Back in July a small excavation was undertaken on a site called the Houff near the town of Lumphanan. The excavation was testing the theory that drained lochs in eastern Scotland contain recorded archaeological sites that are crannogs rather than what they have been recorded as – which range from motte, to natural feature, to mound. The Houff was just such a site, located within what I have proposed was the former area of the now drained Loch Auchlossan. The loch was first partially drained (including the area of the Houff) around 1700, with the rest of the loch drained about 1868. To finish draining the loch, tunnels had to be dug to reduce the water level. It appears now that the tunnels have given way to a very large machine cut ditch, that is still very evident along the roadside there.
The Houff is a mound about 45x35m and rises about 2.5m above the surrounding field. It is recorded as a burial ground, and indeed the site was probably used as such. There are still upstanding remains of dry-stone structures that perhaps could be described as mausoleums.
The excavation was very limited in scale and was addressing a simple question – is the mound that makes up the Houff artificial? If the mound is artificial and within the former loch, then this is a strong (although not absolute) indication that the site is a crannog. If the site is a crannog, then it would not only be the first excavation of crannog in eastern Scotland since the 19th century, but it would also be the first excavation of crannog that has so long been in a drained situation (about 300 years).
The trench was put in on the north side of the mound to avoid the areas that had been obviously disturbed by quarrying in the 1960s. What we found appeared to be too good to be true. The mound was obviously made-up of a completely anthropogenic soil. This dark soil below the top-soil had visible chunks of charcoal come out of it, and was remarkable uniform throughout. This soil was sitting atop a sterile gravelly sand, which is a sediment that would not be out of place on a lake bed.
It is my interpretation the normal organic matrix that makes up crannogs, in this case, has been disintegrated and is now the anthropogenic soil – most organic remains have simply been lost to the processes of soil formation in the last 300 years. Although no artefacts were recovered and no obvious structural elements were identified (normally a defining characteristic of crannog sites), it seems likely the Houff was originally constructed as a crannog in the former Loch Auchlossan given the nature of the sediments encountered. Further work is currently being undertaken on samples from the site that will hopefully determine that the anthropogenic soil was formed in a lake. A radiocarbon date will also be taken from this site that will give us an idea of when the site was constructed and used.
Thanks to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who have funded this excavation as part of a broader programme of work investigation crannogs in Deeside. Thanks also to Veronica and Irvine Ross whose help made the excavation possible.