Post-excavation Workshops

Head over to the events page to find out more about the post-excavation workshops taking place in Stoer Hall, Wednesday 14th to Friday 16th of November 2012. All welcome!

Excavations completed

Having half sectioned the pit feature on Tuesday, today we removed the remaining fill and discovered some very large, flattish, upright stones resting against the northern-most edge of the pit. The whole pit seems to have been lined with a layer of clay.

The pit after being fully excavated, viewed from the east

The jury is out on what these stones represent, and the overall function of the site, but we can state with some certainty that large amounts of water were being heated, perhaps for bathing. We’ll post more detailed results later, once we have radiocarbon dates and once other post-ex analyses have been conducted.

The pit fully revealed

Today we continued excavating the central area of the mound to reveal the extent of the pit. Once the central baulks were removed we could make out the outline of the dark black deposit, and also see the large stones resting on top of the pit fill more clearly. These stones are not heat-shattered like the mound material, and were covered over with an orange clay layer.

The extent of the pit after the removal of the baulks

After revealing the extent of the pit, we began removing the fill material, starting with the south-eastern half of the material. A channel cut into the natural runs into the pit from the south-east. The pit it steep-sided, around 60cm deep, the glacial till forming the bottom – although the pit’s excavators dug down through the glacial till for around 10cm, which must have been very hard going!

The depth of the pit  is revealed

Eader a’ Chalder heritage Trail

Ardvreck Castle and Calder House are amongst Assynt’s most popular tourist stops, and the car park where we met for this trail almost always has visitor cars or buses parked in it. But this trail turned its back on the iconic ruins and set off to explore inland, and the 23 participants in the walk were invited to discover some of the nearby heritage that they might not otherwise notice.

Stevan Lockhart and Nigel Goldie were the guides for this walk into the unknown. The walk began with a quick summary of the basic geology – the ancient rocks on the far side of Loch Assynt on Beinn Garbh give one of the best views of the contrast between the 3 billion year old Lewisian Gneiss and the Torridonian sandstone layed down on it a billion year ago. Under our feet it was all much newer limestone and Stevan did a good job of explaining why this underlying rock has affected everything that has happened there since. The alkali rock has led to a distinctive flora, in particular the best grazing land in the parish, which explains why everyone from neolithic and bronze age people, to mediaeval clan leaders and eighteenth century tacksman, have wanted to live there.

The signs of all of those people lie, half-smothered in grass – a succession of ruined buildings reflecting the styles and status of different periods. This landscape, as the guides pointed out, represents the entire social history of the Highlands, in miniature. People have come and settled, they have been usurped by newly powerful arrivals, the land was cleared of its indigenous inhabitants to make way for sheep ranching, which in turn failed, and was replaced by the management of sporting landowners.

Natural processes flow on, underpinning and responding to the human changes. The recent reductions in grazing by sheep and deer mean that trees are starting to sprout in the margins of the river gully woods.Who knows what this landscape will look like in future? And what will future generations look for in the land?

One of the clearest things revealed by this fascinating trail is the way what we see in the land depends utterly on what we look for. Seek romantic views, and you shall find them. Seek the traces of geology, and they are everywhere. Seek social and historic trauma, that’s there too.

This walk completed our five heritage trail pilots. But this is just the beginning of a process of development of these trails, so watch this space.


Clachtoll heritage trail

It was a beautiful afternoon for a walk at Clachtoll and 18 of us gathered to stroll out to the split rock and along to the broch. David and Avril Haines were our well-researched guides.

This heritage trail explores the coastal fringe of Assynt – starting from some of the oldest rocks in the world and some of the oldest fossil lifeforms, right through bronze age and iron age habitation and on to the tourism businesses and crofters of the present day.

We made our way across the beach and out to the split rock, noticing old dykes and cultivation ditches, and visiting the ‘gloup’, from which Clachtoll (stone with a hole) may have got its name, if it wasn’t from the somewhat more obvious feature pictured above. On top of said split rock is one of Assynt’s many archeaological mysteries – vitrified walling, but burnt when and why and by whom?

After looping back round to the beach we walked north, nodding to the old salmon bothy and the plaque commemorating the congregation of Rev Norman Macleod, who sailed away during the mass migrations of the 19th century. The trail then took us further back in time, to a bronze age burial cist, and a dragon toothed wall where alongside the human debris, we found an intriguing pellet of shells and bone, left by some bird, now long flown.

Our final stop was at the broch, where we spent three fascinating weeks digging last year – for more of which see here. As if in tribute, an otter has made its own small tower just in front of the iron age building – a spraint post with a view if ever there was one.

The nice thing about these heritage trails is the way they weave together features of the land that are made with and without human intervention, and David and Avril were particularly adept at pointing out the wildlife sharing this place with people. It’s always humbling to be with someone who can recognise that smudge on the horizon as a greenshank, on its way south after a summer in Iceland, or the indistinct bobbing thing out at sea as not just an eider duck, but (through some difference discernable at that distance only to an expert), female. The walk today showed perfectly how people and wildlife cohabit this coastal strip, as they have done for thousands of years, and hopefully will continue to do so for many more to come.

Exciting times at Stronechrubie

Things have been getting very interesting on site today. At long last, the features in the centre of the mound have become much clearer and we have identified a large pit filled with an almost black, stony context. After thoroughly cleaning the site and taking photographs, we spent this afternoon recording the two sections (vertical faces) of both of the excavated quadrants, in which the layers overlying the pit are clearly visible. The pit contains a broadly circular arrangement of large stones which are particularly interesting as they are not heat-shattered like the mound material.

The site viewed from the north. You can see the large pit in the centre, currently obscured by the baulks – but not for much longer!

Tomorrow we will remove the baulks that currently cross the pit. Then we will be able to excavate the pit itself – and who knows what we’ll find!

Recording the sections

Neolithic heritage trail

Our aim in developing the heritage trails is to create a multi-layered approach to interpreting the landscape, not only combining different bodies of knowledge, like geology, archaeology and ecology, but really exploring the connections between rocks, climate, soils, plants, animals and people. We want to understand how the social history of Assynt’s land use by people emerges out of, indeed is part of, the natural history of this land.

The Neolithic heritage trail focuses on the people who were living here 5 or 6 thousand years ago, and who built the many chambered cairns along the T-shaped corridor from Loch Borralan to Loch Assynt, and down to Knockan. This is the greatest concentration of chambered cairns in mainland Scotland, and this trail explores how its location is no mere accident, but is intimately connected to the rocks on which they stand, and out of which they are built.

To bring this story alive, we had Bill Ritchie and Gordon Sleight, both passionate and knowledgeable about their fields. Bill tells the story of the land from the rocks up. Gordon starts from the archaeological monuments and works out from them into the landscape. Together they conjured the world of the neolithic cairn builders, the choices they had to make and the decisions they settled on.

With a lively bunch of 22 people, we spent five hours looking intently at four cairns, two beside Loch Borralan and two behind Ledbeg house. We noticed the choices of stones and imagined their forms, newly built, standing out in the landscape, and how they would have glittered and sparkled by lamp-light inside. We learned how the syanite, limestone, quartzite, sandstone and gneiss from which they were built formed, and how these different rocks have influenced how the land looks and has functioned ever since.

From time to time we fell to speculating on what beliefs the people who built the cairns might have had – whether such wondering is geo-archeo-theology or whether it’s just fiction, coming up with stories about what the neolithic people got up to in their cairns is a pleasing way to spend a Sunday.

What’s in no doubt is that those stone age people are well-named. They sure knew their stones.

Halfway There

We’ve been digging with volunteers since Wednesday, and today was especially busy due to ‘Music Through the Ages’, a celebration of music through time. With over 60 visitors to site, we demonstrated hot stone technologies to quite a crowd, baked a trout in local clay (from Clachtoll) in the fire and gave everyone a tour of the site. We’ve made a great deal of progress since our last post, having divided the site into four quarters and excavated the SW and NE quadrants in earnest. The burnt mound in fact comprises three discrete mounds of heat shattered stones, in the centre of and overlying which lies a layer of light red-orange clay. On top of this clay lay a small, round-ish burnt feature – samples have been collected for dating.

The site currently fits the burnt mound model in that it shows evidence for the heating of stones, without any evidence for settlement and habitation. However the function of the site remains elusive, and may well remain so. The next few days will determine whether or not the central area contains any further evidence that may help us understand this site better.

Hard at work at Stronechrubie

Music Through Time

At least 70 people came to the dig on Saturday to listen to music through the ages, and imagine what people who have lived at Stronechrubie may have played, sung, listened and danced to over the years. From prehistoric sticks, stones and drums right through to the songs and tunes of the clearance period, a fantastic programme of musicians entertained us all day long. Thanks to everyone who was involved, especially Henry Fosbrooke, Bob Pegg, Anne Woods, Jorine van Delft, Eddie Strachan, Maggie Graham and Helen Steven.

And thanks also to the AOC archaeology team who demonstrated how the burnt mound was formed to the fascinated crowd.

Kirkton heritage trail

Kirkton is a spooky place. Climb up from Loch Assynt through the ruins of a village where nearly 30 families were cleared two hundred years ago, trying not to get lost among the weird, lumpy limestone rocks, which form ridges that occlude and baffle, even when you think you know the way. Work your way up, and eventually you find yourself in a boggy glen, where springs gush out of the rock as if from nowhere.

Here there are strange mounds. Humps, like pelvic bones of a buried giant. Bumps, like breasts. What are they?

The archaeologists say they are burnt mounds. There are an indeterminate number of them, seven according to the first record, four or maybe five according to a more recent archaeological survey. But this ground seems to shift as you pass – when you look behind you it’s no longer the same as it was on the way in. Some of the lumps may be formed by humans, others have more ‘natural’ causes. But what is natural and what is unnatural? It’s hard to say.

At Stronechrubie the archaeologists are digging a burnt mound, as we walk among these smaller, more mysterious features, but even down there, close to the road, in the open valley, the burnt mounds ask more questions than they answer. What were they for? Cooking? Brewing? Tanning? Bathing?

Here, in this glen of shifting springs, we wonder about magical rituals and secret birthing rites. We imagine the smell of woodsmoke and the cries of a woman in labour. Romany and Jorine our guides point out medicinal herbs in the grass, and we can almost hear the chanting of the shaman as she sits beside her steaming water vat, gesturing cures out of the haze, invoking the temperamental spirit that sends sweet clear water out of the earth into these shifting, variable springs.

As if joining the incantation, a stag roars and his harem of five hinds gallop away towards the valley of the trolls, the Trallygill, up there in the mountains. We have no difficulty believing in the trolls.

We leave the secret glen and return to the modern world, still partly entranced, still full of wondering…