New Radiocarbon Date from Castle Island, Loch Kinord

The underwater survey carried out at Castle Island in autumn 2015 continues to turn up fascinating new information. During the survey, seven vertical piles were identified, you can read more about the underwater survey HERE. One of these piles has now returned a radiocarbon date of cal AD 585-663. This is the first radiocarbon date from a crannog in eastern Scotland that sits within the middle of the first millennium AD. For Castle Island, this adds to the previously identified phases of use in the Early Iron Age and from the 10th-17th centuries AD.

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Calibrated date from the pile.

Of the seven piles, the radiocarbon dated example comes from a group of six that seem to be part of a coherent structure, sitting a consistent distance away from the artificial mound of Castle Island and all sloping in a northerly direction. Precisely what this structure is remains unclear, but some kind of outer palisade is one possibility. It also seems likely that further piles survive under the sediment having been eroded to that level. The sampled pile was oak, and this might explain why it and only a handful of others survived, as other species are not as resistant to decay. However, this does mean that the radiocarbon result should be treated as the earliest possible date for the pile.

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The dated pile, looking north.

Excitingly, the radiocarbon date falls around the same period as the ‘Royal Yacht’, one of the four logboats found in Loch Kinord in the 19th century, and may suggest that Castle Island was in use as a crannog at the same time as the Royal Yacht. You can read more about the ‘Royal Yacht’ HERE.

Perhaps more importantly though, the new radiocarbon date from Castle Island sits within the Pictish period. Until as recently as a decade ago, settlement archaeology from the mid- to later 1st millennium AD in north-east Scotland had been rarely identified. However, recent excavations over the past few years at a range of sites across the north-east have identified mid- to late first millennium AD phases, notably at Portmohomack, Rhynie and a number of hill forts in Aberdeenshire and Moray. Castle Island, Loch Kinord now stands among these sites as a settlement that was very likely in use in this period.

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Castle Island looking north-west.

The settlement archaeology to date from the Pictish period in north-east Scotland has been dominated by higher status dwellings, but until now, crannogs had not been positively identified among the hill fort and palisaded enclosure sites confirmed as dating from this period. Crannogs display a command and control of resources while also creating physical separation in the landscape – things that Pictish period high-status settlement appear to emphasise. It seems likely therefore that further Pictish phases of crannog use in north-east Scotland will be identified as further work is carried out in this region.

This new radiocarbon date from the pile on the west side of Castle Island represents a new phase of construction. This adds yet another example of a crannog with multiple periods of use separated many centuries. This typically comes from just a few radiocarbon determinations of varying contextual security. With only a handful of crannogs having seen extensive excavation and suites of radiocarbon dates from highly secure contexts, this has meant that the narratives for the use of crannogs often is limited to simply acknowledging likely phases of use. This is the situation as it stands at Castle Island. While not necessarily a problem in it self, the next steps needed to gain a better understanding of how people used Castle Island would be more extensive excavation, ideally underwater to target better preserved contexts.

Sadly, there are currently no plans for further extensive excavations at Castle Island, Loch Kinord. Given the wide range of use at Castle Island, extending from the Early Iron Age to the 17th century, the potential has been established here for important and exciting insights into the island dwelling phenomenon through time in Scotland.

New Islet Broch (possible) Discovered at Holms of Hogaland, Whiteness, Shetland

New Islet Broch (possible) Discovered at Holms of Hogaland, Whiteness, Shetland

A new monumental drystone roundhouse was discovered while conducting underwater and terrestrial archaeological survey in Strom Loch, Whiteness, Shetland. The site is the central of three islets, called the Holms of Hogaland. This site has not been identified to date, and will be a new entry into a long list of brochs and possible brochs known in Shetland.

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First views of the possible broch.

In conducting survey at Castle Holm, Strom Loch, Shetland the opportunity was taken to investigate a small islet across the loch at the Holms of Hogaland. I was tipped off by Claire Christie, who is working at the Shetland Amenity Trust using high resolution aerial photographs to map Shetland’s Sites and Monuments Record, that there may be a causeway out to the island. Upon inspection, myself and Sally Evans (an intrepid volunteer) were amazed by what we saw.

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The internal depression.

The majority of this islet was covered in a large mound around three metres high and about 16x14m across. There were obvious structural features, including coursed stonework and potentially the remains of orthostats or piers (ie. internal divisions within the former structure). In the middle of the island is small circular depression about four metres across that presumably represents internal space within this large structure. On the west side of the island, and most exposed to the weather, there appears to be some active erosion, although the rate and extent of this is difficult to know as there is no baseline of information with which to compare.

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Possible orthostats or piers.

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Exposed walling in the interior depression.

Bedrock can be seen at the edges of island, so it is clear that this islet is not completely artificial, however, it seems likely that a significant portion of the current islet underwater is composed of material transported to the site. While not a crannog in the classic sense, it may well prove that sites like this newly discovered site are assuming similar roles as crannogs in Iron Age Scotland.

The monumental architectural forms of Iron Age Scotland (crannogs, brochs, wheelhouses and duns) are frequently conceived and discussed as self-evident categories of settlement types. However, any close inspection of how these archaeological terms are defined reveals that these units are not so clear cut – a topic that has been the subject of large tomes of published literature. It seems clear, though, that we are instead looking at a spectrum of round (mostly domestic) architecture where the lines between broch and dun, crannog and an occupied natural islet remain blurred. When considering crannogs and islet settlement, Shetland presents a wide array of different types ranging from completely artificial occupied islands to natural islands with monumental roundhouses placed on top. For this reason, it represents a foil to studies of mainland crannogs (such as the main focus of my PhD research), and hopefully will help break down our archaeological terminology and definitions and peer into an understanding of what monumental domestic architecture meant to the people of Iron Age Scotland.

Stay tuned for further updates on islet brochs and duns in Shetland!

Thank you to Sally Evans, it would not have been possible to do this work without her help!  Thank you to Esther Renwick and family for use of the small dinghy, it worked brilliantly. Thanks also to Claire Christie for the tip-off on the presence of the causeway. And finally thank you to Val Turner for her support.

Likely Iron Age Origin for Castle Island: Radiocarbon results from Loch Kinord

Likely Iron Age Origin for Castle Island: Radiocarbon results from Loch Kinord

An Iron Age phase of construction at Castle Island, Loch Kinord has been identified through radiocarbon dating. The date comes from a submerged timber on the west side of the island, which lies horizontally protruding from the underwater portion of the island. This is the first evidence for Iron Age activity from the occupied islands in Loch Kinord as they previously had radiocarbon dates from the 9th century AD onwards. The other significant evidence this radiocarbon date provides is that it may suggest that Castle Island is more artificial than the excavation in October seemed to suggest, and therefore takes us back to our original interpretation that Castle Island is wholly or mostly artificial as opposed to natural with significant modification.

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Submerged horizontal timber from Castle Island, Loch Kinord. This timber was sampled and radiocarbon dated to the Early Iron Age. Approximately 1.6m of the timber is exposed.

This is the first Iron Age crannog confirmed in north-east Scotland. The result puts Castle Island (and perhaps all of the crannogs of north-east Scotland) much more in phase with other radiocarbon dated crannogs throughout Scotland. The majority of radiocarbon dated crannogs have initial phases of construction and occupation in the Iron Age with periodic re-use through the early medieval and medieval periods (There is a book chapter available HERE by Anne Crone on this subject; the chapter begins on pg. 139). The Iron Age phase at Loch Kinord is very exciting as it opens up the crannog history of Loch Kinord (and arguably the region) by over 1500 years. Furthermore, the outstanding preservation of the landscape around Loch Kinord means that good contextualisation of the crannog occupation is possible within a range of settlement archaeology that includes houses, souterrains and field systems. These likely Iron Age structures may date to the same period of construction indicated by the Castle Island radiocarbon date. The group of roundhouses at Old Kinord was recently investigated by Tanja Romankiewicz and Richard Bradley which will be the first modern investigation of this remarkable survival of domestic architecture, and will undoubtedly add to our overall understanding of the Loch Kinord landscape.

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Radiocarbon dates from Castle Island.

As it stands, Castle Island is unique for having an Early Iron Age phase as well as 10th-12th century AD phases indicated by radiocarbon dating. The two radiocarbon dates from the terrestrially excavated contexts on Castle Island are virtually of the same 11th or 12th century AD determination. At this time, it seems that Castle Island is enlarged with a large quantity of earth brought to site, and in many ways this phase of use at the site might be characterised as the development of an insular island motte. This almost certainly relates to this site being put into use as a castle residence for incoming elites as Scotland coalesced into a feudal medieval kingdom in part through the import of loyal nobility. There is also the possibility that the people responsible for commissioning and building this and other elaborate island residences were native elites emulating styles associated with new hierarchies of power but within a familiar vernacular of important residences that had been around since the Early Iron Age. There are a growing number of crannogs in eastern Scotland which are demonstrating use from the 10th-12th centuries AD. Notably, at Lochore Castle in Fife, excavations directed by Dr Oliver O’Grady have revealed 10th-11th century AD occupation with later elaboration in the form of a surviving stone tower house. You can read more about the Lochore Castle project HERE. The question that remains is whether all or only some of these medieval crannogs have phases of earlier use.

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Radiocarbon dates from Prison Island.

In addition to the radiocarbon date from Castle Island, a third radiocarbon date from Prison Island has been recovered, and for the first time at Prison Island, this sample comes from an excavated context. The date is further strong evidence that Prison Island was in use at the same time as Castle Island. The material radiocarbon dated probably relates to some hearth waste. The previous two radiocarbon dates, which bracket this one, came from structural material (an upright pile and a horizontal timber). Why Prison Island and Castle Island were in use at the same time is probably, although not necessarily, more nuanced than their names imply. Importantly, Prison Island is referred to in the Old Statistical Account and labelled on the First Edition of the Six Inch Ordnance Survey as ‘Tolbooth’. Tolbooths performed a range of functions in medieval Scotland, including being used as prisons, but also as town council chambers and court rooms. Whatever their purpose, it is now very likely that Castle and Prison Islands were in contemporary use. The implication is a more complex dynamic of island occupation than previously considered, perhaps with further controls on access and division of functions during medieval re-use of crannogs.

Funding for this work has been provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Aberdeen Humanities Fund and Aberdeenshire Council. I must thank everyone who has helped carry out this work, Dimitris Papakonstantis, Tim Stephen, Ailidh Brown, Julia Scheel, Seòna Wells, Duncan MacGregor, Ross Cairnduff, Euan MacKenzie, Claire Christie, Carly Ameen, John Witold, Juliette Mitchell, Tessa Poller and my supervisor Gordon Noble. Permission for this work has been kindly granted by Catriona Reid, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve Manager.

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.

Underwater Investigation at Loch Kinord – 16-18 October

Work at Loch Kinord continued again this past weekend. Surprisingly, visibility conditions in the loch surpassed all expectations allowing more to be achieved in this single weekend than all of the previous underwater work conducted to date. With help from volunteers from the Aberdeen University Sub-Aqua Club and Deeside Sub-Aqua Club, we examined the submerged portion of Castle Island.

Castle Island is first recorded as being in use in AD 1335, when the remnants of the Earl of Atholl’s defeated troops took refuge there following the Battle of Culblean Hill (they surrendered the next day). The castle was in use throughout the next 300 years, but was razed by Act of Parliament in 1649. My previous work at Castle Island indicated that remains of the causeway structure referred to in Reverend J. Michie’s 19th century antiquarian account of Loch Kinord survive, and one of the timbers likely to be part of that structure returned a radiocarbon date from the 10th century AD. The work we undertook this past weekend aimed to shed more light on what remains on the loch bottom, and take C14 samples that might add further detail to the chronology of use at Castle Island.

Timber C14 dated to the 10th century AD.

Timber C14 dated to the 10th century AD.

Submerged Timber on north side of Castle Island.

Submerged Timber on north side of Castle Island.

What we discovered did not disappoint. It is now clear that there are a group of vertical piles on the west side of Castle Island. These piles stand about 5-10 metres from where the artificial mound meets the natural loch bed. For what structural purpose these piles relate to is unclear, but an outer palisade or some kind of pier or jetty seem possible. I suspect that many more vertical piles survive just under the sediment of the loch bed, having eroded away through time. The piles that do survive above the loch bed have done so because they are likely to be oak heartwood, the sapwood having disappeared already (if it wasn’t removed during the fabrication of the pile).

In addition to the piling, the west side of the island has also at least two examples surviving of horizontal timbers emerging from the artificial mound. This is also the side of the island where we identified a possible logboat in 2011. That feature was found again, but its status as a logboat is very much in doubt having now been able to look at it completely in good visibility. Close examination of the images captured of this tree/logboat will hopefully settle the issue.

Despite the good visibility, as always, when the bottom sediment was stirred up, the visibility quickly reduced.

Poor visibility always occurs when even the lightest touch or fin stroke is applied to the loch bed.

Poor visibility always occurs when even the lightest touch or fin stroke impacts the loch bed.

There is a lot more work to be done at Castle Island, including upcoming excavation on the island itself.

I would very much like to thank the divers and helpers who made this work possible. Thank you to Dimitris Papakonstantis, Tim Stephen, Ailidh Brown, Julia Scheel, Seòna Wells, Duncan MacGregor, Ross Cairnduff, Euan MacKenzie, Claire Christie, and Carly Ameen. Thanks also to Catriona Reid for help and permissions to do this work at the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. Finally, thank you to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for providing funding for this archaeological investigation.