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’.
Iraia Arabaolaza is an osteoarchaeologist at GUARD Archaeology Ltd, whose primary research interests are human pathologies and in particular childhood pathologies. Iraia is one of the principal co-authors for the A75 Dunragit Bypass post-excavation works and is this month’s guest contributor to the blog.
I have always believed that the study of human remains provides a direct link to our prehistoric ancestors. As archaeologists we generally rely on features (pits, structures, post-holes) and artefacts to try and reconstruct a history of how people lived in the past. The study of human remains offers an insight into a person’s biological sex, age, possible diseases that they suffered during their lifetime and even in some rare cases the cause of their death. It also provides an opportunity to better understand their belief system and associated burial rituals.
All the human remains recovered and studied from Dunragit were cremated and came from two sites, mainly Boreland Cottage Upper (27 cremations) with further three cremation remains from the Drumflower site. The cremations were either placed in urns (the minority) or in pits as a cremation deposit (the majority). No remains of pyres were encountered in the excavated areas; however, charcoal remains recovered from the cremation deposits indicated that it was mainly oak and alder that were used during the cremation rite. The earliest cremations dated to the Early Bronze Age (approximately 2000 BC) and were cremated using oak charcoal while the Middle Bronze Age cremations (approximately 1500 BC) used alder and other species including oak as fuel for their pyre.
The cremated remains were fully calcified, as they were white in colour, which indicates that the bones were subjected to a high temperature between 645 -<940ºC. The surface texture of the bones, cracks and warping suggests that most bodies were not de-fleshed prior to burning, and that the bodies were burnt soon after death. A skull fragment recovered from an urn cremation showed green/blue staining which might indicate that the bone was in contact with a grave good with copper content. However, no grave goods were found within this particular cremation, apart from the urn that contained the remains, which indicates that the metal item was not deposited within the cremation burial.
Most of the earlier cremation burials were small in weight and rather fragmented. This together with the lack or under representation of certain skeletal elements (i.e. shoulder, pelvis, rib cavity) suggests that most of the remains were possibly deposited as tokens in pits and were not representing a complete burial. Analysis based on the relative size of the bones indicated that most of the cremation deposits included the remains of at least one adult person. At Boreland Cottage Upper there was a clear change in the burial rite from a more clustered distribution in the earlier Bronze Age to more evenly distributed depositions concentrated around three ring ditches during the Middle Bronze Age. Moreover, multiple collective cremation burials were identified during this period. One urn cremation revealed two adults, one of them aged between 40-44 years and remains of a female while sub-adults or individuals younger than 18 years old were also identified buried together with an adult in three other burials. This is quite common in prehistory and could suggest they were cremated and deposited at the same time.
Several pathological conditions were noted in some of the human remains recovered from Dunragit. The pathologies included an unidentified healed infection/trauma and small bony growth, osteoarthritis on the spine and a possible sharp trauma/dismembering cut mark. Schmorls nodes, also known as intervertebral disc herniation, was also apparent – this is a lesion that appears in the vertebral body but usually causes no symptoms. Most of these are relatively easy to diagnose even on small fragments of archaeological bone and are common within the archaeological record. However, the cause of the possible infection/healed trauma remains unknown as its causes can be varied and are difficult to interpret without assessing the full skeleton. The possible cut marked bone is slightly more unusual although not unheard of from archaeological assemblages. The discovery of the cremation cemetery complex at Dunragit is of national significance. The quantity of cremations encountered in Dunragit (30), as well as the extensive use of the site for over 500 years has provided a rare insight into the Bronze Age burial practice in southwest Scotland. Although burial rites during the Bronze Age are characterised by their variety, there was clear distinction between the Early and Middle Bronze Age cremations found across the Dunragit site. While the earlier cremations were token symbolic depositions in pits, some of them with associated grave goods, the latter cremations were by and large the full remains, were associated with the ring ditch structures and were often contained in urns. Variations between these two populations in terms of their use of, and mobility within, the landscape were also apparent from the stable isotopes analysis on the cremations, but that will be another blog, while another forthcoming blog will cover the grave goods associated with these burial rites….
Alan Cresswell is a Research Associate at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, University of Glasgow, whose primary research interests are luminescence analysis and dating of sediments in archaeological and geomorphological investigations and wider interests in environmental radioactivity and dosimetry. Alan is one of the specialist authors for the A75 Dunragit Bypass post-excavation works and is this month’s guest contributor to the blog.
Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) is an approach that can precisely date the deposition of sedimentary layers on archaeological sites. It utilises signals that develop in mineral grains in response to exposure to natural sources of ionising radiation from the surrounding sediments and cosmic rays. When radiation interacts with mineral grains, electrons within the mineral are excited into high energy states, some of which are metastable allowing this charge to be trapped. This trapped charge can be released by exposure to light or heat, emitting light, and with suitable equipment these photons can be counted. The number of photons counted can be related to the radiation dose the mineral had received by calibration in the laboratory using known radiation doses. The combination of received dose and the radiation dose rate gives a time since the trapped electrons in the mineral had last been released, which for materials deposited in many settings would correspond to the time that these minerals had been buried.
Investigations by GUARD Archaeology along the route of the A75 bypass at Dunragit included a set of roundhouses within a former dune system at Myrtle Cottage, with accumulated sand layers within and between these structures. As the Iron Age settlement unearthed at Dunragit was situated in an aeolian environment and as some deposits showed a paucity of organic material this method provided an opportunity for dating that would not otherwise be possible. Thirteen samples of sand were collected during the excavations from layers under structures 1 and 2, between the two structures, within the two structures and from the wall cuts. Quartz grains from these sands were analysed using OSL to determine whether the structures were contemporary, or if not, may indicate a sequence of construction for these two nearby structures.
The layers beneath the structures consist of a natural layer dated to 3100 ± 650 BC, consistent with the mid Holocene tidal high stand for this section of the Solway coast, and an occupation layer dated to 1540 ± 290 BC suggesting human activity on the site significantly before the Iron Age. The wall cut for structure 2 is dated to 350 ± 240 AD, and cuts through occupation layers dated to 400-100BC and into the natural materials. Occupation layers outside structure 2 are approximately contemporary with the wall cut, potentially produced from material excavated from this ditch. The wall cut for structure 1 is dated to 400 ± 190 AD but cuts through the layers outside structure 2, suggesting that the construction of structure 1 slightly post-dates the construction of structure 2.
Overall, this dating evidence confirms the material culture that was recovered from the Iron Age settlement, which included an unusual Roman copper alloy brooch, an Iron Age iron penannular brooch and a rare, curved iron leatherworking knife of likely Roman Iron Age date. The Iron Age settlement at Dunragit, now dated to the centuries around the turn of the First Millennia BC/AD, is a welcome addition to a suite of settlements in Galloway that date to this specific period. These include the variety of settlements around Cults Loch, the large enclosed settlement at Rispain Camp and the promontory fort at Carghidown. These settlements provide useful dating, structural and material culture comparisons with the Iron Age settlement at Myrtle Cottage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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|
|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.
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!).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.