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.

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.

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.

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.

Snorkelling Loch Kinord 26th and 28th February

I have had a chance to get a couple of days of snorkelling in at Loch Kinord. There is more diving fieldwork to come over the next week, but I thought I would share a few photos that have come up. Conditions have been quite tough, water temperatures less then 2°C and high winds have limited what we’ve been able to do.

Blurry photo of possible timber at Castle Island, Loch Kinord

Blurry photo of possible timber at Castle Island, Loch Kinord

Submerged section of Prison Island crannog, Loch Kinord

Submerged section of Prison Island crannog, Loch Kinord

Lots more work to be done with the data collected, hopefully with discoveries coming up from some careful examination of the photos. Thanks to Seòna, Tim, Robert and Claire for helping out.

Diving fieldwork on 9 March

This past Sunday (9 March), myself and three other members of the Aberdeen University Sub-Aqua Club went to the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve to attempt to identify and locate a crannog in Loch Davan, Aberdeenshire. The possible crannog was observed in aerial photographs taken in 1995, which suggested that the site lay near the western shore of the loch.

In March 2012 I attempted to locate this site but was unsuccessful. This was the first time I managed to get back and I was very hopeful that we would be able to locate the site and take a sample for radiocarbon dating. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the site. I suspect there are two possibilities. The first is that I am simply looking in the wrong place and the second is that there simply is no crannog to be found. It remains to be seen which proves to be true, but that this site has remained elusive for so long now is frustrating.

The day was not a total failure though. We took the opportunity to get back into Loch Kinord to go find the possible logboat which was first identified back in 2011. We got into position thinking that the possible logboat would be 5-10 metres in front of us. However, we ended up coming down almost right on top of it. Sadly, the result was that we kicked up loads of silt before getting a good look at it. We returned to the spot 30 minutes later to see if things had settled down, but they had not, so we gave up on getting good photos of the logboat.

Some rubble/debris on the crannog mound. Visibility was around 3 metres, by far the best I have experienced in Loch Kinord.

Some rubble/debris on the crannog mound. Visibility was around 3 metres, by far the best I have experienced in Loch Kinord.

We were very pleasantly surprised by the relatively good visibility. So we took the opportunity to swim around the crannog and see what there was to see. We located a pile, and we also got some good looks at some of the rubble which makes up the mound of Castle Island. But the highlight was the best look yet at the timber which was radiocarbon dated to the 10th century AD. It is an intriguing find, not least because the mystery of what the timber might have been used for. It is located just off the artificial mound which makes up the crannog.

A newly found pile just to the west of Castle Island

A newly found pile just to the west of Castle Island

The 10th century AD timber.

The 10th century AD timber.

All in all, it was a day of mixed results at best. I doubt now that there will be another chance to get into Loch Davan or Loch Kinord until after bird breeding season which ends 30 July. But this time will offer a chance to really think about the possible Loch Davan crannog and dream about the enormous potential of further work at Castle Island. I will be linking a short video clip of the dive from last Sunday, so check back soon.

p.s. I must thank Kelsey Padgett, Seòna Wells, and Tim Stephen for coming along and making the dives possible.

The Initial Survey

For my undergraduate dissertation, I proposed to undertake an exploratory survey of Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire. After getting permission from my supervisor, Dr. Gordon Noble, and relevant land owners and cultural heritage administrators, I organised a group of volunteers from the Aberdeen University Sub-Aqua Club (AUSAC) to help out with the diving survey.

The goal of this survey was pretty straight forward. We were going to simply have a look around the submerged sections of the crannogs in Loch Kinord to assess what material survives on the loch bed. The two crannogs in question are called Castle Island and Prison Island, and they are very clearly seen from the north shore of loch should you ever visit.

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A view from Castle Island, looking West.

On the very first dive we came across the classic structural feature of crannogs – the driven wooden pile. Over the course of three days myself and the AUSAC volunteers identified over a dozen wooden structural features which were extant on the mound of the crannogs – that is to say we located the easily findable stuff that was just laying around each crannog. And that is a really great way to put it, as these archaeological features are so rich, that huge (up to 4m long) timber elements of the crannog are simply lying on the rocky mound which makes up the small islet.

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A section of a 3m long timber from Castle Island, radiocarbon dated to the 10th century AD.

Before the survey it was still unclear whether Castle Island was natural, partially artificial or totally artificial, but I am very confident that we were able to observe that Castle Island is at least partially artificial with striking similarities in the size of stones used to make up both of the islets. We also located what may be part of a logboat just to the west of Castle Island, but visibility conditions limited our ability to positively identify the possible wooden vessel.

Our dives ended here after three short days. It is needless to say that there is much more material simply lying around on the bed of Loch Kinord, not to mention what treasures are certain to be found within the structural mounds of Castle and Prison Islands.

This work was conducted in August and October 2011, and I am sorry to say that I have not managed to organise a return trip. However, getting back into Loch Kinord is a high priority for my PhD research, and I expect to be able to report here on these findings in the near future.