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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Community Archaeology Dig to start in Caithness

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Yarrows Heritage Trust to re-commence the community excavation of possible Iron Age structures at the Burn of Swartigill on 20th August.

Located in Caithness, the site was excavated in 2015 and 2017 and initial finds pointed to the possible presence of a substantial rectangular building and water management features.

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. In addition, the building remains also appear to include a well-built circular structure – possibly an early roundhouse. 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.

It 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.

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Aerial view of the site. Thanks to Bobby Friel @takethehighview

Interestingly, radiocarbon dates suggest that the site 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.

The site is extremely complex and this year we aim to further explore the social and historical conditions that were present at an important moment of change during the Iron Age period in Caithness.

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One of the finds from the 2017 excavation….a beautifully shaped hone, a fine-grained stone used for sharpening metal objects

The Swartigill dig is a community dig. This means that local people are involved at all stages of the process and local volunteers receive basic training in archaeological methods and help with the actual dig. If you want to be involved in this exciting dig then call 01955 651387 or e-mail studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk. No experience required!

The excavation commences on 20th August and finishes on 7th September. The site will not be open at weekends this year.

Swartigill Dig Season Ends

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Rick Barton summarises the dig season at Swartigill.

“Another season of excavation at the Swartigill Burn has ended. The day excavation seems to have flown by so quickly, and we have made a great deal of progress towards defining the form of the structures in the trench.

More of the capstones over the possible drain feature are now visible, and they are very chunky! Elsewhere, things are becoming increasingly complex, and it seems that whenever we peel back the alluvium we come straight down onto rubble and structural features!

However, we are starting to see the shape of a sub-rectangular building, which appears to match the feature identified within the geophysics! We love it when a plan comes together. A peaty layer overlays the rubble in the centre of the trench and dark

A peaty layer overlays the rubble in the centre of the trench and dark charcoal-rich deposits sealed the structural remains within the western quarter. We are hopeful that these deposits will yield some useful datable material and environmental evidence relating to the abandonment of the site.

Our most interesting find of the season so far was recovered from a rubble layers within the south-east end of the trench. Meg Sinclair, one of our experienced volunteer archaeologists, recovered a beautifully shaped whetstone, a stone tool used for sharpening metal objects. This artefact tapers to one end and shows signs of wear along its edges. There is also a small dimple on one side of its narrow end, possibly where the owner had begun to drill a hole to hang the object from their belt. As you can see in the photo, the two pieces of this object fit together perfectly.

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Our very own Scott Timpany from the UHI Archaeology Institute has been exploring the soils across the flood plain. The results of his exploration will hopefully give us an insight into the environment at Swartigill during the Iron Age, how the soils around the site formed and how it changed through time.

We finished sampling and recording the site for this year on Sunday the 30th. Bobby Friel, an experienced freelance archaeologist working with us on this project, managed to obtain some last minute elevated photographs of the site before it was covered and protected. You can see from the photo that a structure is really starting to take shape, and looking more and more intriguing all the time.

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Thanks to the Yarrows Heritage Trust for inviting us back to work with them on this fascinating project. Thanks also to everyone who came to see us and to all our volunteer archaeologists who helped us excavate the site in what were at times very challenging conditions. These projects would not be possible without you.

Special thanks to Islay Macleod for her tireless efforts to make the excavation happen and her drive to take the project forward in the future.

Watch this space for more information on the site as we begin to get into the post-excavation.”

Rick Barton 2017

Exciting Find at Swartigill

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It goes without saying that the most exciting finds of any archaeological dig are made in the final few days of activity.

And so it was on the final weekend of the dig at the Iron Age site at Swartigill, when a most intriguing object emerged from the earth…an object that perhaps sheds some light on the function of the site.

Rick Barton, Project Officer, takes up the story………….

“What a difference a day makes! We are now starting to define more of the structural features in the trench, which has involved the removal of substantial quantities of rubble infill and alluvium. More of the capstones from the possible drain feature in Structure A are now visible, and they are very chunky!

While we are beginning to clarify the shape of a structure in this part of the trench, elsewhere, things are becoming increasingly complex. It seems that wherever we peel back the alluvium we come straight down onto rubble or possible structural features!

 

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Meg Sinclair examining the hone she found.

Our most interesting find of the season so far was recovered from some of the rubble layers within the south-east end of the trench. Meg Sinclair, one of our experienced volunteer archaeologists, recovered a beautifully shaped hone, a fine-grained stone used for sharpening metal objects. This artefact tapers to one end and shows signs of wear along its edges. There is also a small dimple at its narrow end, possibly where the owner had begun to drill a hole to hang the object from their belt. This intriguing object was found in two pieces which fit together perfectly.

 

As we drew towards the end of this season’s excavations, we focussed on recording the archaeological features, sampling soil deposits and cleaning the site for the final photographs.

Our very own Scott Timpany from the UHI Archaeology Institute was also on site over the weekend with his coring equipment, investigating the peat and soils around the dig site. This will hopefully give us an insight into the environment at Swartigill during the Iron Age, and how it changed through time.

We were working on the site right until the last minute on Sunday to ensure that we maximised our time there and cover the site to protect the archaeology from the elements.” Rick Barton 2017

 

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Thanks to all the volunteers who helped with the dig.

 


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

Swartigill Friday

Day Five 2The Swartigill dig is a community dig. This means that local people are involved at all stages of the process and local volunteers receive basic training in archaeological methods and help with the actual dig.

Today, local school children joined us in the field. As part of a wider school project, they were shown the features that had been discovered so far and then helped with the dig itself…discovering a little about the people who worked and lived on the site nearly two thousand years ago.

Rick Barton takes up the story….

“Yesterday (Thursday), we made a great deal of progress. The weather was kind and the sun even came out for a few hours. We have started removing rubble infill from the structure at the north end of the trench (which I’ve started calling Structure A).

Day FiveThe shape is starting to appear with the revetment wall on the north-west side continuing to curve slightly to the south to meet up with the big boulders that we saw just after stripping. Bobby recovered a single fragment of pottery, a rim shed, from that rubble deposit.

Volunteers are taking down the mineralised soil overlaying the rubble to the south of Structure A and it seems to be fairly sterile. Starting to reveal more wall lines or possible revetments within the centre of the trench, running on an east-west alignment.

Meanwhile, in the south-east corner, we have boxed out a sondage to investigate the stonework poking through the subsoil, where it appears to match the anomaly on the geophysics. This stonework is well built from substantial blocks, forming a wall on a roughly north-south alignment with rubble spread to the east in the trench.

There is a very black layer forming between some of the rubble, but it doesn’t seem to be organic. Looks like either very degraded stone (that black material that seems to turn to dust) or a scene of manganese panning (though I’ve never seen it so consistent).”

Dr Scott Timpany is arriving tonight and will be taking peat and soil samples from around the site to help determine the form of the local landscape in the Iron Age period.


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

Written by Rick Barton 2017. Photographs by Robert Friel.

Swartigill Update

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Following brief interruptions due to the weather, the Swartigill community dig is now progressing well.

Project Officer, Rick Barton, is managing the site on day to day basis and takes up the story so far….

“Monday was a bit disrupted by the snow, but we got a good afternoon’s work in and made some good progress defining the rest of the rubble and possible structural features in the north end of the trench. As you can see in the photo, there are numerous possible wall lines and linear features showing through. These could be revetment walls, secondary structural features or just very well organised rubble at this stage, but I think you’ll agree that it’s looking more and more complex all the time.

image00015Tuesday we opened up the slit trench to the east of the site from 2015 and continued excavating a sondage to the south of the main conglomeration of features. Interestingly we are starting to get some structural features coming through in there too. The bit of wall-like structure that you saw in the north end of the slit trench in 2015 looks like it is in a rough alignment of stonework heading toward the northeast and seems to match up very well with the resistance survey in this area. This is

Day Four aThe wall-like structure that you saw in the north end of the slit trench in 2015 looks like it is in a rough alignment of stonework heading toward the northeast and seems to match up very well with the resistance survey in this area. This is interesting since it suggests that potentially, the geophysics is right and we may have a large sub-circular feature appearing in that area.

We spent most of Wednesday cleaning the site for photographs, and I placed geo-ref points around the trench so we can use aerial shots for planning the rubble in the centre of that jumble of features.

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So, the plan for today (Thursday) is to start removing the rubble and really examine the mineralised soil and underlying colluvium/alluvium that seems to be covering everything, so we can really start to see what’s happening to the south and south-east areas of the trench.”

Written by Rick Barton 2017. Photographs by Robert Friel.


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