Author Archives: GUARD Archaeology

The long history of a palaeochannel

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Archaeological artefacts found by GUARD Archaeologists in a palaeochannel at Ferniegair near Hamilton revealed its use as a refuse dump for adjacent Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement.

The palaeochannel after excavation © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

In the beginning the palaeochannel was an open channel of water, a small burn. Archaeobotanical and pollen analyses indicated mixed woodland close by, making the dryer sandy banks of this burn attractive to early prehistoric people.

The earliest use of the north-western bank of the palaeochannel was a small group of features and artefacts radiocarbon dated to the early Neolithic period. Later, a horseshoe-shaped structure with a single entrance and a deposit of domestic debris was in use from the end of the 35th century BC to the middle of the 34th century BC – the middle Neolithic. Its occupation deposit contained flint microblades as well as pottery and pitchstone. A later and more extensive, mixed deposit that covered the structure was associated with numerous stakeholes, probably from windbreaks, and was dated to the early/middle Bronze Age.

both sides of the jet piece © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

One of the most interesting and unusual finds in the lower fill of the palaeochannel was an exotic jet pendant shaped like a claw or possibly a bird’s head, whose material is from Whitby in North Yorkshire. Although difficult to date, it was probably lost in the early Bronze Age.

Over this time not only did the burn gradually fill in with debris, but the environment around it changed too, and by the end the burn no longer functioned as an open channel of water.

This seemingly ordinary camp site area took on an unexpected importance with the occurrence of exotic objects like the jet pendant. In the use of the palaeochannel, successive groups of prehistoric people inadvertently created a reservoir of archaeological finds that have allowed us a glimpse of how they interacted with each other and with their environment across time.

The archaeological work was funded by Robertson Homes and was required as a condition of planning consent by South Lanarkshire Council who are advised on archaeological matters by the West of Scotland Archaeology Service, who considered there to be a potential for hitherto unknown archaeology to be buried at the site.

ARO52: The long history of a palaeochannel at Ferniegair, Hamilton by John James Atkinson is freely available to download from Archaeology Reports Online.

ARO52 cover
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Bronze Age burial rites unearthed

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An early Bronze Age cemetery discovered near Helensburgh by GUARD Archaeology has revealed long-lost secrets of burial rites from Bronze Age Scotland.

Following the excavation by a team of GUARD Archaeologists in 2020, the results of specialist analyses have only just now come to light.

Cist 2 during excavation © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

The oldest of the stone-lined graves, or cists, was dated to 2467-2290 BC. Strangely it contained no human remains, but only fragments of pyre material, which appear to have been sufficient to represent the dead.

The largest of the three cists Cist 1, and Cist 3, were constructed at least three centuries later c. 2140-1930 BC. Both contained the cremated remains each of at least two adults and a child or young person, but with no grave goods.

Cist 3 © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

‘The long span of time between these cist graves indicates the lasting memory of burials here,’ said Iraia Arabaolaza, the principal author of the GUARD excavation report. ‘The reuse of the burial place at different periods may have reinforced land ownership or connections to ancestors.’

The place was then revisited between 50 and 300 years after the cist burials, at a time in the first half of the second millennium BC when the burial rituals had changed again, to that of using a pottery vessel to hold the cremated remains then buried at the bottom of a pit. Most of the cremated remains that were found from this phase of use also included one or two adults and a young person together.

The remains of at least 14 adults and 6 young persons were recovered from the cemetery. The burials contained multiple individuals that had been cremated and then collected together and buried as part of the same rite.

‘The incomplete nature of each of the individual remains suggest that the rite of cremation and burial were more important than keeping/collecting and burying the person as whole,’ said Iraia Arabaolaza. ‘This cemetery complex is not only chronologically diverse, but it also reflects the differences in the burial rites and material culture. The burial of multiple people together, part of the same burial rite and possible part of the same cremation process indicates the importance of the cremation rite and the community rather than the individual and the preservation of its body as a whole.’ 

Layout of the Bronze Age Cist graves and the Neolithic cairn they were cut into © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

The GUARD Archaeologists discovered that this Bronze Age community were not the first people to occupy this site. A late Neolithic kerbed cairn from around 3500 BC and that had once been fronted by an impressive stone façade, had been cut into by the Bronze Age stone cist graves.

And the recovery of flint tools dating from about 5,000 years before even that, around 8,400 BC, indicate that some of Scotland’s earliest inhabitants, during the late Upper Palaeolithic or early Mesolithic periods occupied this site too.

The archaeological work was funded by Bellway Homes and was required as a condition of planning consent by Argyll and Bute Council who are advised on archaeological matters by the West of Scotland Archaeology Service, who considered there to be a potential for hitherto unknown archaeology to be buried at the site.

ARO51: A Bronze Age cemetery, Sawmill Field, Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute by Iraia Arabaolaza is freely available to download from Archaeology Reports Online.

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Insights into Iron Age Sutherland

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A community excavation assisted by GUARD Archaeology has unearthed interesting new evidence for Iron Age lifestyles in Sutherland.

LiDAR view of Aultcraggie roundhouses Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Following last year’s collaboration with Clyne Heritage Society, GUARD Archaeology’s Alan Hunter Blair led a dig of two roundhouses in the uplands around Brora, on the croft of Aultcraggie. The structures were first spotted by chair of the society, Nick Lindsay back in 2022 while walking the hills and confirmed on LiDAR. The team of archaeologists and volunteers returned in May 2023 to investigate after access was kindly granted by those working the croft, Fiona Ross and Allan Grant.

The dig focused on two roundhouses opening up trenches across the walls, floors and entrances of the structures. The aim was to find evidence of how people lived in these buildings. Successive floor layers were revealed from which charcoal was recovered (which will allow us to radiocarbon date the roundhouses). Analysis of soil samples recovered from the floor deposits can also tell us what fuel was being used for fires, what the inhabitants were eating and even potentially what wood was used for the structure and roofing.

Overview of Aultcraggie dig © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

The team of volunteers also recovered numerous flint tools, which may have been used for cutting and processing food, hide working and even as strike-a-lights for fire. Fragments of a saddle quern was found as well as a large pot was found that had been left where it fell on the floor. Specialist analysis of these artefacts will tell us something about the lifestyles of those who lived here, and how this compares with other similar sites in the region and across Scotland. This will provide new insights into Iron Age Sutherland, revealing aspect of life here buried beneath the ground for the last two and bit thousand years.

The dig saw hundreds of visitors and volunteers across the 12-day duration, including pupils from the local Brora Primary School. And as well as providing opportunities for local volunteers to participate in the dig, students from the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews took part, receiving training in archaeological fieldwork to the standards of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, which will contribute towards their degrees.

Uncovering an Aultcraggie roundhouse © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

The results of the dig will be reported on in due course, with a publication to follow once all the artefacts and samples have been analysed and dated.

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Re-engaging Schools with an Old Dig

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Back in 2014, GUARD Archaeology excavated the remains of an eighteenth-century drovers’ inn, Tigh Caol, near Strachur. Following the delivery of the artefacts to the local museum in 2022, Strachur & District Local History Society wanted to re-engage with some of the local schools who were originally involved in the dig. GUARD Archaeology’s Warren Bailie, who directed the excavation of Tigh Caol, visited Strachur Primary School and Kilmodan Primary School in January 2023 along with three members of the society.

Strachur Primary School pupils trying to solve the Tigh Caol jigsaw
School pupils recreating eighteenth century drinking vessels with clay

The school visits enabled the whole schools – 36 children and 8 teachers – to have a closer look at the finds recovered along with the model of the inn created by Jim Conquer, and to learn about how eighteenth-century life might have looked around Strachur. Activities included a Tigh Caol jig saw recreating the inn, a spot the difference activity, and clay modelling – trying to recreate some of the vessels that drovers might have drank from when stopping off at Tigh Caol.

‘It was a great pleasure to revisit the community around Tigh Caol,’ Warren noted, ‘and to teach another group of children about Tigh Caol and the importance of archaeology that lies undiscovered in their local area.’

Cathy Montgomery of Strachur & District Local History Society helping Kilmodan pupils with their paper activities

The dig was instigated and funded by Dr Donald Adamson as part of his post-doctoral research at the University of Glasgow with assistance from Strachur & District Local History Society and GUARD Archaeology.

The results of the excavation and scientific analysis of the assemblage were published in 2015: /reports/2015/ARO17.html

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Investigating the Thirlestane Barrows

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Over two weeks in October 2022, a team of volunteers led by GUARD Archaeologists excavated the Thirlestane Barrows, just to the south of Broughton in the Scottish Borders. This site was only discovered in the summer of 2018 when cropmarks were spotted from a nearby hillside by a local resident.

Aerial photograph of Thirlestane Barrows, DP 277947 © Historic Environment Scotland

An aerial photographic survey further revealed that these cropmarks included at least four barrows, split between two fields. Three of these barrow cropmarks comprise circular ditches enclosing a small area with a central feature. The fourth barrow cropmark comprises a square shaped ditch enclosing a small area containing a central feature. Where sites such as this have been excavated, the central feature is a grave, which was originally buried beneath a small mound of earth cast from the enclosing ditch. However, ploughing over the subsequent centuries has removed the mound, leaving only the buried archaeological remains, which are often only visible from the air.

Initiated by the Arthur Trail Association, this is the second site to be investigated in the Drumelzier’s Hidden Heritage project looking at the Dark Age landscape of Upper Tweeddale. The Thirlestane investigation got underway with a geophysics survey led by Magnitude Surveys, which revealed two round barrows in one field but not in the other field.

The volunteers, drawn from Peeblesshire, Biggar, Midlothian, Glasgow, Inverclyde and Perth, then began their excavation revealing the remains of the square barrow, the first such barrow to be excavated in southern Scotland. The square barrow contained at least two graves, though no skeletal remains survived. The graves were aligned east/west, which adheres to early Christian customs. These types of barrow graves are more common north of the Forth where they have been dated to the early medieval period and it may be that the Thirlestane square barrow is early medieval too, perhaps the graves of some of the inhabitants of Tinnis Castle Fort, which they excavated earlier this summer.

Excavation of the one of the Thirlestane Round Barrows

But that’s not all the secrets that the Thirlestane Barrows have given up. After completing the excavation of the square barrow, the team moved on to investigating one of the round barrows in the other field. This revealed a small grave containing multiple cremation burial, dating to the Bronze Age. One of the cremations was laid to rest in a bucket urn, which was lifted in its entirety and taken back to GUARD Archaeology’s Finds Lab for delicate excavation. It may turn out during post-excavation analyses that the square barrow was a later addition to an existing cluster of prehistoric barrows that perhaps had stories of their own.

Check out the project’s fieldwork and post-excavation progress:

For more information:                                                                                                

The project is funded by:

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Digging into the Dark Ages

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Over two weeks in August 2022, a team of volunteers led by GUARD Archaeologists will be excavating Tinnis Castle Fort, a prominent rocky hill that overlooks the village of Drumelzier in Peeblesshire.

Initiated by the Arthur Trail Association in collaboration with GUARD Archaeology, the excavation will be focussed not on the ruins of Tinnis Castle itself but the underlying hillfort. Traces of vitrified stone from the ramparts that encircle the hill suggests that this fort was deliberately burnt to the ground, causing the rubble to melt. This phenomenon is apparent on over 100 hillforts across Scotland but is quite rare in the Scottish Borders. The nucleated layout of the fort, comprising a fortified summit and non-concentric enclosures around lower-lying parts of the hill, is similar to other early medieval forts in Scotland. Indeed, the name itself, Tinnis, derives from dinas, meaning fortress in the ancient Cumbric language that was once spoken across southern Scotland at this time.

This isn’t the only Dark Age connection with this part of the Scottish Borders. Since the twelfth century, Drumelzier has been associated with the Merlin legend. The original story was nothing to do with King Arthur but told the story of a man called Lailoken (his name was changed to Merlin after the story was transposed to Wales many centuries later), driven mad by the slaughter of the battle of Arthuret, his encounters with St Kentigirn, his gift of prophecy and his threefold death. What is key to the story is not only its association with real events and real people of the late sixth century AD but its unique association with Drumelzier and Tinnis Castle Fort.

But the excavation at Tinnis Castle is not looking for evidence for Merlin. Nor looking to see if the story was true. What the project is investigating is if there are any archaeological roots to the legend, examining if the archaeology is contemporary with the late sixth century AD when the story is set and therefore if the origins of the Merlin legend, not is historical veracity, lie in Drumelzier.

The excavation at Tinnis Castle will be undertaken in August 2022. And what’s more, the project will be investigating other nearby sites later in the year, that may reveal more of the Dark Age landscape of Upper Tweeddale. Check out the project’s fieldwork and post-excavation progress:

For more information:                                                                                                     

The project is funded by:

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Revealing the prehistoric origins of Scotland

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Hadrian’s Wall is often blamed for splitting Ancient Britain in two but newly published archaeological research reveals that the peoples of Scotland and England were already culturally divergent long before the Romans arrived in Britain.

An array of brochs, duns, crannogs and souterrains are found widely across Scotland but are not evident in northern England or further south. Surprisingly, that various types of Iron Age settlement do not breach the Anglo-Scottish border is something that has not been examined in detail, until now.

Distribution maps of crannogs, souterrains, brochs and duns © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

‘The underlying implication of the settlement distribution patterns is that Iron Age societies across Scotland were open to the building and occupation of brochs, crannogs, duns and souterrains but that Iron Age societies further south were not,’ said GUARD Archaeologist Ronan Toolis, who conducted the research. ‘This was the result of cultural choices taken by households and communities, not environmental constraints, and suggests that Iron Age societies north and south of the Tweed–Solway zone were perceptibly dissimilar. And while the density of brochs, crannogs, duns and souterrains varies across Scotland, this reflects not so much a patchwork but a spectrum of settlement patterns.’

These distinctive differences in the archaeological record are especially significant because the construction of crannogs and souterrains during the 4th-2nd centuries BC demonstrates that this divergence occurred long before the Roman frontier zone may have severed societies.

‘The archaeological divergence does not equate with the line of Hadrian’s Wall but rather more closely with the Anglo-Scottish border,’ added Dr Toolis. ‘The Wall instead follows probably the best strategic course through a broader zone of cultural divergence.’

And this may have played a crucial part in explaining why the Romans failed to absorb Scotland into their empire, despite three major military campaigns that appear, at least in Roman accounts, to have been overwhelmingly successful. This failure is often attributed to the changing political and military priorities of Rome but it may owe more to the nature of Iron Age society in Scotland, which archaeologists are beginning to recognise was anarchic in nature – not chaotic but composed of autonomous households and communities lacking institutionalised leadership. Unlike the tribal kingdoms the Romans encountered to the south.

Clear evidence for the adoption of Roman culture does not occur in Scotland until the 5th century AD, after the Romans had abandoned Britain, when secular as well as ecclesiastical Latin inscribed stones, bearing Latinised names of indigenous inhabitants, and Christian terminology and symbols, were erected across southern Scotland.

‘This only occurred when Iron Age society in Scotland had become hierarchical,’ said Dr Toolis. ‘The evidence implies that far from being passive participants in acculturation, it was only with their active participation and likely at their own instigation and on their own terms, that communities in Scotland truly adopted aspects of Roman culture.’

Distribution of Pictish symbols, British silver chains and Romano-British Latin Inscribed Stones © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

Moreover, expressions of power and prestige distinctive to early medieval Scotland suggest profound cultural divergence continued in the centuries that followed the demise of Roman Britain.

Pictish symbols, whether carved on stone or inscribed upon artefacts like massive silver chains and silver ornaments, are only found in Scotland. While these are overwhelmingly concentrated north of the Forth, they are also encountered within non-Pictish contexts to the south and west in the Lothians, Lanarkshire, Galloway and Argyll. The direction of influence was not one-way. Massive silver chains, which are also unique to Scotland, are concentrated in the south-east of the country, reflecting their cultural origin here, the result of the appropriation of Roman silver as a way of expressing status and power. That silver chains are also found north of the Forth but not south of the Tweed and Solway demonstrates yet again mutual cultural values in the expression of power and prestige among the Britons of southern Scotland and the Picts of northern Scotland, but not apparent among the Britons, Angles and Saxons of England and Wales.

Distribution of nucleated forts and contemporary settlements of sixth and seventh centuries AD © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

Nucleated forts, a type of early medieval hillfort unique to Scotland, are also absent south of the border. These often occur in discrete clusters of elite settlements – in Galloway, Argyll, the Scottish Borders, Fife, Tayside and Aberdeenshire. Excavations have revealed several of these forts to be royal strongholds with evidence for international trade, the manufacturing of gold and silver jewellery and royal inauguration rites. Similar sized clusters of prominent households occupying brochs across lowland Scotland during the first two centuries AD may represent an Iron Age precursor to the pre-eminent households that emerged in the 5th–7th centuries AD.

‘It may be that the clusters of early medieval elite settlements reflect how society in Scotland was replicating a process of households accruing power and status that had been arrested in development, either because of Roman aggression or internal social upheaval, during the early centuries AD,’ said Dr Toolis.

Map of brochs across lowland Scotland © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

‘While there existed cultural affinity in some aspects north and south of the border and regional variation is apparent within Scotland itself,’ added Dr Toolis, ‘these do not negate the cultural divergence apparent north and south of the border and the aspects of cultural affinity that the regions of Scotland uniquely share. Just as it is possible for local patterns to be distinguished from regional trends in Iron Age culture in Scotland, so too is it possible to recognise national trends. However, culture should not be conflated with identity. The peoples of early medieval Scotland may have separately identified as Britons, Picts and Scots but they nevertheless shared cultural traits unique to Scotland.’

The archaeological evidence suggests that Hadrian’s Wall was not a cause but instead an effect of existing cultural differences between the peoples of what later became Scotland and England, and this cultural divergence continued beyond into the medieval period. Separate cultural trajectories led to the separate formations of the two kingdoms, entirely independent of Hadrian’s Wall.

Shifting perspectives on 1st-millennia Scotland by Ronan Toolis is published in the latest Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

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GUARD Archaeology nominated for 2022 Current Archaeology Award

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GUARD Archaeology’s work exposing the heart of prehistoric Galloway has been nominated as a candidate for Rescue Project of the Year in the 2022 Current Archaeology Awards!

The project is: Road to the past: exploring the prehistoric heart of Galloway an account of our excavations of a range of Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in advance of the Dunragit bypass. This work revealed around 8,000 years of human activity within a rich and complex historic landscape on the south-west coast of Scotland.

Voting for the awards opens today and will close on 7 February 2022 – the results will be announced on Current Archaeology’s Youtube channel on the evening of Friday 25 February 2022.

Voting is open to everyone. For details of the awards and how to vote, go to:

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The early prehistoric origins of Blairgowrie and Rattray

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Archaeological excavations in Blairgowrie and Rattray this year have revealed prehistoric roundhouses and metalworking that may be over three thousand years old.

Remains of one of the roundhouses revealed at Rattray, comprising the ditch of an outer wall and internal rings of post-holes © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

The discovery was made during archaeological excavations undertaken by GUARD Archaeology in advance of a housing development at Honeyberry Crescent in Rattray. The remains of eight buildings were revealed, along with a rare metal working hearth. Amongst the finds were two tuyere fragments – clay nozzles that protected bellows used in heating the prehistoric smiths’ forges. These are uncommon finds and may help the archaeologists study the techniques used by the smiths here to create metalwork. Preliminary analysis of finds recovered from the excavation suggests that the site was used from the Neolithic to the Iron Age.

One of the tuyere fragments found at Rattray © GUARD Archaeology Ltd
Burnt wood found within one of the roundhouses at Rattray © GUARD Archaeology Ltd

‘The presence of an early settlement at Rattray is unsurprising as the area is rich in prehistoric archaeological remains’ said GUARD Archaeologist Maureen Kilpatrick, who directed the excavation. ‘The structures correspond to two of the main architectural types of Bronze Age houses. The pottery fragments found within some of these structures have also been tentatively dated to the Bronze Age. One of the structures was particularly interesting as it was the only one to have evidence that it had been burnt down prior to being rebuilt in a completely different architectural tradition. A large fragment of burnt wood which might represent a structural element from the burnt down roundhouse was recovered during the excavation, which is in itself rather interesting as it can help in our understanding of the method and materials used during housing construction in the past.’

‘Radiocarbon dating and analysis of the finds will enable us to understand these prehistoric households and whether the buildings were contemporary with each other and therefore a village perhaps, or whether these houses represent the consecutive homes for a single household that occupied this site over many generations perhaps from the Bronze Age and on into the Iron Age,’ added GUARD Archaeologist Eleanor James, who supervised the excavation.

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A well-trodden prehistoric path

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The earliest known use of the upland areas of East Renfrewshire during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods has recently been unearthed by GUARD Archaeology.

A newly published report reveals the results of GUARD Archaeology’s excavations at Maidenhill on the southern outskirts of Newton Mearns in East Renfrewshire, conducted between 2017 and 2018. The remains of early Neolithic and later pits, and evidence of Bronze Age burial practices were uncovered. Radiocarbon dates were obtained from a variety of features indicating activities throughout much of the fourth millennium BC and the second half of the third millennium BC.

‘The ceramic assemblage from Maidenhill, when viewed with associated artefacts and comparison of features in which it was found, displays remarkable similarities with other archaeological sites in Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire,’ said Beverley Ballin Smith, who analysed the pottery fragments from the site. ‘A common culture is embedded in the pottery – in vessel manufacture, in shapes, designs and decorative motifs and the placement of those motifs. There may be slight differences in the execution of designs, indicating individual potter’s interpretations of the attributes of that common culture, but overall suggests close association between settlements of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in this part of Scotland.’

‘The evidence people left behind provides a picture of activities from the very end of the late Mesolithic, through the early and middle Neolithic, and into the early Bronze Age,’ said Maureen Kilpatrick who led the excavations. ‘As no permanent settlement was discovered, this landscape seems to have been a zone of transition, with people moving through it: they camped for what appears to have been short periods of times, and at certain times of the year. From the almost ubiquitous occurrence of hazel nutshells from pit fills, autumn seemed to be the time of greatest activity – gathering wild food, perhaps even hunting, as bones and flint fragments indicate. Grains of cereals were absent reinforcing the suggestion that travellers lived off the land.’

Excavation of a posthole alignment at Maidenhill © GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

The prehistoric camp sites are marked by fire-pits, refuse pits, the occasional post-hole and stake holes. After use some of the pits received deposits of specific items. These included ‘exotic’ items of pitchstone, a fragment of a polished stone axe, and Antrim or Yorkshire flint, all from beyond the immediate area, as well as sherds of locally made pottery, which could have had meaning beyond that of the commonplace disposal of rubbish. Pits with similar ‘special’ deposits have been found in the wider area such as at Strathaven in South Lanarkshire, at Hillhouse in South Ayrshire and Drumclog in South Lanarkshire. The movement of peoples carrying with them exotic pieces of stone indicate that there may, already in the early Neolithic, have been established routes between the Firth of Clyde and Irish Sea area to the Firth of Forth and the North Sea.

‘The evidence revealed by the excavations at Maidenhill is important,’ added Maureen Kilpatrick, ‘as it indicates that prehistoric activity was occurring from an early period around the edges of the upland areas, and that those individuals who passed through this landscape brought with them ideas and practices from further afield.’

The archaeological work at Maidenhill was commissioned by CALA Homes (West) and Taylor Wimpey. ARO46: A well-trodden path: the prehistoric landscape of Maidenhill, Newton Mearns, East Renfrewshire by Maureen C. Kilpatrick is freely available to download from the ARO website – Archaeology Reports Online.

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