Dr Mary Macleod Rivett from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute talks about her research in the Outer Hebrides.
An Iron Age woman buried beneath the fragile, sandy turf of the Isle of Lewis is helping to provide some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the deep bond between ancient Scottish islanders and their homeland, according to a paper soon to be published.
Dr Mary Macleod Rivett, an archaeologist at the Stornoway Campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), is one of the senior researchers at the UHI Archaeology Institute. Her new paper uses four decades of research to map thousands of years of local movement on Barvas machair, on the west side of Lewis. In a comparatively small space bounded by sea, rivers and today’s main road to Stornoway, people from Neolithic times onwards have chosen to make homes and fields alongside the reassuring physical evidence of how their predecessors lived. For many generations, she says, ‘the past was always visible in the present’.
“Even nowadays, when you drive along the road, you see the remains of two or three houses on each plot – a new home, an old, empty house and maybe the ruin of a blackhouse now being used as a byre. People have always re-used the remains of older buildings as a resource, but also for the sentimental attachments and memories they carry. That blackhouse could be ‘where Granny lived’ – and that was just as true in the past.
“Machair is really fragile and subject to active erosion. Prehistoric folk could always see earlier buildings, burials and field walls. They could see the past all around them and even when people moved – say in the middle Bronze Age when a homestead moved by just 300 metres – they still re-used the early Bronze Age site and buried their dead in it. They had the same kind of sentimental attachments and memories that we have nowadays.”
The burial of an Iron Age woman, excavated by Dr Macleod Rivett in 2001, provides a poignant demonstration of the way in which early people honoured their dead, valued their landscape and acknowledged their own continuing survival. The grave was particularly carefully constructed and lined with matched local stones. The woman lay face downwards – highly unusual in any era – and alongside her head was a beautifully worked iron bracelet with bronze embellishments, the only such find in Scotland. While working on the excavation with the support of the local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), alongside volunteers from the Barvas and Brue Comunn Eachdraidh (historical society) and with professional archaeologists, Dr Macleod Rivett came to know the Iron Age woman very well.
“She was a big strong woman – tall for her time at 5’ 6”, well-muscled and quite young. She was buried sometime between 212 – 387 AD, at least 1,600 years ago, and her burial has been carefully made. As well as the beautiful bracelet which was buried with her, and the well-crafted grave itself, the burial was covered in a cairn of pretty, pale-coloured beach pebbles, each no bigger than could be carried in one hand, and each brought from up to a kilometre away, at the shore. I think she was an important person to her local community – they put a lot of effort into making this a nice grave close to an earlier house, which is evidence of the feelings and memories of the people, their own references back to their past.”
Dr Macleod Rivett’s full report pieces together research from field-walking finds to the results of detailed excavations. The community which she studies, Barvas or Barabhas in Scottish Gaelic, sits on the distinctive machair landscape, unique to the Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland, particularly along the western shores of Outer Hebridean islands like Lewis. In these areas wind-blown shell-sand mingles with peaty soil at the edge of blanket-bog to create a narrow area of fertile land, intensively used throughout human history to support settlement and food production. With the riches of the sea on one hand, good grazing for livestock and productive land for crops, machair has offered security to small communities over thousands of years.
“We must remember that agricultural people worked outside all the time, so that for them ‘home’ was not a narrow space within walls, but an attachment to the wider land. For them, and for island people right up to my grandparents’ time, home was the whole of what they could see. When you work the land and are dependent on it, you come to know the different resources within it in a very intimate way. Wherever they moved their fields and houses, this whole landscape was their home.”
Barabhas Machair: Surveys of an Eroding Sandscape, by Dr Macleod Rivett and co-authors Trevor Cowie, the late Mark Elliott and Torben Ballin, reviews survey work starting from 1978. Stone structures, burials, middens, tools and weapons show almost 3,500 years of human presence, from 2000BC to the transitional period of the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Western Isles was handed over from Norse to Scottish rule. The Iron Age woman was not the only valuable discovery – Beaker pottery in a house dated to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age is one of very few such finds worldwide, and descendants re-used the ruined home as a cemetery many years later, with crouched burials of later Bronze Age date.
Together with old map evidence, and visible bumps of protruding stone and worked land, the whole area speaks of greater riches still to be found. But on the machair time, erosion and climate change are the enemies. Dr Macleod Rivett says: “Sites may appear and disappear within days or, in extreme conditions, hours. The machair was subject to innumerable gales and storms during the research period, including a catastrophic hurricane in January 2005.” Another storm could expose a new glimpse into the ancient past of Barvas, or destroy evidence for good. More discoveries in the same small area could yet be made, but historic continuity is a Scottish island strength. The present day village of Barvas continues to quietly co-exist with the stones, field lines and ruins of a community that’s both historic and alive, where ‘the past is always visible in the present.’