Cnoc nan Each heritage trail

It was a lovely afternoon for a walk, and nine of us set off in sunshine to the woods on Cnoc nan Each, the hill of the horses, in search of the signs of human habitation of this area. This was the first of our five heritage trails and the guides, Claire Belshaw and Sharon Bartram, did a great job of taking us back in time.

The signs of past occupation are many, once you start looking – from a dyke through the woods, to the abandoned shepherds house, to the village cleared to make way for sheep, right back to bronze age round houses overlooking an ancient water meadow. What appears at first glance like a wild and empty glen has clearly been home to people for thousands of years.

From the bronze age house we looked out over the spectacular landscape, bronzed with autumn. A rainbow rose nearby, curved over us and down again on the slope, suggesting that we were standing on buried treasure – who knows what archaeologists might find if they dug into the footings of the circular building?

Inevitably the walk raised more questions than it answered. We’ll never really know what life was like for the inhabitants of Cnoc nan Each back when the houses were lived in, or even what those houses would have really looked like. But it is fascinating to imagine a time, slightly warmer and dryer than now, the glen filled with the voices of perhaps 50 people, children, cattle, the scent of birchwood smoke, the crunch of a barley bannock ground on a stone quern, maybe a whistle or the beat of a drum.

On Saturday we’re going to be playing music from all the ages from the past, out at the Stronechrubie dig site, and experimenting with some food – more fuel for our historical imaginations. And tomorrow we’ll go to Kirkton, once again passing through the ruins of a village cleared for sheep, then into a valley of burnt mounds, another bronze age round house and a neolithic chambered cairn. Walking back in time…

Volunteers arrive at Stronechrubie

We (AOC archaeologists Graeme, Charlotte, Alan and Jake) arrived on site on Monday and began deturfing and preparing for the arrival of volunteers today. Work is continuing more rapidly now, with the heat-shattered stone of the mound contrasting clearly with the soft, brown soil that fills the central depression. As we progress we hope to discover the remains of some sort of tank or pit in the centre.

We are conducting a series of informal experiments alongside the excavations. Yesterday we created two hearths, digging two shallow pits which we lined with gravel and surrounded with flattish stones. Nearby we dug small rectangular pits, and today we lined one of these with planks to replicate the form of numerous excavated examples. We heated around a dozen small river boulders in the fire and dropped them into the water-filled tank. The water temperature quickly rose to around 50 degrees centigrade. Not quite boiling, but we’ll try again tomorrow, and eventually we’ll attempt to cook a haunch of venison!

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Digging underway

During the day the archaeological team have skimmed the turf off the top of the burnt mound, and already discovered some fire-split stones. This at least proves that it is not a geological phenomenon, just a load of stones dumped out of the pockets of a departing ice sheet a few thousand years back. Instead it looks likely to be the debris from human activity involving fire and water, which is what we were hoping.

Some test pits have been dug, and immediately filled up with water, showing that the water table on much of the site is at floor height. Channels, dams and pumps have been mentioned. Water is, as expected, not going to be in short supply.

We have also brought in some wood and a bucket of local clay, to line a water tank for the experimental archaeology work. And the digging of the burnt mound will now begin in earnest, looking to see if there are signs of a water tank in the crotch of the crescent.

At 5pm in Lochinver Hall, Graeme Cavers, lead archaeologist, officially launched the project with a talk to a small but appreciative audience. His pictures included some intriguing drawings from burnt mound digs in Shetland and the Uists, which have uncovered really quite complex multi-celled structures. Although other digs have revealed no more than a heap of split stones, this left us excited that under the Stronechrubie mound there may be something really interesting. All power to the diggers! Let’s find out what’s in there.

No fire without firewood

This is the fire and water project, and as this image illustrates, we have got our priorities right. The invisible burnt mound is at the far end of this flat bit of ground, at Stronechrubie, and the firewood has arrived bang on time. We shall have fire!

As for the water, since we now have a team of AOC archaeologists in Assynt, we will no doubt have plenty of it cascading down from the heavens for the next couple of weeks. John Barber demonstrated this conclusively last week, bringing with him his own private cloud to drench us all whenever he was around.

We have therefore taken the prudent step of organising a tent, in the hope that a good stretched canvas will keep the latter away from the former. More of which anon.