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.)

Dr Fraser HunterBy Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator of Iron Age and Roman Collections

It’s not often I get an email asking if I’d like to be on telly – still rarer to get a chance to inflict my thoughts about the Romans on a mass audience! But an email out of the blue earlier this year led to a series of conversations with BBC Scotland, and eventually the decision to do a programme – Scotland: Rome’s Final Frontier, BBC2, Friday 7 Dec at 9pm (after the watershed – but don’t worry, it’s mostly family-friendly…).

So why the Romans? Well, they’re always a popular topic when I do talks or prepare exhibitions – but there are lots of misconceptions. “Were the Romans ever here?” “Didn’t they stay at Hadrian’s Wall?” “Didn’t the Scots chase them out of the country?” Some people love them – after all, much of our own society is modelled on the Roman world – but others hate them, and see them as imperialist aggressors. There’s a lot of (misplaced) pride in Scotland that the Romans couldn’t conquer us. But is that true? Or was it just not worth their effort?

It’s a fascinating story with so many different angles. There have been lots of new finds – like the hoards of Roman silver coins which we excavated on an Iron Age farm at Birnie, near Elgin, evidence of a Roman policy of gifts and bribes to keep the peace. There are also lots of new ideas – about life around the forts, about who these Romans actually were (very few came from Italy), and about what impact they had on the local populations, for example.

Hoard of coins found at Birnie.

Hoard of coins found at Birnie.

We filmed some of the treasures in the National Museum of Scotland, both the well-known and the less familiar, and travelled the length of Scotland looking at some of the amazing Roman military sites which still survive – like Raedykes, near Stonehaven, where you can still see the banks and ditches of a Roman overnight camp, or the much-debated Burnswark, near Lockerbie, where two Roman siege camps hold the local hillfort in their grip. A real siege or a practice range? For me the evidence suggests it was real, but have a look on Friday and see what you think!

Burnswark from the air.

Burnswark from the air.

Eye in the sky at Burnswark

Eye in the sky at Burnswark.

Not all sites are so well-preserved. Underneath the modern village of Inveresk, south of Musselburgh, there was a Roman fort with a big civilian settlement around it – houses, workshops, bars, temples, cemeteries, the works. Almost nothing can be seen today – but thanks to whizzy computer graphics created by Dr Matthew Nicholls of Reading University we can show reconstructions, based on the latest archaeological evidence. These also allowed us to show the largest marching camp in the Roman world, at St Leonard’s, near Lauder, where the emperor Septimius Severus himself once slept when he was on campaign, guarded by some 40,000 men – today, it’s a field full of sheep. Or we could bring to life the results of our Birnie excavations, putting houses and hedges into our empty postholes and pits.

Filming the Inveresk reconstruction

Filming the Inveresk reconstruction.

Filming in a field at St Leonard's

Filming in a field at St Leonard’s.

The crew setting up some technical wizardry

The crew setting up some technical wizardry.

The muddy glamour of TV work

The muddy glamour of TV work.

I was keen that we should shake up people’s views on the topic, and put it into a broader context. There are lots of parallels with modern empires – where the first world meets the third world, and doesn’t always come off best. Places like Afghanistan, for example. We had a really good chat with Major-General Andrew Mackay, who commanded British forces in Helmand. He gave us ways into the heads of soldiers as they try to conquer a country, or control an insurgency – and many of the problems and solutions haven’t changed much in 2000 years.

One of the most surprising aspects of Roman Scotland is the evidence from elsewhere in the empire which adds to our story. For me, the most amazing example comes from Morocco, where an arch in the ancient city of Volubilis commemorated the emperor Caracalla, the son of Severus, who led campaigns into Scotland. On this massive arch was a huge statue of the emperor – but all that survives is a fragment of bronze cloak. Carved into it is a picture of one of his enemies – a tartan-clad Caledonian, shown as a captive, a victim of Rome’s power. It’s a vivid example of how Rome saw her enemies – and it gives us a glimpse of the prehistory of tartan, with the complex checked patterns which lie behind our modern garb.

This makes a fantastic story. But I had an ulterior motive – for the arch was said to be decorated with sculptures featuring captured weaponry from the Caledonian campaigns. I’d been told these included a carnyx – the Iron Age animal-headed trumpet – but the available pictures were too shadowy to be certain. Now, we have a carnyx in our collections, from Deskford – one of the finest known. I’ve been studying it for 20 years, and did my PhD on it, but I’d never been able to confirm this example. At last, a trip to Morocco, a frantic search in the blazing sun while the film-crew drummed their fingers – and confirmation that there were carnyces here. A rather battered icon of Caledonia carved into the stones of the Moroccan desert. Another piece in the jigsaw fell into place. Sadly the director, Andy Twaddle, thought this was too nerdy for the viewing public – but it made me happy, and he was very tolerant of most of my other obsessions and suggestions.

The Volubilis arch

The Volubilis arch.

The battered carnyx at Volubilis.

The battered carnyx at Volubilis.

So why didn’t the Romans conquer Scotland? Too tough, or not worth the bother? Tune in on Friday to find out!