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

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.

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.