Swartigill Dig – Week Three

The Swartigill team 2019

The community archaeology excavation at the Burn of Swartigill is now nearing completion for this season.

The dig itself is organised by the Yarrows Heritage Trust in collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology. Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the finds of the week…..

We have begun our third and final week of excavation for this season at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, and it’s time for an update from week two.

The theme has been one of rubble removal and soil sampling! Much of the later rubble within our round house, Structure B (or squashed rectangle house, to be more accurate) has been removed to reveal more of the courses masonry on the north and south arcs of the building. It is rewarding to see the shape and form of this building emerge after being obscured by rubble for so long. Work along the entrance way into Structure B on the east side has revealed a threshold stone!

The site at the end of week two. Photo: Bobby Friel

In the centre of the structure, we are starting to see more ashy deposits associated with tantalising hints of edge set stone underneath the later hearth feature. This could be an earlier, more formal hearth, perhaps associated with the original occupation of the building.

We have also been sampling deposits on the west side of Structure B, which we know to be rich in charred plant remains, charcoal and magnetic residues from preliminary analysis of samples from 2017. With a more extensive area of this deposit exposed, we intend to do a more detailed soil chemical analysis with the samples from this season. This could give us some insight into what sort of activities were undertaken on this surface in the Iron Age.

Whetstone unearthed at Swartigill 2019

Artefacts were thin on the ground in the first week of the dig, as we focussed on removing alluvial soils and rubble deposits. This past week, the artefacts have started to appear, with a spread of pottery near the hearth in Structure B and a brace of quern stones to add to those recovered from previous years. We have also recovered two hone stones or whetstones. Unlike the previous example of this artefact discovered on the site back in 2017, which looked distinctly Viking in shape, the two found from this season appear distinctly prehistoric in form.

We have been helped out by school children from Lybster, Dunbeath, Thrumster and Watten primary schools, who have been doing sterling work on site to help uncover Structure C on the south side of the dig. This is an area we have only partially exposed in previous seasons, so we are delighted to have to have had the children lend a hand in exploring this building.

We bade farewell to the majority of our stalwart student volunteers on Thursday, they have worked extremely hard and, we hope, have learned a lot about archaeological excavation and the North of Scotland Iron Age. Thanks to Leia Tilley from the University of Durham, Kenny McElroy from the University of Glasgow, Iona Cargill from Oxford University, Sierra Renna from Willamette College in the USA and Calum Hall and Mary Renshaw from the University of the Highlands and Islands. We hope to see you all again next year!

Thanks also to all the volunteers and visitors who have contributed their time and efforts to the dig so far. If you haven’t seen the site yet or still want to come and take part, there is still plenty of time!

We will be working on site every day until Sunday the 8th of September, though Saturday the 7th will be out last full day of digging as we need to spend some time on Sunday putting the covers back over the site and making sure its secure for the winter.

Come along to see our progress any time this week, and even join in the excavation! No previous experience is required.

Swartigill Dig – Week One

Opening the site up for the season

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, in partnership with the Yarrows Heritage Trust and ORCA Archaeology, have completed their first week of excavation at the community dig, near the Burn of Swartigill.

Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the first week at this intriguing dig in Caithness, Scotland

We are at the end of the first week of excavation at the Burn of Swartigill. The covers and tyres came off to reveal that the site had survived well over the winter. The team wasted no time, extending the trench to the east and west to further explore the extent of the structural features present.

So far, we have made some interesting discoveries about the nature of the site. Structure A, the passage around the north side of the site, widens out on the east side, while to the west, it terminates in a small rubble filled cell.

The site under excavation showing the landscape

In the centre of the trench, we are further defining the shape and form of Structure B, which appears to be a squashed rectangle in shape. The hearth in the centre of the structure, initially encountered during last year’s excavation, appears to be a later feature. The hearth setting overlays rubble, which appears to be the post abandonment infill of the building.

The ashy deposits from the hearth mingle with peaty layers within the structure, suggesting that after the building was abandoned, it was open to the elements and people still used the shell of the building as a shelter – perhaps as a seasonal shieling, a temporary shelter used while pasturing animals. The remains of the structure continued to gradually collapse around them. This may also account for the presence of a distinctly Viking or Medieval looking whetstone, recovered in a previous year’s excavation on the site form rubble overlying this structure.

Elevated shot of the site at the end of the first week of excavation

The site was then inundated with alluvial soils, deposited by the adjacent watercourse over several centuries, covering the structures. On the east side of the site, this overlays a paved surface, which may represent a yard outside Structure B.

Elsewhere in the trench we are preparing to sample more of a deposit that appears very rich in charred organic material. Hopefully the analysis of this deposits will give us some valuable information about the sort of activities undertaken on the site during the Iron Age, and the lives of the people who lived there.

Drone footage from the site. Thanks to Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

The Archaeologists will be on site until Thursday the 29th of August and then back on site from Tuesday the 3rd of September until Sunday the 8th.Come along to the see the site, and even have a go at excavation – no experience is required.

Thanks to Bobby Friel @Takethehighview for drone footage

Archaeology Dig to start at Iron Age site in Caithness

Aerial view of the Swartigill site. Photo: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, in partnership with the Yarrows Heritage Trust, are preparing for a fourth season of excavation at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, Scotland.

Previous seasons of excavation at the site have uncovered a complex of Iron Age structures, which are providing an important window into Iron Age society away from the monumental architecture of the Brochs.

This season the team led by Rick Barton from ORCA Archaeology hope to continue to reveal the extent of some of these structures so that they can better understand just how complex the site is. We will also be aiming to recover more information about what life was like for the Iron Age people who lived there two thousand years ago. Analysis of the precious remnants of people’s day to day lives will not only help us to understand the environment and economy of the site at the Burn of Swartigill, but also potentially that of Iron Age Scotland in a much broader context.

The landscape of the Swartigill Burn site. Photo: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

The 2019 excavations commence on 19th of August and will continue until 8th of September. The site is located near Thrumster House, a few miles south of Wick. To get to the site, you need to take the Haster and Tannach road from Thrumster and look out for our signs just before the bridge crossing at the Burn of Swartigill. There is limited parking at the roadside, and the dig is a short hike across boggy moorland.

Tours are available and the archaeologists will be on site every day of the week between Monday 19th and Thursday 29th of August. The excavation will then continue from Tuesday 3rd of September until Sunday 8th of September 2019.

The community dig at Swartigill. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

Volunteers are welcome and you don’t need any archaeological experience to take part. Contact studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk for more information or arrive on the day!

Final Week Starts at Swartigill Dig

Aerial 3
The site in it’s landscape

Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) writes about the latest developments at Swartigill….

We are into the last week of the excavations at the Burn of Swartigill in Caithness, and we have achieved all our key objectives for this season.

We now know that the structures that were originally seen in the erosion of the burn edge pre-date the construction of the passage structure. The deposits overlaying the walls of these earlier structure have been cut into to accommodate the northern revetment wall of the passage. This is important chronological information about the development of the buildings, and ties in with our understanding of the chronology of the site from the C14 dates.

We have also, mostly, defined the extent of the main structure in the trench, which appears to be a sub-oval shape, rather than round or rectangular, with an entrance on the east side. This slightly squashed aspect could be due to the fact that this structure is respecting existing features and buildings around it, using the space that’s available.

Aerial shot of the trench. Photo: Bobby Friel

The passageway on the north side of the main structure follows the curving alignment of the wall around to the east, and seems to be dropping down in elevation as it goes. Did I hear someone say Souterrain? Well, it’s a possibility, but there is still work to be done here to fully define this feature, as it continues out of our current excavation area to the east.

There are tantalising glimpses of some well-preserved patches of occupation deposits within the main structure. Protected and preserved under a layer of peaty soil, bright red areas of ashy deposit and very compacted surfaces with lots of charcoal are beginning to show through. We will be taking some samples from small amounts of these deposits this year, to further examine their potential in post-excavation. We will hopefully get some datable material from them too.

Aerial 4
A view of the sunken passage on the north side of the trench

This year we extended the trench to the south to investigate a second geophysical anomaly on the earth resistance survey, and it’s looking more and more likely that we have second large structure on the site. We have seen some interesting upright set stone in this area, which look like they have been incorporated into an interior wall face. We are also starting to see a curving alignment of rubble to the south of this, which could be overlaying a structural wall in this direction.

Thanks to the P7-9 classes from Watten and Thrumster primary schools for their hard work helping to uncover this tantalising addition to the site on Monday.

The beautiful polished shale bangle from the sub-oval house

We have only a few days left of this season, Friday the 7th is our last day on site. There is still plenty to do, so if you would like to get involved, come along and see us.

Swartigill Dig Update

Swartigill dig 2018
Community archaeologists at the Swartigill dig

The community dig at Swartigill in Caithness is now underway and Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) Project Officer Rick Barton continues the story from last year………

“We are approaching the halfway point of this season’s excavations of early Iron Age structures at the Burn of Swartigill at Yarrows in Caithness, and we are making good progress. We have had a lot of help from some fantastic volunteers throughout the dig so far, and the team has been getting bigger every day. The alluvial layers shrouding the archaeology on the site are gradually being removed to reveal some interesting structural features and deposits.

So far we have defined the edges of what appears to be a large sub-oval structure, with the hint of a central hearth setting defined by a ring of stones and darker patch of soil which contains lots of charcoal and ash layers. The structure is bound by an external passage to the north, which was accessed from the west where a threshold stone and pivot mark the entrance. The passage has a very well made surface of flat boulders, which form the capstones for a very substantial drain.

Aerial view of the Swartigill site. Photo: Bobby Friel.

We are starting to investigate the walls showing along the erosion edge of the burn. It was the natural the exposure of these features that originally led to its discovery. This part of the site seems to be ceramic central, with lots of sherds of prehistoric pottery present within the layers overlying the walls. There are also traces of some peat ash starting to show, which we will be investigating and sampling later in the week.
There is still lots of work to do this season, and there are tantalising traces of other structural features coming to light. Some of the alignments of the walls, taken together with what we know from the geophysics, suggests that there are multiple structures on the site, and we may be seeing just a small part of a larger settlement.

All visitors and volunteers are very welcome, and no previous experience is necessary.”

The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.