Archaeology lab comes to Assynt

For the past three days, Stoer Village Hall has been transformed into an archaeology lab, with Jack Robertson from AOC archeaology teaching local people in Assynt how to analyse what we dug up at Stronechrubie. It’s been fascinating and Jack was a fun and patient teacher.

Who would have thought you could peer down a microscope and find out what kind of firewood people burned thousands of years ago to heat their bathwater? Birch and hazel wasn’t a surprise, but the amount of alder was, and one of the hawthorn/apple/pear/quince group of species seems positively exotic. The combination of all these species together suggests a more wooded landscape and a more diverse woodland than remains in the area of the burnt mound today.

Over the three days we learned how to sort through the samples from the dig, grading them by size and isolating any potentially interesting material, including charcoal and any bones or seeds or other signs of charred life. The lack of food and cooking remains confirms the view that the burnt mound was a bathing rather than a cooking site, and we were amazed by just how much charcoal there was in the samples.

The greatest excitement came when the charcoal went under the microscope and we learned how to identify the species from the different patterns of cells. Some of the sections of charcoal are absolutely beautiful under magnification, with all the intricacy of their pipework revealed.

Looking up from the microscope it’s like I’ve peered back in time. I can picture a bronze age woman chucking a big chunk of birch on the fire to heat the stones up nice and hot. I can almost smell the woodsmoke and feel the warm water and see the steam billowing as she gets ready for a well-earned bath. On a nasty cold wet November evening like today, just thinking about it is enough to send me off in search of bubbles…

It’s brilliant that AOC have brought their lab to us. Normally the samples would be processed in the lab down south and we’d hear the results, but how much more fascinating it has been to be able to get our hands literally dirty sorting through what we dug up. We can’t wait to find out what the carbon dating of the charcoal will reveal and we are full of ideas about how we can use our newly learned post-ex skills (yes, we’re even getting into the jargon) to uncover some more of the secrets lying around in Assynt waiting to be dug up from the ground.