Excavation completed

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On 17 February 2017, the GUARD Archaeology team completed their excavation of the archaeological remains at Balmachie Road, Carnoustie. Altogether they had recorded the remains of up to 12 sub-circular houses that probably date to the Bronze Age along with the remains of two rectilinear halls that likely date to the Neolithic period. The Neolithic features are significant in themselves, and include the largest Neolithic Hall ever found in Scotland. The hoard was buried in a pit close to a roundhouse that cut through the large Neolithic hall.

Over the previous six months, the Carnoustie excavation had received a lot of interest. Not least from teachers and pupils at Carnoustie High School, which lies adjacent to the site. So GUARD Archaeologists had led guided tours of the excavation to 200 pupils and teachers from Carnoustie High School and other schools in Angus. Following requests from Angus Council, GUARD Archaeology were also able to offer week-long work placements to two pupils from Carnoustie High School and Brechin High School Community, who are interested in studying archaeology at University. The Carnoustie excavation ended with Open Days and guided tours of the  site over the last two days of the excavation in February 2017 attended by over 200 people.

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Specialist examination of the hoard

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Normally post-excavation analyses of artefacts recovered from excavations only begins once the entire excavation has been completed. But in the case of the Carnoustie hoard, specialist analyses was required as soon as possible. This was because the organic remains within the hoard were so delicate and fragile that there was a danger that they would degrade within a very short time. They urgently needed conservation but before this could take place, specialists required to examine the remains and take appropriate samples for scientific testing (such as radiocarbon dating, isotope analyses, X-ray Fluorescence analyses) to extract crucial information about the artefacts.

So post-excavation analyses of the hoard begins in January 2017 with a Post-Excavation Research Design that lays out the key questions we want answers to and which identifies the various types of specialist analysis appropriate to each type of archaeological material that might answer these questions.

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The excavation continues

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As the machine excavation of topsoil continued to reveal archaeological features so the archaeological excavation area continued to expand until by December 2016, the GUARD Archaeology team of nine archaeologists had discovered around 1000 archaeological features spread over a 17,700 sqm area.

 

These features comprise numerous pits, post-holes and ditches. Many of these features are clustered together in patterns that can be recognised as house structures of various shapes, from elliptical, round and rectangular. From the various artefacts (pot sherds and flints mainly) that are beginning to be recovered, these houses appear to be prehistoric.

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Excavating the hoard

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On Monday 12th September 2016, the soil block was delivered to our Finds Lab where it could be assessed by specialist Finds Conservator Will Murray of the Scottish Conservation Studio. The plan was see how it could be carefully excavated and the artefacts conserved.

The soil block was then CT-scanned and x-rayed by the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow, with assistance from Gawain Hammond, Head of the Diagnostic Imaging Unit, and his team. The scan and x-ray provided valuable information and imagery to assist in the recovery of the items from the soil block. The x-ray shows that the bladed artefact is a sword and the gold decorated object is a large spearhead. But the x-ray also shows a pin lying across the handle of the sword.

The subsequent excavation of the soil block was undertaken over two weeks in November 2016 at GUARD Archaeology’s Finds Lab by GUARD Archaeologist Beth Spence, with Will Murray on hand to advise on the conservation of the artefacts.

This excavation is one of the few times such a Bronze Age hoard has been undertaken in laboratory conditions. This is enabling every tiny scrap of artefact to be carefully recovered and recorded. The excavation has recovered, along with the sword and spearhead, a bronze pin and scabbard fittings (a chape to protect the tip of the scabbard and a ring that may have connected the scabbard to a belt.

More than this, the excavation is revealing (and more importantly recovering) extremely fragile organic remains (including what looks like fur-skin and textile fragments) adhering to the bronze and gold artefacts. Finding such organic remains is EXTREMELY unusual, especially in a dry site like the one at Carnoustie (ancient organic remains often only survive in wetland, submerged or very dry conditions). The organic remains also include the sword’s wooden scabbard itself, which is very rare. In fact this is so rare a find, that the Carnoustie example is probably the best preserved Bronze Age wooden scabbard ever found in Britain.

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Discovery of Bronze Age hoard

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On Friday 9th September 2016, the GUARD Archaeologist monitoring the machine excavation of topsoil noticed something green just underneath the topsoil. Green is a sign of something with copper in it (like bronze) as this is the colour that oxidised copper turns. However, there was also a glint of gold, which is much more unusual (one of the reasons that gold is highly valued is that it doesn’t change colour like bronze or iron). While the green artefact appears to be a blade, the gold is decorated and appears to be part of a socket of another bronze artefact.

Owing to the fragile nature of these remains and that the site was going to be left open for the weekend, our team removed the entire pit (and the surrounding subsoil which it was cut into) as a single 80 kg block of soil. This was then delivered to our Edinburgh Office that same day, where it could be safely stored over the weekend.

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Strip and excavation

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Following on from the initial evaluation, a monitored topsoil strip and archaeological excavation was begun on 5th September 2016 by a larger GUARD Archaeology team led by Alan Hunter Blair. This work, undertaken on behalf of Angus Council, was recommended by the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (archaeological advisers to Angus Council) after several pits containing prehistoric pottery were unearthed during the earlier evaluation.

The aim of this work is to monitor the machine-excavation of topsoil to establish the full extent of prehistoric features. Our objective is to keep excavating until we have established a 10-20 m wide archaeologically sterile buffer around the limit of any archaeological features uncovered. Only with such a buffer will we be confident that no more archaeology is present.

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Initial archaeological evaluation

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Between 17th and 19th August 2016, a small GUARD Archaeology team led by Maureen Kilpatrick carried out an archaeological evaluation of ground off Balmachie Road, Carnoustie. This work was undertaken on behalf of Angus Council to address a planning condition related to the development of the land into two football pitches.

Archaeological evaluations are often required for planning developments where there is a potential for unknown archaeology to be encountered and which would otherwise be destroyed by proposed development. Though there were no known archaeological remains within the development area, the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service (archaeological advisers to Angus Council) considered there was a potential for unknown archaeology given that Neolithic and Bronze Age pits had been encountered nearby. The main aim of the archaeological evaluation was therefore to establish the presence or absence of previously unknown archaeological deposits.

The trial trench evaluation investigated a 5% sample (1,415 m²) of the proposed development area of 2.83 hectares. A total of 15 trenches were excavated by machine excavator under the watchful eyes of the GUARD Archaeologists, with a further 162 m² excavated when archaeological features containing sherds of prehistoric pottery were uncovered. During the evaluation, and subsequent expansion, 19 features of archaeological significance were uncovered, predominantly comprising pits and post-holes, all concentrated within the south-eastern area of the site.

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