Working in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, you soon develop a healthy respect for the weather. It has the habit of reversing a trend pretty rapidly and frustrating all your best-laid plans. One day may be bright and sunny and the next, driving snow.
Despite everyone’s best intentions, it was obvious by around 9.00am on Day Two that the dig could not continue. The whole area took on the characteristics of a well-shaken snow globe as the cold combined with the snow to make conditions impossible. Health and safety issues became paramount so the team decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retreated back to a snug cottage to analyse the results from Day One.
Day three, however, dawned cold and only slightly cloudy allowing the team to progress well with the dig. Community volunteers arrived and soon the plan for the day was in place.
A few people have asked, “How do we know where to dig?” It’s a good question. In the past archaeologists had to trust to luck to a certain extent, but nowadays we have technology on our side in the shape of geophysics. This technology gives us a map of ‘anomalies’ which with an experienced eye can be interpreted to give an indication where to place a trench.
Martin explains the geophysics in this short video….
The Swartigill excavation is a joint community project involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.
Sunday 23rd April dawned with an early ferry crossing as the team from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute bounced over the Pentland Firth en-route to Caithness and the Swartigill archaeological excavation.
The crossing itself was followed by a short overland trip through Wick to a section of road which seemed to be surrounded by bog, heather, a small forest of pine trees and little else. Martin Carruthers, Site Director, pointed over a small hill to the site and suggested that I clothe myself from head to foot in wet weather gear…despite the fact it wasn’t raining.
The reason for this soon hit me as a trudged through long grass interspersed with the occasional stretches of bog in which my boots momentarily and rather alarmingly disappeared for a few moments. After about five minutes we were looking down into a shallow valley of Swartigill Burn.
Within a few more minutes the equipment was unloaded from our backs and we were joined by an excavator. There was no trace of last year’s test pits, but with the help of GPS and under the expert direction of Rick Barton (Project Officer), the machine soon cleared the top soil for our new extended trench. This paved the way for the rest of the team, including local volunteers, to start working.
Within a few hours, a linear stone feature emerged from the soil together with a fragment of Iron Age degraded ceramic pottery. The latter was discovered by one of the volunteers who was more than pleased with her find.
The work carried on relentlessly as the wind increasingly buffeted the team. Jammy doughnuts and sandwiches provided by Yarrows Heritage Trust gave us extra energy to address the feature located in the test pit during 2015 – a possible drain feature. The capping stone was removed in 2015 to reveal this enigmatic tunnel which seemed to extend to the watercourse.
This feature will be the focus of our work over the next week.
The Swartigill excavation is a joint community venture between the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Yarrows Heritage Trust.
The 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.
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.
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.
The 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………..
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.