Time to damp the fire down for a while

The Fire and Water project is now complete. We’re very pleased with how the project has gone. We have uncovered the mystery of the burnt mound at Stronchrubie, which we now believe to be a bronze age ritual bathing site, and we discovered that it was re-used during the mediaeval period. The results from the archaeology lab is now revealing that the intriguing moated site at Inchnadamph was in use right up until when Ardvreck castle was built.

We now have five fascinating heritage trails, which we hope you will enjoy. Please walk them! The trail information can be found on this website here and we welcome your feedback.

Altogether this project has had tremendous participation from the community. We have counted the people taking part in all the events, from visiting the digs, coming to our Music Through Time day back in October, visiting a finds workshop or the post-excavation lab at Stoer Community Hall, or coming on a walk with us. It adds up to 509 people (with some people counted many times as they have taken part in lots of events!)

You can read the project evaluation report here: fire and water project evaluation report.

Thank you all for taking part. Particular thanks to AOC Archaeology for technical skill, friendliness, enthusiasm and help – and for hosting this website! None of it could happen without our unstoppable project leader, Gordon Sleight, so particular thanks to him.

Keep in touch with Historic Assynt by liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter. We’ll try to keep the embers warm until our next blaze of activity.

All done at Inchnadamph

Until the next time…

Hole in-filled, turf relaced, archaeologist ready to go home, a good week’s work well done.

What secrets will these buckets of finds reveal?

If you live locally and would like a summary of what the Fire and Water project has learned, and what Historic Assynt is planning for the future, come to the AGM on Wednesday 6 March, 7.30pm in the Lochinver Community Room. As ever, all welcome.

What a muddy little bit of hazel stick tells us

Scotty, Graeme and John digging

The diggers hit the bottom of the moat today, and the various interesting bits and bobs dug up included a little bit of hazel stick. This was a nice coincidence as in the afternoon Graeme came to the community event at Stoer Hall, organised by Romany Garnett, our new tree nursery worker, all about hazel. After being exhorted by local ecologist Ian Evans to cherish the wonderful asset we have in our hazels, we planted some young hazel trees, and a group of people, led by Chris Park, set about making a wattle hurdle. We have agreed that when we come to do more work on the broch, we will endeavour to replicate the wattle flooring, the remains of which we found on the scarcement ledge back in 2012 (see here).

Graeme gave a fascinating presentation about how hazel has been used through the millennia, as deduced from wood excavated from various sites around the British Isles. Among Graeme’s pictures was one of the home of an Irish king, who lived in what was effectively a big elaborate upturned hazel basket. Unfortunately we haven’t yet excavated anything to tell us what structures may have been built with the hazel at Inchnadamph, but the fact that there was a hazel stick there means we’re free to speculate! From what Graeme showed us, our stick was quite likely to have been part of a wattle hurdle, perhaps used as the wall of a dwelling, or as part of a stock enclosure, or a gate. Maybe it was a draw-bridge over the moat!

Sieving soil at Inchnadamph

What is really exciting is that a dendrochronologist maybe able to examine it and use it to give a pretty precise date for the site, and at least carbon dating it will give us a ballpark figure for when the moated island was in use.

The sieved soil continued to reveal pieces of pottery, bone fragments and iron slag, which will all add to the story, back at the lab.




Inside the moat is a castle, a village, a stable, a monastery, a garden, a dance platform and nobody is allowed inside

This morning we were visited at the dig by 30 children from Lochinver and Stoer primary schools. They began by walking the moat, spreading out into a big ring to demonstrate exactly what we are dealing with. They then gathered within it and set about deciding what used to be there. The suggestions were wild and wonderful, but what was quite clear was that whoever it was that built the moat didn’t want anyone else inside. Personally I like the idea that it was someone’s private flower garden, but at the moment we still don’t know which of the ideas is closest to the truth.

Meanwhile the archaeologists have made great progress down into the moat, which is, as Charlotte put it, in strictly technical terms, ‘getting a little bit moaty’. In other words, as the water steadily seeped into the trench, Graeme, Scotty and anyone else who could be persuaded to get down there, were bailing as hard as they were digging, The good news about all this waterlogging, however, is that it means that any old rubbish chucked into the ditch, including organic materials, stand a chance of having been preserved.

Sure enough, just as I was leaving, Graeme unearthed a piece of wood from the moat. It was rushed into a bag, with water, and tucked away out of the light to stop it starting to decompose. Some visitors asked if it might be part of a structure, but it might just as likely be a bit of broken bucket. Whichever, it can be dated, and I have no doubt that some wizardly post-excavation lab-work will reveal all kinds of interesting things about it. It’s intriguing to know that a mediaeval joiner or wood turner has left their fingerprint in Inchnadamph – that little chunk of wood brings them so much closer to us.

There have been some other finds too, most coming from the outer bank, including interesting looking pieces of decorated, wheel-thrown pottery, several chunks of slag from iron-working, and some hazel charcoal.

The charcoal is particularly pleasing, as tomorrow there is a celebration of hazel trees at Stoer Hall (2-5pm, all welcome!) so we will take it along. AOC have very kindly donated a microscope to us, so we’ll be able to look at it in detail, as well as hear from Graeme about the other hazel finds from the broch and the burnt mound, and what they tell us about what life was like for earlier inhabitants of sunny Assynt.

Sunny Assynt it remains, spectacularly so: cold, breezy and gloriously bright, the perfect weather for digging.

Finds in the moat at Inchnadamph

Another glorious sunny day, with a bit of a chilly wind picking up in the afternoon. Someone on site reported that the highlight of today was the toilet tent blowing away. Our six hardy volunteers took a break from digging to visit the old Kirk with Helen Morrison and were very impressed, describing it as ‘a credit to the people of Assynt’.

Inside of the moat, more of the stone bank has been revealed. It is about 2 metres wide and looks at this stage to be more of a rubble bank of rounded stones rather than a built stone wall. The trench inside the bank has been dug down to the subsoil and so far nothing has been revealed.

The rubble bank inside the moat

The inside edge of the moat – a rubble bank

But the finds bags already contain treasure! Several shards of pottery were found in the trench on the outside bank of the moat, which appears to be more than 2 metres wide. After digging down just less than a metre the water table has now been reached, so that will prove a logistical challenge for going deeper. The archaeologists are speculating that if the water table was at this point when whatever it is was in use, the moat may not have needed to be fed by an active stream, but could have filled with ground water.

Tomorrow we’ll be visited by a horde of primary school children, so here’s hoping it’s another beautiful day.

Digging begins in sunshine at Inchnadamph

Day 1 of the dig at Inchnadamph

Day 1 of the dig at Inchnadamph

For once, the AOC Archaeology team has arrived in Assynt to see it as it usually is, radiant under a blue sky. The team of Graeme and Charlotte, plus six volunteers, were all stripped down to tee shirts by the time I got there. It’s remarkable how much ground eight people can clear of turf in just one hour. I was handed a mattock and got down to some serious earth shifting and before too long, I was hitting stones that were undoubtedly some sort of structure.

...some sort of structure...

…some sort of structure…

What sort of structure? I asked Graeme what he is expecting to find. The site is a possibly-moated platform, with a embankment around that, and we were digging into the ditch around it, so this may be the start of the wall of whatever was inside the moat on the platform. The plan is to dig quite deeply down, possibly to 2 metres below the top of the embankment, and who knows what we’ll discover. That’s the magic of archaeology!

Within a few minutes I was into the rhythm of it, the shovel and mattock keeping the body active and the mind free to roam and speculate. Nearby is the graveyard and beyond it, the old kirk. A fragmented stone cross has been found here, its design suggesting that it could be more than a thousand years old. Moated sites like the one we are digging are often found to be mediaeval, and so we hope it may shed some light on what was going on here in that period. Was there a monastery here?

The great news is that this gorgeous sunny weather is supposed to be set for the week. I was dreading the idea of a week in a ditch full of rain and mud, but whatever it is that has cursed previous digs with deluges and storms seems to be looking kindly on this one. So far…

Time to get muddy again in Assynt!

A team of archaeologists will be back in Assynt next week (18-22 February 2013), to dig the moated area close to the old kirk at Inchnadamph. There are some details of what they will be doing here.

Volunteers and visitors are very welcome to come and see what they will be doing, and to join in. A little bit of mud never hurt anyone! They say it’s good for the complexion…

If you’d like to visit or take part, please contact Gordon Sleight, Phone: 01571 855207, Email: g[email protected]

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.


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.