University of Aberdeen Museums Lecture Series Talk

On Tuesday 1 December, I will be giving a talk entitled ‘Crannogs and Castles: The artificial islands of north-east Scotland’. This talk aims to explore the over-looked phenomenon of crannogs and island inhabitation in north-east Scotland.

The talk will be held at 19:30 in the Regent Lecture Theatre at the University of Aberdeen.

More information can be found at:

http://www.abdn.ac.uk/museums/events/8276/

 

Artefacts from Castle Island Excavation Book-end the Use of the Site

Not a lot of artefacts came up from the Castle Island excavation undertaken two weeks ago. However, the few artefacts that did tell an interesting story.

Taking a closer look has revealed that one artefact discovered dates from some of the earliest use of Castle Island and another from some of the most recent use of the island. The former is a fragment of a crucible which I will discuss in a moment. The latter artefact is a small fragment of a clay pipe stem. Clay pipes are first made in Britain as tobacco becomes available in the second half of the 16th century. These early pipes have wider bore-holes through the stem (and smaller bowls), as tobacco was used in a rapid smoking fashion rather than for prolonged smoking habits. The stem fragment recovered has a 3.6mm wide bore, or about 9/64 inches. This would suggest an earlier date for the production of this clay pipe. Castle Island is razed in 1648, so this fits with an understanding that the clay pipe pictured below dates from the last decades the castle was in use.

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13mm long clay pipe fragment. Photograph, W. Ritchie.

In the last years that the castle stood on Castle Island, Scotland, and the rest of Britain, was in extreme turmoil as religious conflict disrupted nearly every corner of the country. Variously known as the War of the Three Kingdoms or the British Civil Wars, it culminated with the execution of Charles I and the exile of Charles II in 1649. The person whose clay pipe was excavated may very well have felt the sharp end of this conflict, so it is easy to imagine in such trying times a nicotine addiction would readily develop (especially since tobacco was viewed as a cure-all in the early 17th century).

The crucible on the other hand probably dates from a far earlier period. The fragment is from the base of the container, and its inner side describes a maximum internal diameter of about 6cm. Although it is not absolutely certain, this crucible fragment may be early medieval in date, and hints at activity normally associated with the upper-echelons of society at this time. Finer metal work has been suggested to be part of the way social relations were crafted and mediated during the early medieval period. Being in control and having the skills required to produce silver, gold and inlayed objects would have put you in a privileged position.

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Base fragment of crucible. Photograph, W. Ritchie.

There are early medieval accounts of metal working taking place on islands – one of which is summarised by Aidan O’Sullivan in a 2009 paper. That account speaks of a Christian saint who is travelling by boat and comes across an island where there are great noises and fumes being emitted. When the saint calls out to the island, the inhabitants begin to heave fiery rocks at the boat making the water boil, steam and hiss. The saint safely passes by, but this short passage gives some interesting clues about the use of crannogs in the period. First, is that they may not have always been strictly domestic structures and things like metal-working were taking place on them. Another is that at least in the Irish medieval documents, early Christians were as frequently unwelcome at crannogs as they were using islands themselves.

At Castle Island, there may perhaps be some overlap. The fragment of the crucible hints at early medieval fine metal work and the presence of the Kinord Cross Slab, speaks to high-status Christian activity. This evidence is tenuous, it must be admitted. However, investigations at Loch Kinord have invariably turned up activity from the second half of the first millennium AD – even when it was not expected.

Thanks go to Ana Jorge and Ewan Campbell for providing their expertise on assessing the crucible fragment. Thanks to Walter Ritchie for his help with taking the photographs of the objects. And finally, thank you to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who have funded the Castle Island excavation.

Castle Island Excavation

Throughout last week, evaluative excavation was undertaken at Castle Island, Loch Kinord which was building on the underwater survey work conducted earlier this month (read about that HERE). The aim of the excavation was to establish the nature of this island, which has shown evidence below the water-line for being substantially artificial. The history of the island’s occupation stretches back at least as far as the first half of the 14th century, and radiocarbon dating has suggested occupation from as early as the 10th century. The excavation hoped to reveal evidence for even earlier use of the site.

We were very lucky with the weather over the course of the week with unseasonably warm temperatures and a good amount of sunshine.

We were very lucky with the weather over the course of the week with unseasonably warm temperatures and a good amount of sunshine.

The first discovery made was that the topsoil across the island is full of charcoal. It is presumed this is related to the destruction of the castle in 1649 by Act of Parliament and/or the final phases of occupation at Castle Island. It also appears that the Castle Island is at its core a natural deposit of material, almost certainly glacial in origin. However, it was also clear from the excavations (and submerged survey) that this island has been substantially modified, probably including levelling the top and scarping the sides to create the defences of the castle. This kind of construction has numerous parallels to medieval mottes and moated sites. Interestingly here though, is that this kind of construction is taking place on an island. While not a crannog in the classic sense, this modification of the island on such a complete scale would satisfy a number of criteria for classifying it as a crannog.

In addition to identifying the make-up of the island, the excavation also uncovered evidence for some structures on the island including an alignment of postholes, a very large pit (1.45m deep) and charred in situ timbers. The limited scale of the excavation make understanding these features’ purpose somewhat speculative, so an interpretation of the features will be reserved for a future post after further thought.

Some excavated features at Castle Island

Some excavated features at Castle Island

The excavation did not reveal that the island is wholly or mostly artificial as initially thought (and hoped) nor do we as yet have clear evidence for the construction and occupation of the site before the 10th century AD. Radiocarbon dating of some of the features identified in the excavation may yet indicate earlier activity, with results from C14 dating expected in the coming months. Regardless, Castle Island is an intriguing site, not least for its contemporaneous occupation to the classic style crannog 500m away, Prison Island, which has radiocarbon dates from the 9th and 12th centuries AD. Additionally, given that the site has not seen any disturbance other that the removal of timber from the surrounding loch bed in the 18th and 19th centuries, the preservation of this site should be considered outstanding with significant further potential.

This work was made possible by the help of volunteer excavators John Witold, Juliette Mitchell, Tessa Poller and my supervisor Gordon Noble. Thanks go to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland who have provided funding for this excavation. Finally, thank you to Catriona Reid and the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve who have kindly granted permission for this work to take place.