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’.

Lithics from Dunragit

Torben Ballin is an independent lithics specialist and is one of the specialist authors for the A75 Dunragit Bypass post-excavation works. Torben is this month’s guest contributor to the blog.

20,554 lithic artefacts were recovered from the excavations at Dunragit, mostly of flint but also including some Arran pitchstone. These objects were retrieved from a large number of mostly chronologically mixed sites, dominated by Mesolithic and Middle/Late Neolithic material, but a small number of sites were particularly interesting. They include a Mesolithic settlement at West Challoch and a Neolithic/Bronze Age burnt mound at Droughduil Bridge.

Mesolithic features at West Challoch

Although the 762-piece lithic assemblage from one of the clusters of features at West Challoch includes small amounts of intrusive later Neolithic finds, it generally forms a homogeneous Late Mesolithic assemblage dated to c. 6900-6800 cal BC. It was associated with a number of interesting features, such as a horseshoe-shaped structure, a cooking arrangement, and a number of large pits.

Mesolithic shelter at Fife Ness

In structural terms, the shelter is related to similar horseshoe-shaped structures from eastern Scotland, such as those from Fife Ness and Standingstones in Aberdeenshire.

Mesolithic shelter at Standingstones

One radiocarbon-dated pit contained Arran pitchstone, one of only two Mesolithic Scottish radiocarbon-dated pits with pitchstone, where the large majority of pitchstone from pits has been dated to the Early Neolithic. Arran pitchstone is a type of volcanic glass similar to obsidian and in Scotland it is only found on the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. In Neolithic times it was traded as far north as Orkney and as far south as Dublin. The discovery at Dunragit of a Mesolithic pit with pitchstone has been interpreted as evidence of different forms of prehistoric exchange networks, where the Mesolithic was characterised by the exchange of individual pieces of pitchstone at a personal level, whereas the Early Neolithic exchange of pitchstone probably represents systematic exchange within a tribal system.

Scottish radiocarbon-dated pits with pitchstone
Zinken 2980 from West Challoch, Dunragit, Drawn by Jordan Barbour.

A total of 16,783 flints were recovered from another cluster of Mesolithic features at West Challoch, 580 of which are microliths and microburins. Microliths are tiny modified blades which in the Mesolithic were used as tips and edges of various forms of weaponry, and microburins are waste products from the production of microliths. These finds almost certainly date to the Late Mesolithic, and only one solitary, residual Hamburgian Zinken appears to be of another date. The Hamburgian artefact, as its name suggests, is a type known from sites in north-west Europe towards the end of last Ice Age around 14,000 years ago and Zinken are specialised blade-based piercers with a curved tip. Zinken only occur in Hamburgian contexts. Formally, this piece from Dunragit is similar to a slender Zinken retrieved in connection with the excavation of Howburn Farm in South Lanarkshire.

Zinken 5090 from Howburn Farm in South Lanarkshire. Drawn by Hazel Martingell. It measures 29 x 13 x 5 mm.
The distribution of chips across the site at West Challoch. The chips are waste produced in connection with the production of flint tools.

During the excavation, the finds appeared to form one large concentration, and the original working hypothesis was therefore that this might be the footprint of a hut of the same type as found on the coast of north-east England (at Howick) and south-east Scotland (at East Barns near Dunbar). However, distribution maps illustrating the distribution of individual finds categories (e.g., chips, burnt pieces, blades, microliths, etc) clearly showed that this was not the case, and that the finds probably represent 10-12 individual visits within a limited time-frame to a favoured spot in the landscape to knap flint, produce stone tools and process killed animals with the flint tools. The 200+ scalene triangles date the visits to sometime during the Late Mesolithic, that is 8400-4000 BC.

The distribution of microliths across the site at West Challoch. The microliths show where this form of weaponry was produced, with some of these pieces having been discarded during production and others possibly after having been damaged by use.

The excavation at Droughduil Bridge revealed a complex burnt mound with a trough that still had remnants of wood lining and a small sluice controlling water into the trough from a narrow cut channel. Burnt mounds are so-called because of the mound of burnt stone and charcoal that is typically found around a pit/or trough used to heat water with stones from a hearth. They are a very common form of monument and can be found across western Europe, Britain and Ireland from the Mesolithic through to the later Bronze Age, although they are typically associated with the Bronze Age period. Burnt stone and charcoal was recovered from the deposits within and around the trough. An assemblage of 569 flints was mixed into these various deposits, and the radiocarbon-dates are problematic with the basal fill of the trough giving a date of 353- 94 BC (Iron Age) and the channel leading into the trough giving a date of 974- 834 BC (Later Bronze Age). This is no doubt due to the water action on the feature, it being located in an estuarine environment. Whereas sediment can be eroded and redeposited, the lithic assemblage and its indicative date provide more certainty on the date of the activity at this burnt mound.

The assemblage is a homogeneous Middle Neolithic assemblage of the kind known from Wester Clerkhill and Wester Hatton in Aberdeenshire, including Levallois-like and bipolar cores and flakes, a chisel-shaped arrowhead, end-scrapers and scale-flaked knives.

If the assemblage is contemporary with the burnt mound, this defines the structure as one of the earliest of its kind and associated with substantially more worked flint than these structures usually are. If not, this is still a useful Middle Neolithic assemblage, adding to the knowledge of this period. Further dates are being sought, this time using the in situ wood pieces that remained of the wood lining, it is hoped this will provide a more accurate date for the feature than the sediment provided.

Overall, analysis of the lithics from Dunragit, and comparison of these finds with contemporary finds in eastern and western Scotland allowed a number of questions to be discussed, and it was for example possible to define a number of regional differences between the Mesolithic of eastern/southern Scotland on one side and western Scotland on the other. In eastern/southern Scotland, bipolar technique appears to have been used sparingly during the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods, and this approach only became a systematically applied reduction technique from the Middle Neolithic onwards, to become particularly common during the Bronze Age. In western Scotland, on the other hand, bipolar technique was used systematically throughout prehistory. It is suggested, that this difference reflects differences in lithic raw material availability, with flint being less plentiful in the west and with flint nodules being considerably smaller in the west.

Site Region Microliths, number Microburins, number Microlith:micro-burin ratio
1) Glenbatrick Waterhole West 428 99 81:19
2) Lussa River West 254 70 78:22
3) Lealt Bay West 1,283 250 84:16
4) Nethermills Farm East 431 620 41:59
5) Standingstones East 61 59 51:49
6) Dunragit Site 19 South 358 206 63:37

The Table shows the microlith:microburin ratios of three sites from the west, two from the east and one from the south.

Another interesting difference is the use of microburin technique from the production of microliths during the Mesolithic, where this approach was used sparingly in the west and systematically in the east and south (see table above). It is suggested that this scenario is based on the following causal chain: Raw material (smaller pebbles in the west) Þ reduction technique (more use of bipolar technique in the west, resulting in thicker, more irregular microblade blanks) Þ microlith technology (less common use of microburin technique in the west). A comprehensive lithics report will form part of the forthcoming Monograph.

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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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