Romans and Vikings – Iron Age and Early Medieval dates from the Loch of Leys Crannog, Aberdeenshire

Romans and Vikings – Iron Age and Early Medieval dates from the Loch of Leys Crannog, Aberdeenshire

The radiocarbon dates from the Loch of Leys excavation have been returned. The dates indicate evidence for occupation in the 1st-2nd centuries AD and in the 9th-10th centuries AD. Multiple phases of occupation on crannogs is absolutely the norm with these sites being abandoned and then re-occupied two or more times. There is good evidence for use of crannogs in the 1st-2nd centuries AD across Scotland, although this the first evidence for that period in north-east Scotland. In the 9th-10th centuries, there is far less evidence for use of crannogs in Scotland, but the evidence is growing with five sites now have radiocarbon dates from the period, three of those through this project (Loch of Leys, Prison and Castle Islands, Loch Kinord).

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Radiocarbon dates from the Loch of Leys Crannog

This list continues to grow as crannogs in eastern Scotland have been investigated, but for what purpose crannogs are put to in this period remains in question. The excavation of Loch Glashan crannog in south-west Scotland has a hint of occupation in the 9th century in the form of a leather book satchel, possibly indicating use by Christian clergy or monks, but most of the evidence from this site dates from earlier centuries. Crannogs in Ireland have been excavated that date to this period as does the Welsh crannog at Llangorse, and these are normally associated with high status dwellings, although exceptions to this have been highlighted by Christina Fredengren. An intriguing possibility lies in the use of crannogs at this time as assembly sites. Although not a crannog proper (ie. it is a natural islet), the Law Ting Holm in Shetland is used from the 9th century AD as a Viking period assembly site, and excavation there demonstrated evidence for use as a domestic dwelling in the Iron Age and Pictish periods. Archaeological evidence for any site’s use as an assembly site is scant and ephemeral (how to you show archaeologically that people simply gathered somewhere?), but it is a tempting interpretation of crannogs in this early medieval context.

In contrast to the 9th-10th centuries, evidence for the use of crannogs in the 1st-2nd centuries AD is much greater. Most of this evidence comes from south-west Scotland, and not least from Robert Munro. Munro’s 19th century excavations revealed Samian Ware from at least two crannog sites. More recent sampling and excavation has radiocarbon dated phases to the 1st-2nd centuries AD at Barlockhart, Buiston, Loch Glashan, Erskine Bridge, and Dumbuck crannogs. Sites outside of the south-west dated to the period include, Morenish and Tombreck crannogs in Loch Tay, Loch Migdale crannog, Sutherland and Redcastle and Phopachy in the Beauly Firth. Interestingly, these sites span areas that were within regions of high Roman influence in this period (in the south-west) and areas that saw significantly less, such as at Loch Migdale, Sutherland. The Loch of Leys sits between the two. There is the Raedykes Roman camp a few miles down the Dee from the Loch of Leys, but this part of Scotland was never an established part of the Roman empire like parts of south-west Scotland were. This might suggest that building crannogs was not simply or only a direct response to Roman occupation.

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Nearly always with crannogs, the history of use is multi-phase, multi-period and difficult to untangle. The Loch of Leys crannog is no exception to this. The aim of the excavation at the Loch of Leys was to establish if there was activity pre-dating the known medieval occupation of the island. That has clearly been answered, and we can confidently say that there were at least three phases of occupation at the Loch of Leys; 1st or 2nd century AD, in the late 9th or 10th century AD, and from the historic sources, occupation in the 13th-14th centuries AD. However, the relatively poor state of preservation on the site means that the stratigraphic relationship between the two radiocarbon dates remains unclear. Further excavation and dating might resolve this question, and better preserved parts of the site may yet be discovered that would yield even better chronological resolution.

Thanks again to those that helped with the excavation – Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble. Funding was provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Archaeology Service for Aberdeenshire. Thanks to Thys Simpson and the Leys Estate for allowing and arranging access to site.

Palaeoenvironmental work at the Loch of Leys is ongoing, so stay tuned for more information on the history of the Loch of Leys.

 

Further Reading –

Llangorse Crannog, Wales

Campbell, E. and Lane, A., 1989. Llangorse: a 10th-century royal crannog in Wales. Antiquity, 63(241), pp.675-681.

Law Ting Holm, Shetland

Coolen, J. , and N. Mehler . 2014. Excavations and Surveys at the Law Ting Holm, Tingwall, Shetland: An Iron Age Settlement and Medieval Assembly Site. BAR British Series 592. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Loch Glashan Crannog

Crone, A. & Campbell, E. 2005 A crannog of the 1st millennium AD; excavations by Jack Scott at Loch Glashan, Argyll, 1960. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Irish Crannogs

Fredengren, C. 2002. Crannogs. A study of people’s interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland. Dublin: Wordwell.

Radiocarbon Dating Scottish Crannogs

Crone, A. 2012. December. Forging a chronological framework for Scottish crannogs; the radiocarbon and dendrochronological evidence. In Lake Dwellings After Robert Munro: Proceedings from the Munro International Seminar: the Lake Dwellings of Europe 22nd and 23rd October 2010, University of Edinburgh. Sidestone Press.

https://www.sidestone.com/books/lake-dwellings-after-robert-munro

The Castle of the isle of Banchory

The Castle of the isle of Banchory

This post is to follow on from the excavation report post a last week which can be read HERE. The excavation was primarily interested in what (if any) phases of activity could be identified that pre-dated the medieval tower house that sits atop the Loch of Leys Crannog. However, the tower house itself has a fascinating history. Remains of this structure are still visible on the this inaccessible island.

We don’t know precisely when the stone foundations of the castle or tower house were laid. It is clear from a charter dated 28 March 1324 that the ‘Castle of the Isle of Banchory’ was present on the former Loch of Leys from this time. In this charter, the island and the estate that belonged to it was taken from the Wauchope family and given to Alexander de Burnard (later Burnett) by Robert the Bruce for support in recent conflict. An earlier charter (1/7/326[RRS, iii, no. 319]) records King Alexander II giving Robert of Wauchope lands of Culter and Arbeck in 1247 which might include the Loch of Leys, but no specific mention of the Loch of Leys is made here, perhaps suggesting that the castle was yet to be built. If this is the case, then the initial construction of the stone tower house would be from the second half of the 13th century or the early part of the 14th century.

In any case, the Wauchopes were probably not in residence at the Loch of Leys for very long (from 1247-1323). It is clear that they had expended some considerable effort to build a castle on an artificial island and to lose it and the estate that went with it must have been a devastating event (perhaps doubly if they had to build the island in the first place, although radiocarbon dating samples from the excavation should reveal if this is the case). From the charter dated 1324 onwards, there is no recorded history of activity on the island in the Loch of Leys. It must be assumed though that the Burnetts continued to live there.

In the 1550s, another Alexander Burnett breaks ground on Crathes Castle, and this becomes the main residence of the Burnett family into the 20th century. What became of the former crannog castle in the 16th century is difficult to say. It is within the oral history of the Burnett family that stone from the crannog castle was used in the construction of the new Crathes Castle. This might suggest that the island residence was immediately abandoned more or less wholesale rather than used as something other than a primary residence for a time after Crathes was completed in 1596.

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All that is left today are 20-50cm high stone foundations. In 1850, the Loch of Leys was drained, and James H Burnett excavated the crannog. He made a plan of the stone foundations of the tower house, and these largely are still present today (see below). It also appears that in 1850, James H Burnett dug around the walls, chasing them to determine their full extent. This is indicated by the presence of two mounds of earth, which are probably the spoil heaps from these excavations.

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The Loch of Leys Crannog is now a scheduled monument protected by Historic Environment Scotland, and is difficult or dangerous to access with deep water and uneven boggy ground conditions. Access for the excavation was only possible by building a palette bridge which has since been removed. It was clear from the excavation that the organic preservation on the site is not as it was recorded 1850, but wood and other organic material is likely to survive buried in the mound.

If you wish to know more about the Burnetts and their history please see Bailey, E.A., Bryce, I.B., Burnett, C.J. and Burnett, J.C., 2000. Crannog to Castle: A History of the Burnett Family in Scotland. Banchory: Leys Publishing.

Further results from the excavation of the Loch of Leys Crannog will be published here in due course, please check back soon.

Finally, thanks again to the Leys Estate for permission to excavate, and many thanks to Thys Simpson the Leys Estate Ranger for help organising the palettes. I must thank the excavation team, Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble. Funding for the excavation was provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Loch of Leys Crannog Excavation

Loch of Leys Crannog Excavation

Between 29 February and 4 March, myself and a team of volunteers from Aberdeen University were at the Loch of Leys crannog just north of Banchory in Aberdeenshire. The goal was to excavate a small trench on this crannog to see what was left of this medieval crannog site 165 years on from when the loch was drained. The excavation showed that organic preservation on this wet site is good, but not like what James H Burnett describes in 1850 immediately following the drainage of the loch. Regardless, good material suitable for radiocarbon dating has been recovered, and this will answer a major question surrounding this site – is the medieval occupation of this site sitting atop an earlier occupation of the crannog?

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In 1850, the Loch of Leys was drained through a remarkable stone lined and hand cut ditch that runs for c.250m. James H Burnett took the opportunity when the loch was drained to investigate his family’s former residence on the crannog. In 1323, Robert the Bruce dispossessed the Wauchope family of the ‘isle of Banchory’ and the estate that went with it giving it to the Burnett’s as reward for their support in a recent conflict. What James Burnett found in 1850 went on to become some of the defining features of crannogs in Scotland – vertical wooden piles driven into the loch bed with horizontal timbers (he identifies as oak and birch) that make up the inner part of the crannog. Additionally, the antiquarian excavation found several bronze jugs, a quern stone for milling grain, coins (but the one of the workmen ran off with them) and a logboat about 50m away from the crannog. This was the first recorded excavation of a crannog in Scotland, but work at the Loch of Leys crannog ended there, until now.

This crannog sits within the former Loch of Leys. The bog is very wet and accessing the site is dangerous and only possible during very dry summers. We had hoped for such a summer last year where we might simply walk to site, however, that was not to be the case and Aberdeenshire saw one of the wettest summers in living memory. It was decided that the best option would be to construct a bridge made of wooden palettes during the winter when the vegetation had died back. With the very kind assistance of the Leys Estate and especially Thys Simpson, the Leys Estate Ranger, about 40 palettes were sourced to build a bridge out to the island.

With access to the site arranged, the digging could begin. We first encountered a large amount of stone. This is typical of Highland crannog sites where a capping of large (20-50cm wide) stones is encountered. The soil on the crannog is unsurprisingly very peaty. Once through the peaty soil we found well-laid stonework that was sitting atop a very dark organic rich material. When towelling through this dark black layer very small flakes of wood were encountered. Under this layer was clean lake peats and mud. The working hypothesis is that the dark black layer with flakes of wood represents the compressed remains of what Burnett described in 1850, a mass of interwoven timbers. At the very bottom of the dark black layer we found the best evidence to support this idea, the 10x15cm fragment of very degraded wood. This has probably come from a substantial piece of timber given its dimensions and very poor state of survival (smaller pieces of wood have clearly disappeared all together).

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The partial survival of this organic rich layer shows how 165 years of being drained has severely impacted the survival of wooden remains. When Burnett excavated the timbers were fresh and whole, and today they are not more than unidentifiable fragments within a decomposed mass. It is clear that there is significant further potential at the Loch of Leys Crannog, but it has been much reduced since the 19th century.

The samples taken from this excavation are being processed now and will return radiocarbon and pollen analysis results in due course. Those dates will be reported here, so check back soon.

For further reading about the Loch of Leys crannog see James H Burnett’s account of his 1850 excavation. Also see:

Bailey, E.A., Bryce, I.B., Burnett, C.J. and Burnett, J.C., 2000. Crannog to Castle: A History of the Burnett Family in Scotland. Banchory: Leys Publishing.

Thanks go to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for funding this excavation. Thanks also to the Leys Estate for permission, and many thanks to Thys Simpson for help organising the palettes. Finally, I must thank the excavation team who worked through very wet and cold conditions; Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble.

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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.

Fieldwork at the Loch of Leys

On 24 April, myself and Laura McHaride (a fellow PhD student) went out coring at the Loch of Leys. We collected cores through the sediment that made up the bottom of the former loch. This loch has a crannog which has the distinction of being the very first recorded excavation of crannog in Scotland. The work Laura and myself and have begun hopes to develop an understanding of what is going on in the wider landscape through pollen analysis of the cored sediment. Laura will be leading the pollen analysis (this kind of scientific method is outside of my skill set), and I hope to complement this work with more investigation at the crannog itself.

The lower section of the core has very nice sedimentation you can see in this photo.

The lower section of the core had very nice banded sedimentation.

The Loch of Leys crannog has an interesting history, not only for being the very first to be excavated. The island is referenced in a charter dated 1324 and signed by Robert the Bruce who gives the island to the Burnett family. In the late 15th century the family built a new residence, Crathes Castle which was occupied into the 20th century. This family still owns the land today, and Crathes Castle is now a National Trust property. 1324 is the earliest mention of this crannog, but it is clear in the charter that the island is already occupied. Robert the Bruce takes the land, the loch and ‘the island within it’ from the Wauchope family and gives it to the Burnetts. So we know that the island must have been built and occupied before this time. The excavation of the crannog in 1850 after the loch was drained is recorded, but details are vague. From descriptions of the excavation is clear that island itself is wholly artificial and the kind of construction described is consistent with an Iron Age or Early Medieval crannog – much earlier than the historic references mention. You can read the Canmore site record [[here]] and the 1850 excavation [[here]]. Results will take some time to gather from the core, and updates will be posted here in due course.