter quarters, shaking off the mud from our boots. We’ve left the field to the whaups who’ve been crying indignantly at us since we trespassed on their land. There’s a flurry of work still to do – tools to clean and collect, trenches to backfill, portaloos to empty – the stuff you never see in Indiana Jones … But now we need to gather our thoughts, work out what it all means, and get the behind-the-scenes stuff started. Lists to type, numbers to correlate, samples to process, finds to wash. A lot of this will happen in Moray over the next few months – thanks to the funding we got from Moray LEADER and the Baxter Foundation, we can involve local enthusiasts in this, giving them a close-up look at how archaeological interpretation works.

Advanced rain protection techniques.

Advanced rain protection techniques.

So what have we found out? There are still loads of questions turning in my mind, and I need a few days in our library to chase up some ideas and knock the edges off some of my crazier interpretations. But it’s clear we’ve got a really long-lived site here – this was one of THE places to be in Moray. The oldest finds go right back to the Mesolithic, about 6,000-8,000 years ago, when a scatter of flints suggests that a band of hunter-gatherers visited here – perhaps just for a few days, perhaps regularly over several generations. I’m sure they were drawn here because it sat beside a loch which is now drained – in deep prehistory, this was a ready larder, with food there for the taking.

The most unexpected find was part of a circular enclosure with settings for stones, and a couple of massive plough-scarred boulders. I reckon this is the remains of a stone circle, dating back about 4,000-5,000 years – but I need to go and interrogate some of my prehistorian colleagues before sticking my neck out too far on this!

Could this be a stone circle? A curving dark enclosure surrounds some hefty stones, with stone-packed holes for others which are now lost.

Could this be a stone circle? A curving dark enclosure surrounds some hefty stones, with stone-packed holes for others which are now lost.

Stone circles (if that’s what this is) are very rare in Moray, so this would be a major addition to our knowledge. There’s certainly other stuff of this date – we also found a standing stone which had been deliberately taken down, and I wonder if these marks of an ancient past encouraged people to settle here in the Iron Age – there’s nothing like taking over an ancient site to show how important and well-connected you are.

A collapsed standing stone, and smaller stones which once formed a socket for it.

A collapsed standing stone, and smaller stones which once formed a socket for it.

Our massive roundhouse threw up some lovely surprises. The big black crescent which shows so clearly on the photos is a hollow where animals were kept, with traces of fences to guide cattle and sheep around the interior. A dark layer at the base is a gold mine for us – it’s sealed by later activity, and must be linked to the use of the house. There’s been a long debate over what these houses were used for – now the samples we’ve taken should help us answer this. We’re hoping for traces of prehistoric cow dung – again, not the sort of thing which Indiana Jones would get out of bed for. Our star find from here is also minor league by his standards, but we’re chuffed – it’s a lovely spiral bronze finger ring, confirming that our house was in use around 2000 years ago.

Our big roundhouse, with the natty orange buckets marking where posts once stood. You can see where we’ve dug through the hollow where the cattle were once kept.

Our big roundhouse, with the natty orange buckets marking where posts once stood. You can see where we’ve dug through the hollow where the cattle were once kept.

Careful excavation of the bronze spiral ring.

Careful excavation of the bronze spiral ring.

Our other trenches will need radiocarbon dates before we can put them in their rightful place. One produced a metal-worker’s workshop, either Iron Age or Pictish in date. Finds included a clay doughnut which acted to shield the skin of the bellows from the heat of the fire – a vital tool but a rare find.

Digging up the workshop.

Digging up the workshop.

A clay doughnut? No, it’s a heat-shield for a metal-worker’s bellows.

A clay doughnut? No, it’s a heat-shield for a metal-worker’s bellows.

Another trench produced a very odd building – a squashed oval shape, its interior dominated by a massive sandstone slab over a metre across, which acted as a hearth. It’s much bigger than even the hungriest family would need – was this a special building for preparing feasts at ceremonies? And what date is it? I’ve been flicking through mental images, trying to find something similar, but it’s tricky – could be anything from Neolithic to Pictish, so we need to go and raise money for radiocarbon dates to find out.

A view over the enigmatic stone circle (?) to an equally enigmatic building!

A view over the enigmatic stone circle (?) to an equally enigmatic building!

That’s the great thing about archaeology – finding the unexpected. We got more of the story we were looking for, about the Iron Age and the Pictish period, but we got far more besides – a glimpse into lost worlds. Now for a winter of reading and head-scratching as I try to make sense of it all.

Kids from Lhanbryde Primary School helping us to sieve the spoilheaps.

Kids from Lhanbryde Primary School helping us to sieve the spoilheaps.

Optimistic future archaeologists showing off their finds.

Optimistic future archaeologists showing off their finds.

Lhanbryde kids learning how to build a roundhouse.

Lhanbryde kids learning how to build a roundhouse.

The dig team recreate a roundhouse

The dig team recreate a roundhouse – “posts” in a circle, “cows” round the edge, and a very creative “fire” in the middle.

An unusual find – a decorated shale bangle fragment. Shale isn’t local to the area – this must have been imported from the far side of the Moray Firth.

An unusual find – a decorated shale bangle fragment. Shale isn’t local to the area – this must have been imported from the far side of the Moray Firth.

Preparing to lift another unusual find – a largely-intact pot. A challenge for the conservators …

Preparing to lift another unusual find – a largely-intact pot. A challenge for the conservators …

You can read more about the dig in Fraser’s first and second blog posts about Clarkly Hill.

Dr Fraser HunterBy Fraser Hunter, Iron Age and Roman curator

Well, we’re over the halfway stage in our dig at Clarkly Hill, and things are getting really interesting. We started with our favourite tool, the big yellow mechanical trowel, which lets us strip away the disturbed ploughsoil.

the archaeologist’s favourite tool

The archaeologist’s favourite tool.

After that, it’s been cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, in very un-Scottish sunshine, to show up the archaeological traces.

cleaning off the last of the ploughsoil to show the archaeological traces

Cleaning off the last of the ploughsoil to show the archaeological traces.

Sun may be good for the tan but it’s bad for the archaeology – we rely on spotting colour differences between soils, and the sun burns these out – so we weren’t too unhappy when the rain came. Suddenly we could see the traces more clearly – a massive Iron Age roundhouse in one trench, with the big black curve marking a hollow where the animals were stabled. It’s 17 metres across inside – try pacing this out to see just how big these houses were.

Remains of a massive Iron Age roundhouse

Remains of a massive Iron Age roundhouse.

Our second trench developed a nasty case of measles when it rained – dark spots all over the place, marking pits and postholes from ancient activity.

A nasty case of measles – there’s archaeology everywhere!

A nasty case of measles – there’s archaeology everywhere!

But it didn’t make much sense from the ground – so we took to the air, thanks to a kite camera kit which John Wells donated to the museum in memory of his wife Rosie (see www.armadale.co.uk for some of their archaeological photos).

Taking to the air

Taking to the air.

It’s not just an excuse to play with a kite – the aerial view gives us a much better perspective.

Now it makes more sense – a little... How many houses can you spot?

Now it makes more sense – a little… How many houses can you spot?

Suddenly a roundhouse pops out, with the curving outer wall. But hold on – there’s the ring of posts from another – and another – and another… Lots more than we thought we’d find – and lots to deal with in the limited time we have, but we’ll dig and sample and try to disentangle them. It’s clear this was a popular place to stay in the Iron Age.

There are two tantalising blobs in this trench which we’re also disentangling. One’s producing loads of bits of crucibles from bronze-casting, and we’re hopeful it’s an Iron Age or Pictish workshop. The other looks like the sunken floor of a building too, with a hearth at one end – and a big pot beside it, which seems to be mostly intact. What’s it for? Well, it’s hidden by the ash from the hearth, so we won’t find out till we dig some more!

A workshop? The ash from a hearth at one end, cobbling at another – and a pot lurking to the left (though it’s hard to spot)

A workshop? The ash from a hearth at one end, cobbling at another – and a pot lurking to the left (though it’s hard to spot).

Our final trench is giving up its secrets slowly. It’s really well preserved, thanks to a deep overlying ploughsoil, and there are traces of building and a cobbled yard. So far no dating evidence, but we’ll be diving into it this week to find out more.

Cobbles, enclosures, building traces – there’s a lot going on in here!

Cobbles, enclosures, building traces – there’s a lot going on in here!

In the corner, there are what one visitor rightly called “muckle stanes” – some massive boulders inside a circular enclosure. Is it remains of a stone circle? Or an Iron Age or Pictish feature? We’ll try to find out this week…

The “muckle stanes” and the enclosure around them – a target for the coming week

The “muckle stanes” and the enclosure around them – a target for the coming week.

No space here to talk about the finds – look at our Facebook page for that – and you can see some of our volunteers hard at work there. We’ve also had loads of schoolkids out – thanks to funding from Moray LEADER and the Baxter Foundation, we’ve been able to fund an educational programme linked to the dig. The kids get to learn and to go home muddy – what could be better…?

Work continues

Pupils visiting the dig.

OK, the trench calls – we’ve an awful lot still to do in the last week. We’ll hope for decent weather (light rain overnight, overcast days, no wind – we’re not that demanding, really) and lots of nice finds. Come back in a week or so to see what happened!

Dr Fraser HunterBy Fraser Hunter, Iron Age and Roman curator

Archaeologists from National Museums Scotland are about to get muddy in the cause of science. We’re heading into the field at Clarkly Hill, near Elgin, in pursuit of ancient secrets. It’s part of a long-running project we’ve had in Moray since the mid-‘90s, looking at a number of sites which are revolutionising our views of the Iron Age (the period around 2000 years ago), the impact of the Romans far beyond Hadrian’s Wall, and the emergence of the Picts.

So far we’ve dug at Deskford, where the magnificent carnyx head was found in the 19th century, and at Birnie, where we dug for over a decade, revealing a major Iron Age power centre which received bribes of silver from the Romans. Next up – Clarkly Hill.

Digging out a hollow inside one roundhouse where animals were stabled

Digging out a hollow inside one roundhouse where animals were stabled.

The site was found by local metal-detectorists, who turned up fascinating finds in a blank field. Thanks to trial trenching and the magic of geophysics (“geofizz” in Time Team slang) we found a major Iron Age settlement – a power centre like Birnie, with rich finds and Roman imports – and another silver coin hoard. How were they linked to Birnie? Were these near-neighbours the leaders of the area? This work is really helping us understand Iron Age societies – competitive groups, seeking to get one over their rivals. What have the Romans ever given us? The answer, it seems, was bling – lots of lovely shiny stuff for impressing the neighbours and showing off to the in-laws.

Discovering a fragmentary lamp made of soapstone

Discovering a fragmentary lamp made of soapstone.

One of the early finds: an Iron Age glass bead

One of the early finds: an Iron Age glass bead.

Another find: two sherds of Roman pottery.

Another find: two sherds of Roman pottery.

But Clarkly has more than this. There are some fabulous Iron Age roundhouses, but when they’re abandoned something weird happens – standing stones were set up, with strange things buried beside them… Valuable objects of silver and bronze, complete iron tools, soapstone lamps – and beside one, strangest of all, a human skull, buried face down in a pit… We’ve still a lot to do on this, but it seems it became a sacred or special site – a weird place which is hard to parallel.

Pit with a human skull buried at the base.

Pit with a human skull buried at the base.

The trenches at Clarkly Hill

An Iron Age roundhouse, with an unusual series of standing stones erected across it.

Times changed again, and over the top of this is a later, apparently Pictish settlement – with really fragile remains, difficult to dig, but rare and exciting – and only preserved here because a later sandstorm buried the remains below the reach of destructive modern ploughs.

Shallow foundations of what is probably a Pictish building

Shallow foundations of what is probably a Pictish building.

This is our third and last year at the site* – and we’ve a wildly over-ambitious programme for the next three weeks. I’m aiming to look at another roundhouse, an enclosure, some funny magnetic signals which we hope are iron-smelting furnaces, and a mysterious blob. The holy grail would be nice too, but we’ll be happy with some convincing buildings, some nice finds, and some black gold – the charcoal and charred grains we use for radiocarbon dating. We’re encouraging local folk to come along and help – not just on the dig, but also in the backroom work which makes it all tick and helps us make sense of it. Thanks to grants from Moray LEADER and the Gordon & Ena Baxter Foundation, we’ll be running workshops and practical sessions in Moray right through until December – for details, check out the project Facebook page.

So what’ll we find? The joy of archaeology is – you never know till you dig it. Come back in a week or two to hear how we’re getting on.

The excavation team in 2012

The slag miners after a hard day digging up iron slag (the residues of iron smelting).

(*Big thanks to our funders – Moray LEADER, Gordon & Ena Baxter Foundation, the Welsh Family Trust , the Keillar family, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Association for Roman Archaeology, the Moray Society, the Moray Field Club and Cardiff University.)

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