Prior to the construction of the A75 Dunragit Bypass, GUARD Archaeology undertook archaeological investigations uncovering a wealth of prehistoric archaeology. The earliest settlement in Galloway, a Neolithic/Bronze Age ritual landscape, two Bronze Age cemeteries and an Iron Age village were uncovered thereby labelling it the ‘Prehistoric Heart of Galloway’.

Dunragit revisited

Dr Kenny Brophy is a senior lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, whose primary research interests are public archaeology, contemporary archaeology and the Neolithic of Britain. Kenny is the Academic Editor for the A75 Dunragit Bypass post-excavation works and is this month’s guest contributor to the blog.

In the summer of 1999, twenty years ago, I drove down to Wigtownshire to spend a week’s holiday from my job with the aerial survey team of the former Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), now Historic Environment Scotland (HES), to help with a major excavation at one of the most significant Neolithic cropmark complexes in Scotland – Dunragit. This is a site that had already been close to my heart for a long time, as a Neolithic researcher and cropmark obsessive. I had even been asked on to a show on BBC Radio Scotland to talk about the significance of the cropmarks and why they were ‘Scotland’s Stonehenge’ (clue: they are not!).

One of the first air photos taken of the Dunragit cropmark complex in 1992, the year the site was discovered, during a dry hot summer © Crown copyright: HES.

The chance to work with Julian Thomas (now Professor of Archaeology at Manchester University) again was also too good to miss, having served as site supervisor for him at his excavations at Holywood cursus complex and Holm Farm in the two previous summers, both also in Dumfries and Galloway. During my week at Dunragit, I got to dig some Neolithic post-holes which is one of the most pleasurable ways possible to spend a summer’s day!

Two of my photos taken at the Dunragit excavations in 1999 (photos: K Brophy)

I have been thinking a lot about this site and that summer recently, because I am now advising GUARD Archaeology on the post-excavation and writing up of their excavations along the route of the new A75 Dunragit Bypass. The significant discoveries made along this road corridor are adding a huge amount of information, depth and context to Thomas’s excavations of the main cropmark complex, published in his 2015 book A Neolithic ceremonial complex in Galloway. Amongst other things he excavated parts of an early Neolithic timber cursus monument (rectangular enclosure dating to about 3800 BC) and a huge triple-boundary timber palisaded enclosure of the late Neolithic (2800-2600 BC); all of this archaeology had been recorded as cropmarks. GUARD Archaeology’s work has added to this considerably.

Droughduil Mote, in May 2019 (photo: K Brophy)

It was a recent visit to Dunragit with the Neolithic Studies Group that brought home to me the significance of GUARD Archaeology’s discoveries. We visited the Droughduil Mote, a huge flat-topped mound to the south of the main cropmark area. Thomas excavated this (with a minibus load of students from my archaeology department at Glasgow there to help) in 2002, on a hunch, because the mound was aligned upon by the entrance avenue to the Neolithic enclosures he had been excavating to the north. It turned out to be a sand dune that was artificially enhanced in the Neolithic period, an enormous endeavour to create a viewing platform to overlook ceremonies and rituals being carried out nearby. The excavations undertaken for the A75 Dunragit Bypass project in the area between the Droughduil Mote and the Neolithic enclosures of Dunragit and will hopefully shed some light on the activities that took place here in the Neolithic period.

One thing Julian was not able to determine during his three seasons of excavations was – what was going on between the timber enclosures he investigated at Dunragit and the big mound in prehistory? Cropmarks had not been able to fill in the detail of this flat area and a gap of a few hundred metres. A gap now filled by the A75 Dunragit Bypass!

The route of the bypass enabled excavations to take place in this area, known as Droughduil Holdings, in 2014, to help begin to solve the mystery of what lay between the Neolithic timber enclosures at Dunragit and the Mote mound. Right across the road corridor zone, effectively sampling this part of the Neolithic landscape, dozens of pits and post-holes were found. The post-excavation work currently being undertaken by Transport Scotland and GUARD Archaeology will provide dates for this activity, but it seems likely that Neolithic activity is represented here, with possible alignments and even structures identifiable, which will shed light – we hope – on how people were navigating this part of the landscape in the Neolithic period, perhaps part of ritual processions.

View east along investigation area at Droughduil Holdings (GUARD Archaeology)

The A75 archaeological work as a whole will add a huge amount to our understanding of the major Neolithic complex at Dunragit, but also expand the time-depth of our knowledge of this place, with major Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age discoveries made in the vicinity. Dunragit and Droughduil is not just a Neolithic story but goes back centuries before and runs on centuries after the monuments Julian Thomas focused on. We have come a long way in 20 years. Back then Dunragit was only a set of dark marks amongst the crops on air photographs, a site of potential but essentially an area where the archaeology was as yet poorly understood. Thomas’s excavations got the ball rolling, but it took the broader landscape sampling offered by the construction of the new bypass to open up insights into the context of the timber enclosures.

In turn, the amazing discoveries made by GUARD Archaeology on behalf of Transport Scotland will help us not just better understand what was happening at Dunragit thousands of years ago, but also help us say lots of new things about Scotland in prehistory.

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Engaging Local Schools

Communicating the results of our work to as wide an audience as possible is one of the key principles of GUARD Archaeology and accords with Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy. So, it was with great pleasure that a team of GUARD Archaeologists led an engagement event at Glenluce and Castle Kennedy Primary Schools on 30th April 2019.

There were 56 children from P5, P6 and P7 across both schools involved in clay modelling and paper craft activities led by GUARD Graphics Officers Gillian Sneddon and Jennifer Simonson. We took along one of the conserved pottery vessels and numerous stone tools from the excavations associated with the A75 Dunragit Bypass, to use in the activities.

One of the activities the children undertook was the paper recreation of the pot from cut-out paper fragments which were glued together to form the outline of the vessel. They also learned how to record notes on the pot – what it was made from, its decorative details and its age. They then coloured in the same pot adding their own take on the decoration. This was followed by clay modelling where the same children had to try to recreate the vessel using air-drying clay and modelling tools that may have been used for the original, such as twigs, cord, feathers etc. The children created some very individual-looking pots with their own personal touches.

James Ferguson, Acting Head Teacher at Glenluce and Castle Kennedy Primary Schools commented that, ‘The children really enjoyed the experience and were stimulated by the range of activities, which raised their awareness of the historical significance of their locality.’

‘This was a valuable opportunity to engage with the local school children and to teach them about the significant prehistoric archaeology discovered around Dunragit during the A75 bypass construction,’ added Warren Bailie, who is managing the programme of archaeological work. ‘The drawing and clay modelling were great ways for the kids to learn about the lifestyles of past communities who utilised this landscape thousands of years ago.’

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Processing of soil samples

Searching for charcoal in the processed samples

During the fieldwork investigations some 3,190 bulk soil samples were recovered from archaeological contexts. Processing and analysis of these samples will recover small artefacts as well as plant remains (charcoal, seeds, pollen, including insect remains and possibly land snails etc). Identification of the plant remains may provide information on the types of crops grown and the local vegetation history and environment. This analysis will also provide information on available organic resources for each period, as well as providing material suitable for radiocarbon dating. The work will also contribute to our understanding of how the wider climate and the local environment have changed over the past seven millennia.

Separation of the carbonised vegetation from the processed samples

In addition to the samples recovered from the individual archaeological contexts, a further 2472 samples were recovered as part of the artefact sampling strategy during the excavation of the Mesolithic site. Processing and analysis of these samples will contribute to the understanding of how the knapping site, for example, was used through time.

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Initiation of post-excavation works

Following the preparation of the interim report, a Post-Excavation Research Design was prepared that lays out the key questions we hope to answer and which identifies the various types of specialist analysis required to answer these questions.

The main objective of the post-excavation work is to extract the full extent of information and provide as much knowledge as possible from the material recovered from the excavation phase. This new information will be assessed in line with current research objectives and will result in the creation of a permanent record within the public domain, of all the archaeology encountered along the route of the A75 Dunragit Bypass.

This is no easy task as an enormous amount of archaeological material and information spanning some 7000 years of prehistory was recovered. The team of GUARD Archaeologists and various specialists will work closely with an academic expert from the University of Glasgow in accordance with the research goals of this project and the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework

The aims of the Dunragit post-excavation research are to understand:

  • the relevance of the site to the understanding of the earliest settlement in the south-west of Scotland;
  • the relevance of the site to the understanding of the belief systems in the south-west of Scotland;
  • the natural landscape around the site and environmental and man-made changes that took place within it; and
  • how environmental factors have affected the location and viability of settlement across the area.

We are excited to announce that post-excavation work began in October 2018.

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Emergency conservation work of artefacts

Decorated Food Vessel in situ at East Challoch Farm

Due to the fragile nature of some of the artefacts recovered from the Dunragit sites, specialist conservation was undertaken. These included a ceramic vessel, originally block-lifted on-site from a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age cemetery at East Challoch, which was then excavated and re-assembled.

Food vessel from burial from East Challoch Farm

A Romano-British copper alloy pin recovered from the Iron Age settlement at Myrtle Cottage was cleaned and stabilised. But the most significant artefacts to be recovered were 167 pieces of jet again from the Neolithic/Early Bronze cemetery at East Challoch, which appear to represent two necklaces. In the case of one of the burials, a matching bracelet was found. Additionally, the two separate graves each contained a ceramic vessel and a worked flint tool. The jet was conserved as a precaution to consolidate the material, to reduce the risk of further deterioration, and to facilitate preliminary analysis.

Jet necklace from East Challoch Farm wrapped
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Summary of fieldwork results

Excavation of the Iron Age settlement at Myrtle Cottage

The archaeology discovered during these works represents a rich prehistoric occupation of this area of the Dumfries and Galloway coastline over some eight millennia. Among the findings were Mesolithic and Neolithic structures, a Bronze Age funerary complex including urn cremations and grave goods such as jet beads and flint tools and an extensive unenclosed Iron Age settlement. It is important to realise that the archaeological excavations at Dunragit predominantly gathered tangible archaeological evidence. This evidence needs to be analysed to make sense of what the archaeological remains mean. So the archaeological fieldwork is just the beginning of a long process of investigation.

Once all of the archaeological fieldwork had been completed, the GUARD archaeologists prepared an interim report. This is termed a Data Structure Report and provides the initial results of the fieldwork. The main purpose of this report is to provide a record of the archaeological features that have been excavated, showing where these features are and offering preliminary interpretation. The Dunragit excavation interim report is important for the subsequent specialist analyses of the finds because it shows the archaeological context from which each artefact was recovered.

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Excavations during construction phase of the bypass

The construction phase involved a team of GUARD Archaeologists monitoring the topsoil stripping and dealing with any archaeology as it was encountered. Following on from the 11 areas expanded earlier, and using the findings from the evaluation to highlight areas of greater archaeological potential, the construction phase revealed further archaeology extending outwith each key area.

West Challoch Mesolithic site being excavated and sampled using a 0.5m grid

For example, the removal of topsoil to the south and west of the original Mesolithic site revealed a continuation of Mesolithic features, including further structural remains, bringing the total potential house structures to three. Employing a grid system across the area, lithic artefacts were recovered in layers and their distribution mapped. Significant quantities of lithic material were recovered – over 13,500 pieces not including the material recovered from the first house.

Jet bead Jewellery from East Challoch Farm Neolithic early Bronze Age site

Further Neolithic archaeology was uncovered in proximity to the East Challoch site and dates to the Beaker period (c. 2500 BC) burial contexts were encountered with finds such as Jet bead jewellery, Beaker pottery and flint artefacts.

A ring barrow on the Bronze Age Cemetery Complex at Boreland Cottage Upper

In proximity to the Boreland Cottage Upper site, further Bronze Age cremations and related features were uncovered. The expansion of the Iron Age site at Myrtle Cottage revealed a kiln and other features related to the Iron Age settlement site.

Kiln structure at Myrtle Cottage
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Excavation of 11 key areas

The Bronze Age Cemetery complex at Boreland Cottage Upper

The eleven key areas of archaeological significance comprised a range of Mesolithic (8000-4000 BC), Neolithic (4000 – 2400 BC), Bronze Age (2400 – 700 BC) and Iron Age (700 BC – AD 500) findings.

Distribution map of 11 key sites along Dunragit Bypass route
The Mesolithic Site 7 at West Challoch under investigation

One of the most interesting results from this phase of work was a Mesolithic settlement revealed at West Challoch to the south-east of Dunragit village. Mesolithic settlements in south-west Scotland are extremely rare and up until our excavations, have consisted solely of scatters of lithic material and hearths but no actual structures. However, a Mesolithic circular structure and associated large pits and ditch gully were encountered during the initial Dunragit evaluation along with a total of 166 fragments of un-stratified lithic material from the topsoil. The Mesolithic house consisted of a sub-circular arc of six post-holes on the south west, with the possible return on the north-east comprising of two post-holes. The area within the structure appeared to be approximately 3 m in diameter creating an internal space of approximately 7 m². The post-holes appeared to be set in four pairs with each pair of posts set approximately 0.4 m apart.

The stone adze recovered from the Mesolithic site at West Challoch

No obvious sign of an occupation layer survived within the interior of the house but a series of sampling grids were laid across its footprint to extract lithic artefacts. Furthermore, two layers of multi-element samples were taken at 0.2 m intervals in the attempt to establish evidence of occupation and differential uses within the structure. No internal hearth was visible within the structure, with the only direct evidence of a hearth a few metres to the north-west. An accumulation of worked lithic and debitage was noted around the north side of the structure concentrated around two of the post-holes. One of the most striking artefacts recovered was a perforated stone adze.of the structure concentrated around two of the post-holes. One of the most striking artefacts recovered was a perforated stone adze.

A series of four preliminary dates were obtained during the excavation for four separate deposits including one posthole, a pit and two layers from the hearth. The calibrated radiocarbon dates ranged between 7056-6825 BC, 6830-6643 BC, 6867-6696 BC and 6849-6656 BC. These demonstrate that this Mesolithic structure is the earliest house discovered in south-west Scotland to date.

The Iron Age structures at Myrtle Cottage under investigation

But that wasn’t all, the other areas revealed a wealth of other prehistoric activity, including possible Neolithic structures (East Challoch), a Bronze Age cemetery complex (Boreland Cottage Upper), a series of burnt mound sites (Boreland Cottage Lower) and an Iron Age settlement (Myrtle Cottage).

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Initial evaluation

Amey plc and a small GUARD Archaeology team led by Warren Bailie began an archaeological evaluation of the proposed A75 Dunragit Bypass route in Dumfries and Galloway in August 2012. This work was undertaken on behalf of Transport Scotland in advance of the main construction works commencing.  

View east along the bypass route to the south of Dunragit

Archaeological evaluations are often required where there is a potential for unknown archaeology to be encountered. Historic Environment Scotland and the Dumfries and Galloway Council Archaeologist considered there was a potential for unknown archaeology along the route of this bypass given that significant Neolithic archaeology survives at Dunragit. This known archaeology is represented by three scheduled monuments at the west end of the bypass route. Flanking the south side of Dunragit are the cropmarks of a large Neolithic ceremonial timber circle, which was excavated by the University of Manchester in 1999-2002. The most prominent of the monuments at Dunragit is Droughduil Mote, a steep-sided and flat-topped mound, long thought to be an Anglo-Norman motte of the 12th century. It was discovered that this was instead Neolithic and likely related to the nearby ceremonial timber circle. The third scheduled monument, the Drumflower complex, 500m west of Dunragit village, was again identified by crop marks appearing in aerial photographs. This is a rectilinear enclosure defined by close-set pits and may also be Neolithic in date.

View of evaluation trenches at west end of A75 Dunragit bypass

Prior to work starting on all major road projects, Transport Scotland will undertake an investigation to ascertain whether there is any archaeological material at the location and take steps to ensure that anything found is excavated and preserved where necessary.  These investigations for the Dunragit Bypass revealed that the proposed route took it through the Neolithic landscape characterised by the Dunragit and Drumflower complexes and Droughduil mound. The main aim of the archaeological evaluation was therefore to establish the presence and extent of both the known and the unknown archaeology along the course of the route. The trial trench evaluation investigated a 10% sample of the 7.4 km long route. A total of 241 trenches were excavated by machine excavator under the watchful eyes of the GUARD Archaeologists. Eleven key areas of archaeological significance were uncovered.

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