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

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

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

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First views of the possible broch.

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

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The internal depression.

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

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Possible orthostats or piers.

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Exposed walling in the interior depression.

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

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

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

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

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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.