Clarkly Hill Dig


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.)