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.

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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.

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.

Excavation at the Gardiebane Peninsula

Last week (2/3/15-6/3/15) I, together with a small team, excavated at the Gardiebane Peninsula (click [[here]] for the Canmore record) located on the south shore of Loch Kinord. This place has been known as an archaeological site since the middle of the 19th century, with two curving ditches and banks. It resembles, and perhaps could be analogous to, coastal promontory forts like the one at Burghead on the Moray coast. Gardiebane Peninsula is much more modest in its size, but its potential connection to a wider archaeological landscape in and around Loch Kinord makes it a very interesting site to target. However, establishing that connection is not straightforward, although gaining dating evidence from Gardiebane that aligns with other dating evidence at Kinord (ie. Castle Island (10th c. AD) and Prison Island (9th c. AD) would be a good start.

Excavating inner bank and ditch

Excavating inner bank and ditch

In order to obtain some dating information we opened a 3x1m trench in the lower ditch and bank. The goal was to find some organic material that would be suitable for radiocarbon dating from within the ditch. However, as can be seen in some of the photographs below, the ditch turned out to be very clean. There was only a single identifiable fill, and it is possible, if not likely, that the ditch was re-dug at some relatively recent date and used as a field boundary or drainage ditch. This may also explain the well laid walling that was present in our trench. The jury is still out on whether that wall is some late addition to the bank and ditch earthworks or if it represents an original or early facing to the inside of ditch. Regardless, the date of the wall, the ditch and the bank is likely to remain unknown given that there was so little material that came from within the ditch. There is some hope left, samples were taken of the fill of the ditch and it is possible that upon further examination some small organic material might be found that can be radiocarbon dated.

Gardiebane Trench 1

Gardiebane trench through outer bank.

Befuddled by the trench in the outer bank and ditch, it was decided that a trench should be dug on the inner bank and ditch. This trench was placed immediately up from the first trench, but the results were sadly very similar to the outer bank and ditch. There was next to nothing from within the ditch fill that would be diagnostic or organic and usable in radiocarbon dating. However, upon sectioning through the bank two very small artefacts were found, a tiny piece of iron and a very small lump of what is probably slag. As these were found below the bank we can assume the bank is at least Iron Age in date (not unsurprising or particularly refined chronology). Just under the bank, there is what might be a deposit representing the former land surface. This deposit was sampled and we hope that in the sample something organic might turn up suitable for radiocarbon dating.

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Gardiebane trench through inner bank and ditch.

Possible land surface where the iron and slag were found.

Possible land surface where the iron and slag were found.

Thanks to everyone who helped me out with this excavation, Joe T., Claire, Joe O. and Oskar. I will be sure to update very soon on the outcome of the sampling and flotation. The excavations were ultimately somewhat disappointing in terms of the artefactual remains, however, there is still some hope that good dating evidence will result from the work. Should this be forthcoming, we can begin to reveal much about the settlement landscape of Loch Kinord.

Funding for the excavation was provided by the Aberdeen Humanities Fund.

Radiocarbon dating objects from Loch Kinord

On 17-2-15 I was able to sample for radiocarbon dating the logboat fragment and bronze spearhead shaft from the Marishcal College Museum (see [[here]] for some background on these objects). We will have the results in the coming weeks (hopefully sometime in April). Getting C14 dating of these objects holds a lot of potential to add some insight into what we know about the history of Loch Kinord.

Taking Samples

The logboat fragment’s date is a particular mystery. Logboats were used in Scotland for an incredibly long time, from the Mesolithic (beginning 8-10 thousand years ago) through the medieval period (ending about 400 years ago). They represent some of the only water craft in the archaeological record for much of Scottish prehistory, although it is a pretty safe bet that other types of water craft were used but don’t survive. At least four logboats have been found in Loch Kinord; one was found in the 1960s by some divers, but has not been seen again since. The other three were discovered in the 19th century. The fragment in the collection comes from the logboat that was known at the ‘Royal Yacht’, and it measured over 9 metres long when first discovered. Only the small fragment pictured below survives. Not a single boat from Loch Kinord has been dated by any means. The date will be interesting no matter the result, but it would be especially interesting for my research if it were to date to periods of known activity at Prison and Castle Islands – 9th-10th century AD.

Logboat Fragment

The shaft of the Bronze Spearhead is also an interesting object to date. If the shaft is contemporary with the spearhead (ie. Bronze Age), it would belong to a small group of Bronze Age metalwork that has organic elements of the original object surviving. Bronze Age metalwork is fairly well-known in Scotland through numerous hoard discoveries, other stray finds and well-contextualised excavated material.  This material has been extensively studied and typologies have been established that relatively tightly date Bronze Age metalwork. Adding a C14 date to the established typology can continue to test and refine those typologies. For the landscape at Loch Kinord, the forthcoming C14 date will add further data for activity in, on and around the loch, building up information for the history of this place.

Roy's rig for sample taking.

Ray’s rig for sample taking.

A big thank you goes to Caroline and Ray who were so helpful in taking the samples, and also thanks to Neil Curtis, Marishcal College Museum Curator, for granting permission. Funding for the C14 dates has been generously provided by the Aberdeen Humanities Fund.