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/

 

Advertisements

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.

DSC_0188.JPG

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.

DSC_0183.JPG

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.

Probable New Crannog on Deeside

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 looking to the north-west.

The Houff looking to the north-west.

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.

The excavation revealed an anthropogenic soil sitting on a sterile, probably lacustrine, sand.

The excavation revealed an anthropogenic soil sitting on a sterile, probably lacustrine, sand.

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.

The Royal Yacht

I have written a number times in this blog of details concerning the logboat find from Loch Kinord known in the 19th century as the Royal Yacht, however, the recent AD 550-650 radiocarbon result has prompted me to bring all that detail together in a single post here, as well as add some of my additional thoughts.

The Royal Yacht was found in 1858 in Loch Kinord, during a dry summer. This was the first logboat discovery from Loch Kinord (a further three at least were discovered, including two in close proximity to each other near the west shore of the loch and a third near Prison Island). The name ‘Royal Yacht’ was given to the find in reference to the loch’s local association with Malcolm Canmore. Although, only six years previously, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the nearby Balmoral Castle, and ‘Royal’ associations were very much in vogue at the time.

In 1859, the boat was removed from the loch by a team of over 50 people using poles and ropes. The antiquarian Rev. J. G. Michie describes some detail concerning the boat, most notably two large splits which appear to have been repaired in antiquity using ‘dove tailing’ joints to prevent further splitting. The boat was displayed in Aberdeen the following year and then taken to Aboyne Castle. It seems that during its time in Aboyne Castle the boat largely disintegrated (a common fate among logboats discovered in the 19th century – only around 20% of logboats found in the 19th century survive to this day), but a fragment survived and was donated to what has become the Marischal College Museum Collection. This was what was radiocarbon dated.

The group of logboats from Loch Kinord are a rather remarkable collection from a single loch. In addition to the logboats, accounts of ‘innumerable’ wooden artefacts recovered from Loch Kinord in the 19th century speak to the incredible preservation conditions in Loch Kinord. I have cut together a brief video of underwater footage from within the loch that can be viewed at the link below. The first part of the video shows just how good the visibility can be in the right conditions, and the second part just how poor they can be too.

Video Link [[HERE]]

What is also amazing to think about it, is that the preservation in Loch Kinord is unlikely to be especially unique. Loch Kinord’s water benefits from less intensive agriculture around its shore and in its catchment area, but regardless, there are many hundreds (if not thousands) of lochs in Scotland with similar preservation conditions.

Since there is no telling the date of the other logboats from Loch Kinord, we must look further afield for parallels to the Royal Yacht. I briefly discussed in a previous post the logboat from Loch of Kinnordy, and this boat’s carved animal bow is an intriguing detail potentially hinting at what might have been lost from the Royal Yacht. There is a further animal carved bow logboat dating from the 5th century AD – the Errol 2 logboat. This boat was found by fishermen in the inner Tay estuary in 1895. You can read the Canmore site record [[here]]. While there is no evidence of an animal carving on the bow of the Royal Yacht, Michie describes the logboat being found in very shallow water and the upper portions of the boat being ‘worn down’. It is tempting to think that the Royal Yacht also featured an animal carving on the bow too.

Radiocarbon dated logboats from the Early Medieval period in eastern Scotland

Radiocarbon dated logboats from the Early Medieval period in eastern Scotland

Using animal imagery on watercraft has an exceptionally long history throughout the world, and indeed there are numerous arguments amongst maritime archaeologists that animal shapes were used to inform crucial elements of boat and ship design as recently as the 18th century. Whether animal form was used in logboat design is difficult to prove, although the longevity of the logboat building tradition might to speak to its conceptual and design simplicity. However, the relationship between animal imagery and watercraft goes far beyond design and concept.

It is easy to imagine, although the archaeological evidence remains scant, that animistic belief systems were prevalent in the first millennium AD in Scotland. The best evidence we have from this period comes from symbol stones where animals are depicted with some frequency (although by no means the most numerous group of symbols). Salmon, birds and the Pictish beastie all appear on a number of symbol stones. While not the only interpretation, Pictish symbol stones may have communicated some kind of identity, and it is possible that animal carvings on logboats were communicating a similar thing as a kind of ownership. This may not have been straight forward property ownership as we might think today (i.e. I carved my name on it so it is mine), but perhaps it was communicating that by boarding the logboat you were now in someone’s sphere of control. This idea ties in nicely with what is recorded in Early Medieval literature in Ireland regarding crannogs which describe in a number of places crannogs as having designated harbours or landing sites on shore and that these harbours were viewed as part of the area under the control of the crannog.

I do not wish to undervalue the practical element of logboats, they certainly would have been useful to get from point A to point B. However, like crannogs, the less functional aspects of logboats are intriguing, despite the details remaining archaeologically elusive. Further investigation at Loch Kinord may be able to shed light on the landscape (or waterscape) that the Royal Yacht and the other logboats known from Loch Kinord were used. Investigating how these boats might relate to Castle and Prison Island as well the as wider archaeological landscape around the loch is likely to yield interesting results.

Radiocarbon dating two artefacts found in Loch Kinord

Results are in for the radiocarbon dating of two artefacts found in Loch Kinord in the 19th century. The artefacts are a shaft of a bronze spearhead and a fragment of a logboat which when found measured over 9m in length. The spearhead had been suggested to have a Late Bronze Age date, between 1000 BC and 800 BC, based on the style of the metal work. However, the preserved wooden shaft found within the spearhead had not been directly dated and there was suspicion that it might be a Victorian re-creation dating to the time the spearhead was found.

Bronze Spearhead

But we can now say that is not the case, the radiocarbon result has confirmed and tightened the date range that the typology of the spearhead suggested – late Bronze Age from the 9th century BC. This is the very end of the Bronze Age and coincidentally this is the period of the very earliest radiocarbon determinations from a handful of crannog sites. You can read more about Late Bronze Age metal work in [[this]] lengthy paper (it was written 50 years ago, so forgive it for some things that have been reconsidered).

In addition to the shaft of the spearhead, a fragment of a logboat was also radiocarbon dated. The logboat was also found in Loch Kinord in the 19th century, and was known at the time as the ‘Royal Yacht’ referring the local association between the loch and Malcolm Canmore. Logboats in Scotland date from as early as the Mesolithic through the Medieval period. This has made the radiocarbon date exceptionally important as there is no other way to even narrow down 6-7 thousand years of possible use.

Logboat Fragment

However, the result was 6th-7th century AD. This is a very interesting result for a number of reasons. First, the date, roughly AD 550-650 is just more than a century before the radiocarbon date from a pile from Prison Island – possibly indicating contemporary use. Early Medieval logboat use is well attested in the archaeological records of Britain and Ireland, so there are many potential parallels to discuss. But one that stands out is a logboat dated to 8th century AD from the Loch of Kinnordy near Kirriemuir (the names of the lochs, Kinord and Kinnordy, are coincidence). If you check the Canmore site record [[here]], you can click on the digitised image of a drawing by Robert Mowat of the Kinnordy boat. Note the animistic head on the prow, a hint of what might have been lost from the ‘Royal Yacht’.

There are more radiocarbon date results to be returned from Loch Kinord in the coming weeks and months.

Thanks to the Aberdeen Humanities Fund for providing funding for the radiocarbon dates. Thanks also to Marishcal College Museum Curator Neil Curtis for granting permission for the samples to be taken. I must also thank Caroline and Ray again who were so helpful in taking the samples.