Author Archives: GUARD Archaeology

What pits and post-holes can tell us: recent finds from Balvenie and Newton Mearns

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Recently published research from two sites at opposite ends of Scotland reveals new evidence for Bronze and Iron Age landscapes.

During archaeological investigations in advance of development at the Balvenie Distillery in Moray in 2014 and a housing development at Newton Mearns in East Renfrewshire in 2012, GUARD Archaeologists encountered pits and post-holes. These are relatively common on archaeological sites, and in some cases may be the only evidence of early settlement, but interpretation can be difficult. The post-holes and pits from these two sites were found in the lower contours of their respective upland areas, above 120 m OD. None of these was directly connected with other settlement remains and associated material culture was rare. However, radiocarbon dates reveal these features reflect activities during the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods and indicate that later prehistoric material can be found in upland areas even when significant changes to the landscape have occurred.

The alteration of the local topography at Balvenie, by the construction of a railway line in the nineteenth century and other ground-works in the middle to late twentieth century led to the reshaping of the hill slope. The pits and post-holes that survived indicated that the landscape had been topographically different when used by Bronze Age and Iron Age communities. The evidence indicates the seasonal gathering of hazel nuts for food, the possible cultivation of cereal crops, and certainly the processing of barley and even oats. It seems that barley has a long tradition of cultivation and use in this area and that Glenfiddich barley still plays a major role in the local economy, most significantly for the production of whisky.

The discovery of a pit with material cultural evidence in an area of rough grazing in Newton Mearns increases the sparse number of known prehistoric sites in this area. It is unlikely the area suffered the scale of landscape changes, seen at Balvenie, but changes will have taken place in vegetation cover and in the use of the land. The pit, together with the presence and of clay/daub and a possible quern fragment, indicates that the landscape was settled and used during the early Bronze Age, with nearby hazel, oak and willow woodland. The pit produced one of the earliest radiocarbon dates obtained from this area. Its presence suggests contemporary settlement may be preserved close by.

Through these two limited views of the past, our knowledge of human activities in these upland areas is increased. Even though the material cultural remains were sparse, the environmental evidence provided not only radiocarbon dates but suggest prehistoric landscapes very different to that of today.

The full results of this research, which was funded by William Grant and Sons Distillers Ltd and Stewart Milne Homes, ARO28: What pits and postholes can tell us: recent finds from Balvenie and Newton Mearns by Warren Bailie and Maureen Kilpatrick is freely available to download from the ARO website – Archaeology Reports Online.

 

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Unearthing prehistoric and early medieval Lothian

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Recently published research by Bob Will of GUARD Archaeology reveals the discovery of the complex history of settlement at a place in the Lothians of Scotland, from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age and Iron Age into the early medieval period.

This work was undertaken at Gogar Mains to the west of Edinburgh in advance of the construction of the Edinburgh Tram Scheme linking Edinburgh Airport with the city centre. Prior to the excavation several prehistoric archaeological sites were known in the immediate vicinity including cropmarks of two possible settlements. Within the wider locality, there is a wide range of known sites, including to the north the ‘Cat Stane’, with its early medieval Romano-British latin inscription and associated long-cist cemetery, as well as prehistoric remains consisting of Neolithic pottery and flint tools. There are also references to another long-cist cemetery to the south while further to the north is the Craigie hillfort and to the west is Huly Hill, an early Bronze Age mound and Iron Age Chariot burial as well as a medieval settlement.

The excavation was initially centred on the concentration of archaeological features revealed during an earlier evaluation. Once the topsoil was stripped, over 150 features were investigated, revealing seven discrete areas of activity that contained a range of botanical and artefactual evidence and radiocarbon dates that demonstrate that the site was in use over a long span of time between the early fourth millennium BC and the eighth century AD.

Neolithic activity was represented by pits containing hazel nutshell, flint tools and pottery sherds from carinated bowls, probably the debris from a Neolithic settlement. More clearly defined evidence for a house structure was apparent in the Bronze Age, in the form of a ring groove with internal post-holes, adjacent to a palisaded enclosure but there was little artefactual evidence and the dating of these structure derives solely from radiocarbon dates. These dates suggest two phases of construction or use of the palisade. There was little evidence for structures within the palisade, although several post-holes may indicate an internal supporting structure, or fence lines indicative of pens for livestock.

Two truncated roundhouses near the north end of the site were dated to the Iron Age. An associated fragment of a miniature quern was recovered; these tend to be found in the east of Scotland during the Iron Age. The final phase of activity on-site comprised the remains of two corn-drying kilns, dated to between the sixth and eighth centuries AD, that survived as oval pits containing considerable quantities of burnt and charred cereal grains. Associated with the better-preserved kiln was a rim sherd of coarse pottery and two fragments from a rough quern.

While the archaeological investigations provided evidence for occupation of this place over a long period of time, it was surprising that little evidence for settlement from the Roman occupation of southern Scotland was encountered, considering the presence nearby of a Roman fort, milestone and temporary camps. The archaeological remains from the excavation nevertheless provide a palimpsest of prehistoric and early medieval occupation and support similar occupation and settlement evidence from the wider region. The early medieval date for the corn-drying kilns provides direct evidence for settlement and agriculture, as well as a domestic setting for the long-cist cemetery at Catstane to the north. Together with another nearby long-cist cemetery to the south and contemporary field boundaries near Gogar Church, the results are combining to gradually fill out a picture of sustained settlement and agriculture in this area of the Lothians during the early medieval period.

The full results of this research, which was funded by the City of Edinburgh Council, Excavations to the West of Gogar Mains, Edinburgh by Bob Will with Heather F. James is freely available to download from the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports website, published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

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Artefacts from the Castle Midden and Back Walk in Stirling

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Recently published research reveals a range of artefacts recovered from two sites on the edge of the medieval burgh and castle at Stirling.

Material from an eroding midden below the western walls of Stirling Castle was recognised and initially recovered by local volunteers and pupils from Allan’s Primary School over a number of years and led to a programme of artefact recovery supervised by Dr Murray Cook, Stirling Council Archaeologist.

Further south along the western edge of the medieval burgh of Stirling, GUARD Archaeologists recovered artefacts during a watching brief when a section of the Back Walk footpath was repaired.

This section of footpath runs behind Cowane’s Hospital next to the Church of the Holy Rude and on the perceived line of the Stirling town wall, which was constructed sometime in the sixteenth century.

Over 2000 artefacts in total were recovered; they included medieval and post-medieval pottery, a misshapen musket ball, as well as modern glass and ceramics. Subsequent post-excavation analyses of these artefacts were co-ordinated by GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

The material seems to have been deposited as rubbish simply by dumping it over the edge of the crag and certainly the small abraded nature of even the ‘modern’ pottery would suggest that the material had been moved or re-deposited over time after the initial discard.

Among the medieval and post-medieval assemblages are examples of the main pottery fabric types found in Scotland, as well as imported material from England and mainland Europe. These give an indication of the importance of local pottery production as well as further away trade links to the burghers of Stirling throughout the centuries. Numerous clay tobacco pipe fragments were also recovered from both sites, mainly of post-1850 date, but the assemblage includes four bowls from the seventeenth century.

One of the more unusual artefacts to be recovered from the Back Walk was a WWI military belt buckle. The military buckle is from the Austrian army and has the double headed imperial eagle and the Austrian coat of arms and is one that was standard issue during WWI.

‘Unfortunately, the buckle was a stray find so we don’t know how it got to the Back Walk, whether it was lost or thrown out,’ said report author Bob Will from GUARD Archaeology. ‘Stirling Castle was an important working military barracks at the time with a military prison and hospital therefore the buckle could have come from a prisoner or it could have been picked up by a British soldier serving at the front. As this year commemorates the centenary of the end of WWI the buckle reminds us that the war had far reaching affects throughout the country.’

The full results of this research, which was funded by Stirling Council, ARO27: The Artefacts from Castle Midden and Back Walk, Stirling by Bob Will is freely available to download from the ARO website – Archaeology Reports Online.

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GUARD Archaeology nominated for 2018 Current Archaeology Award

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The results of one of GUARD Archaeology’s community archaeology projects, undertaken with the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society has been nominated in the Research Project of the Year category in the 2018 Current Archaeology Awards.

Rheged rediscovered: uncovering a lost British kingdom in Galloway was published earlier this year in Current Archaeology 327 and summarises the results of the Galloway Picts Project at Trusty’s Hill in Gallloway, which revealed a royal stronghold that lay at the heart of a lost Dark Age kingdom that was once pre-eminent in northern Britain.

The full results of this work – The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: The Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway – was published by Oxbow as a hardback book. It is also available as an ebook, either as an Epub (e.g. for kindle readers etc) or PDF (for any device).

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Edinburgh, Lothians and Borders Archaeology Conference 2017

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GUARD Archaeology are pleased to be sponsoring this year’s Edinburgh, Lothians and Borders Archaeology Conference on Saturday 18 November 2017, to be held at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh. Organised by the Archaeology Officers of East Lothian Council, the City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Borders Council, this conference includes updates on recent archaeological work in East Lothian, Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders.

One of the lectures will be given by GUARD Archaeology’s Publications Manager, Beverley Ballin Smith. Beverley’s presentation concerns four sites distributed across south-east Scotland that generally produced limited evidence of prehistoric activities. That evidence is as slight as a single radiocarbon date, or an isolated pit or three, with occasional sherds of pottery. The occurrence of these features and material cultural evidence in landscapes as diverse as a hill top or a flood plain indicates that prehistoric peoples explored and moved everywhere, and left, in some cases, only ephemeral traces of their activities.

The problem for us today is to try to understand those peripheral activities from the evidence that survives. By asking questions, such as why there, and looking at the landscape and its changes in slightly more detail, it may help us to understand the movement of perhaps small groups of people away from areas of permanent settlement and into hinterland or more remote areas. The evidence left behind is often isolated, slight but also intriguing, and there are no easy answers to its interpretation. What we can acknowledge is that significant landscape changes such as modern windfarm erections and housing developments, as well as quarry extensions, are exposing these features for study in locations that otherwise would have remained undisturbed.

The examples Beverley will discuss include GUARD Archaeology discoveries at Newcraighall on the southeastern outskirt of Edinburgh, Soutra Hill overlooking East Lothian, Edston near Peebles and Quixwood in the Lammermuirs, part of a growing number of non-settlement sites that indicate camps, burial rituals, collection of natural resources, and perhaps even hunting. We have enough evidence to start to ask questions, to look at it regionally, and to see if patterns occur that aid greater understanding.

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Relieving Floods, Revealing History: Early Prehistoric Activity at Knocknagael

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Research undertaken by GUARD Archaeology, published in Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports, has revealed how prehistoric occupation of the Scottish Highlands changed over millennia. GUARD Archaeologists, led by Maureen Kilpatrick, undertook a programme of archaeological work in 2009 and 2010 prior to the construction of a flood-relief channel at Knocknagael Farm, south-west of Inverness, which revealed a series of prehistoric pits, hearths, fire-spots and structural features. Finds included sherds from a Neolithic bowl and a Bronze Age cordoned urn. Palaeo-botanical remains were present in many features and included the carbonised remains of cereal grains. Radiocarbon dating revealed that activity at the site ranged from the seventh millennium BC to the first millennium AD. The archaeological work was funded by Highland Council.

The work here adds to a growing list of prehistoric evidence from Inverness and its surroundings, with the Culduthel Valley particularly rich in archaeological sites. Indeed, the Late Mesolithic date obtained from Knocknagael is one of the earliest from the Culduthel Valley and adds to the growing evidence for Mesolithic activity within this area. While no Mesolithic artefacts were recovered from Knocknagael, the carbonised assemblage suggests the exploitation of local woodland resources for fuel and food.

Pits were the most common feature at Knocknagael, with very few structural remains recovered. Despite this, several of the excavated pits contained material which could suggest that by the early fourth millennium BC, a more settled occupation involving crop and animal husbandry was present. The presence of pottery fragments in several pits may also indicate a more settled form of habitation. However, the actual location of this settlement is unknown at present; the nearest known Neolithic dated building is a Late Neolithic rectangular timber structure at Raigmore.

‘Isolated pits and pit-clusters are a common feature on archaeological sites, and are often the only evidence of early settlement,’ said GUARD Project Officer Maureen Kilpatrick who led the fieldwork. ‘They have been described as either domestic in function or as a means of ritual (structured) deposition. More recently, however, it has been suggested that even domestic actions can have ritualistic connotations and that their use can be interpreted as neither wholly ceremonial nor completely mundane. Pit deposition may have been used as a means of creating memory at a location of importance over a long period. This prolonged association is highlighted by the fact that at Knocknagael, the features encompassed a wide range in date from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age, suggesting the re-use of the site over millennia. This similar re-use of a site was also found at the Neolithic pit-alignment site at Eweford in East Lothian, where activity spanned several centuries, suggesting that places were revisited and repeatedly modified by individuals.’

The absence of any obvious structural features may suggest that more permanent occupation was located elsewhere within the wider locale. Pit-clusters are often found alongside other features including hearths and post-holes, which is comparable to Knocknagael. However, by the Iron Age it seems that the main focus of settlement was located to the immediate east, at Culduthel Farm where a number of large roundhouses with both domestic and industrial functions have been excavated. The analysis of the archaeological features at Knocknagael Farm nevertheless revealed that the Culduthel Valley was populated from as early as the seventh millennium BC, with evidence suggesting that more settled occupation was present from the fourth millennium BC onwards.

The full results of this research, Relieving Floods, Revealing History: Early Prehistoric Activity at Knocknagael Farm, Inverness by Maureen Kilpatrick was published as Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 64.

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Unearthing an ancient house in Ayrshire

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Archaeologists from GUARD Archaeology Ltd, working for Scottish Water, have uncovered the remains of one of the earliest houses in East Ayrshire. Dating to around the early Neolithic period (3,500-4000 BC), these archaeological remains were uncovered in countryside near Kilmarnock while Scottish Water was working on an ongoing £120M project to upgrade the water mains network between Ayrshire and Glasgow.

Eight areas of archaeology were observed by the GUARD Archaeologists, who were monitoring the excavation works for the new pipeline. These included some prehistoric burnt spreads and pits but of particular note was the discovery of early Neolithic carinated bowl fragments in a number of post-holes forming part of a rectangular building near Hillhouse farm. This rectilinear hall, which measured 14 m in length and 8 m across, belongs to a type of house built by the first farming communities in Scotland.

‘Heavily truncated by millennia of ploughing, only the deepest parts of some of the post-holes survived, arranged in a rectangular plan and containing sherds of early Neolithic pottery, hazelnut shell and charcoal,’ said GUARD Archaeology excavation director Kenneth Green. ‘The width and depth of these post-holes indicated that they once held very large upright timber posts, suggesting that this building was once a large house, probably home to an extended family or group of families.’

Up until this time, during the earlier Mesolithic period (c. 8000-4000 BC), Scotland was inhabited by small groups of hunter gatherers, who led a nomadic lifestyle living off the land. The individuals that built this Neolithic house were some of the earliest communities in Ayrshire to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, clearing areas of forest to establish farms, growing crops such as wheat and barley and raising livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

‘The pottery recovered from the Neolithic house are sherds of Carinated Bowl, one of the earliest types of pottery vessels ever to be used in Britain’ added Kenneth Green. ‘Traces of milk fat have been found in other carinated bowls found elsewhere in Scotland. Carinated Bowls are distributed across Scotland but very few have been found in the west so Hillhouse represents an important discovery.’

Further post-excavation analyses of the pottery charcoal and environmental samples taken during the excavation may reveal the precise date when the house was occupied and provide other insights that will improve our understanding of the spread of farming settlements across Neolithic Scotland.

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Paisley Abbey Wee Dig

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GUARD Archaeology Ltd are returning to Paisley Abbey on 18 September 2017.

A substantial and well-built stone drain linked to the monastic precinct of Paisley Abbey runs through the park and gardens to the south of the Abbey and close to the River Cart. Previous investigations of the archaeological context of the drain, examining the ground around it, uncovered the remains of cobbled surfaces, stone built walls and a stone-built oven along with artefacts including medieval pottery. The Wee Dig is now looking at a previously unexplored part of the grounds in attempt to unlock some of the mysteries of Paisley Abbey’s medieval past.

A geophysics survey using resistivity will first be carried out. Using the result of this geophysical survey, two trenches will be excavated to uncover what lies beneath.

Come along and join in! The excavation will run over six consecutive days (Monday 18 September to Saturday 23 September 2017) from 10.00-16.00. The training will be hands on with a range of tasks to suit all ages and abilities.

The Wee Dig Project 2017, part of the Year of History, Heritage and Architecture, is managed by Renfrewshire Council and is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Stories, Stones and Bones’ fund. Please note that there will be no access to the drain itself.

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The complex history of a rural medieval building in Aberdeenshire

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Newly published research by GUARD Archaeology has revealed the complex history of a turf and stone-built medieval building. Sherds of pottery obtained from the floor of the structure suggest it was in use during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries AD. However, its construction is similar to other excavated buildings dated to the early medieval period. Radiocarbon dates obtained from several features and deposits ranged from the Bronze Age, through the Iron Age to the medieval period. The structure is an uncommon survivor of medieval rural settlement that is rarely excavated in Scottish archaeology.

In 2013, GUARD Archaeology Ltd in conjunction with Amey and on behalf of Scottish and Southern Energy conducted an archaeological evaluation on an area of ground proposed as part of the expansion of the Kintore Sub-Station, south-west of Kintore, Aberdeenshire. The work exposed the remains of a large rectangular enclosure with an adjacent small building. Further excavation and a topographic survey were undertaken between June and August 2014.

The rareness of the Kintore medieval building is predominantly due to the lack of identification of them in the landscape, the result of their construction using perishable materials such as clay and turf, and changes in land-use which have led to their destruction. Often the stones from these buildings have been systematically removed over time, or the buildings replaced with new structures, or adapted to different uses. The survival of the Kintore building, despite being partially damaged and robbed, might be due to the marginal nature of the ground it sits on, which is very boggy in places and contains a large amount of stone, both above and below ground, which inhibited ploughing that might otherwise have removed all traces of the building.

The wide range of radiocarbon dates obtained, from the second millennium BC to the second millennium AD, might appear to suggest long-lived occupation of the site. However, based on the latest of the radiocarbon dates and fragments of a Scottish Medieval Redware jug found within it, the building appears to have been abandoned post-fifteenth century AD. The lack of evidence of any earlier structures or artefacts relating to the early medieval and prehistoric dates indicates that their presence might be due to other factors, such as the use of (older) peat as a fuel or building resource. Peat deposits are known to exist locally, therefore its use as a fuel and possible building material is not an unreasonable supposition.

Better preserved medieval buildings, such as at Pitcarmick in Perthshire, retain clear divisions between a living end containing a hearth, and byre end with a central drainage slot. No such internal arrangements were apparent at Kintore but soil micromorphology analysis of the soils within the building suggest that there were differences between floor deposits at either end. The west end was associated with domestic activities and the east end was richer in livestock dung, which may indicate the internal division of the house. While there was no central drain within the byre east end of the building, this lay at a lower level than the west end, with the slope aiding drainage if animals were housed there.

The full results of this research, ARO26: The complex history of a rural medieval building in Kintore, Aberdeenshire by Maureen C. Kilpatrick has just been published and is now freely available to download from the ARO website – Archaeology Reports Online.

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Prehistoric settlement and ritual activities at Barassie, South Ayrshire

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Between 2008 and 2012 archaeological excavations at Barassie near Troon revealed Mesolithic pits, early Neolithic structures, middle to late Neolithic pits, and Bronze Age pits and boundary ditches. The results of these excavations were recently published and expands our knowledge of prehistoric settlement along the west coast of central Scotland.

Prior to this work little was known of the site’s archaeological potential. There were no known archaeological remains. Mesolithic artefacts were recorded about 200m to the south and a socketed late Bronze Age axe was discovered to the south-west. North-west of the site, a cinerary urn had been found. However, in recent years several new prehistoric sites had been discovered along the west coast of Scotland on raised beach areas similar to Barassie, such as at Girvan, Ayr Academy and Monkton, so exploratory trenches were made prior to housing developments by Stewart Milne Homes and Lynch Homes.

Subsequent to the excavation, specialist analysis of the finds demonstrates that the raised beach area at Barassie was visited and exploited over six millennia from the Mesolithic period in the eighth millennium BC through to the Bronze Age in the second millennium BC.

Barassie was a favoured place. The archaeological remains from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age were situated on a raised beach with an open aspect to the sea and fresh water sources close at hand. Its slight elevation and other resources including land that was suitable for agriculture and settlement seem to be the main factors that drew prehistoric people to the site repeatedly.

 

The use of the land and its natural resources altered through time; from a hunter-gatherer economy in the Mesolithic to an agricultural based society in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The evidence for human occupation may have been intermittent across the landscape but the presence of the long boundary ditches during the Bronze Age suggest that the land belonged to individuals who marked the edges of their territory or fields and by doing so were at least attempting to establish a degree of permanence.

Later damage caused by agricultural drainage and ploughing together with the canalisation and re-directing of Barassie Burn has affected the preservation of the archaeological record, providing us with an incomplete picture. This curtailed view of the site has made the understanding and interpretation of the early Neolithic settlement as well as the earlier and later activities occurring on the site difficult. In a palimpsest site such as Barassie even radiocarbon dating results can become double-edged swords. On one hand, they can provide reliable dates for features but they can also highlight the constraints faced by the archaeologist when interpreting a site where there are few recognisable patterns or focal points of activities and structures.

In spite of these issues, this site highlights the importance of settlement over time even at the local level, and the fact that exotic goods from distant places were acquired as part of social interaction and the wider economy of the time. During the Neolithic, Barassie was part of a regional and longer distance system of exchange that promoted actions or beliefs marked by artefacts deposited in pits. Until recently the central west coast area had not received much archaeological input in comparison with other areas of Scotland, and now Barassie can be added to the growing corpus of sites from this region that provide glimpses of a complex past.

Excavation of a Bronze Age plain urn at Barrassie

Excavation of a Bronze Age plain urn at Barrassie

The full results of this research, Prehistoric settlement and ritual activities at Barassie, South Ayrshire by Iraia Arabaolaza was recently published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal (volume 39, 2017).

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