Archaeology Swartigill Dig Diary

Investigating Iron Age Social Change in Caithness

DSC_0016The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Yarrows Heritage Trust to commence excavation at the Burn of Swartigill on 24th April.

Located in Caithness, the site was excavated on a small scale in 2015 where the aims were to explore anomalies from a geophysical survey undertaken by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

This survey had pointed to the possible presence of a substantial rectangular building, perhaps a post-broch Iron Age period ‘Wag’ – a form of building well-known in Caithness and Sutherland. A second objective aimed to establish the character of archaeological remains discovered eroding from the side of the Burn of Swartigill.

During the 2015 fieldwork, a substantial mass of stonework and well-preserved archaeological features were unearthed and it was suggested that the linear wall lines picked up in the geophysics survey may reflect a long building with its long axis at right-angles to the stream.  A possible drain feature was also identified indicating an element of water management over and above that required for a purely domestic use. Samples taken from the site may even be able to shed light on the role and function of the site.

untitled-8It was also established that previously recorded massive blocks of stone that were eroding out of the stream bank were also parts of wall lines and wall faces. Well-made and decorated Iron Age pottery was also recovered in addition to a quern rubber and hammer stone – the latter from the drain feature.

However the most surprising find was a copper alloy triangular fragment with a possible setting for an enamel or glass paste inlay. This would appear to have been a relatively valuable item from something like a brooch and perhaps hints that a certain social status was accorded to the Swartigill site during the Iron Age.

Interestingly, radiocarbon dates suggest that the site also was occupied in the period when brochs were evolving in the Northern Scottish Iron Age. It can be tentatively suggested that Swartigill represents an early Iron Age site, occupied before and during the establishment of brochs in the wider landscape.

DSC_0113The unusual mix of well-built stone features may imply that the site had some function connected to hydrology, perhaps in an industrial/craft capacity and the site may ultimately allow us to reflect on a wide range of types of place and activity associated with the Caithness Iron Age.

The 2017 excavation will give us the opportunity to further explore the social and historical conditions that were present at an important moment of change during the Iron Age period in Caithness.

If you want to be involved in this community dig then call 01955 651387. No experience required!


If you are interested in our research work, then check out our conference………..

Our Islands, Our Past Conference

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to:

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.