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).

11230_noble

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

A flight over Loch Kinord

I recently was very lucky to be a guest of the Deeside Gliding Club and had the opportunity to experience Loch Kinord from the air. Below are some highlights and a short video.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The perspective available here is really incredible. You can get a map view from above but you also get to be in the landscape rather than looking at it on paper or on a computer monitor.

VIDEO HERE

More updates on the Loch Kinord crannogs and other crannogs around north-east Scotland will be posted here in due course.

Thank you to John Dransfield who was pilot for the flight.

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.

Timber_01_Screenshot_outline

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.

Castle_Island_all_dates

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.

Prison_Island_all_dates

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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?

DSC_0088

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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

DSC_0033

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.

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.

GP15_TT2

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.