The Tarbat Discovery Programme

Martin Carver, 2017

Data copyright © Prof Martin Carver unless otherwise stated

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The Tarbat Discovery Programme

The Tarbat Discovery Programme was the name adopted by a campaign of archaeological research conducted on the Tarbat Peninsula in north-east Scotland with a focus on the village of Portmahomack (National Grid reference NH 9148 8402; HER MGH 8473; Scheduled Monument 12793).

The excavations at Portmahomack took place in four sectors (1-4) within, and west and south of, St Colman’s Church. The excavations extended in total to 0.75 hectares.

The excavation defined the material culture, demography, economy and political alignments of six successive settlements:

  • 5-7th century AD: an elite centre with high status tombs and island-wide contacts (termed Period 1)
  • 8th century AD: a Pictish monastery, which yielded more than 200 pieces of carved stone and workshops producing sacred vessels and vellum for making gospel books (Period 2). This monastery was burnt down between AD 780-810 by the Vikings
  • 9th century AD: it became a trading place, producing metal goods including copper-alloy weights using the same techniques as the monastery (Period 3).
  • Three more medieval phases followed (Period 4): a 12th century parish church dedicated to St Colman, a 13th century fishing village and a 15th century township of metal-smiths and tinkers.

The research programme included a study of the church and the churchyard from the middle ages to today.

Photo of excavations at Portmahomack

The story of Portmahomack was pieced together by stratigraphic analysis and scientific study of the assemblages of artefacts, plant remains and animal bones. Some 191 human skeletons were examined from cemeteries contemporary with the settlements, measuring the signatures of starch, and stable isotopes of Oxygen, Strontium, Carbon and Nitrogen. There were some surprising results: the early elite was in touch with an equestrian class in the south and west of Britain; the monks ate meat rather than fish and two of their number came from Scandinavia, later source of the Vikings; although Pictland (eastern Scotland) became part of the Scottish kingdom in the 9th century, the main immigration from west to east was 600 years later, in the 15th century. As a whole the sequence at Portmahomack is claimed as indicative for the alignment of Scotland as a whole through phases governed by local elites (7th century), the monastic movement (8th century) and a period of free trade (9th century).

The programme of investigation ran over the twenty years between 1994 and 2014 and comprised a campaign of evaluation and design (1994-1996), excavation (1996-2007), survey on the peninsula (1996-2002), the restoration of the church and the construction of a museum inside it (1996-1999) and a period of analytical study (2008-2014).

The results have been presented in three publications so far:

Carver M O H Portmahomack. Monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh University Press, 2008)
Carver M O H Portmahomack. Monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
Carver M O H, Justin Garner-Lahire and Cecily Spall Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness. Changing ideologies in North-East Scotland, sixth to sixteenth century AD (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2016).

See also Current Archaeology (2016) and British Archaeology (March 2017).

Photo of St Colmans with the Dornoch Firth

The project was carried out by the Department of Archaeology, University of York in partnership with FAS-Heritage (York).

This online archive contains additional material, namely the history of the project, the Data Structure Reports for each Sector and each year, the full specialist reports and an inventory of all the finds.

The SITE TODAY is scheduled by Historic Environment Scotland (no. 12793). The church of St. Colman hosts the Tarbat Discovery Centre, a museum with numerous examples of sculpture and other artefacts on loan from the National Museums of Scotland, and a visitor centre mainly dedicated to the rediscovery of the northern Picts, AD 300-900. It was opened by Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay on 24 Sep 1999. The shop at the Visitor Centre provides a range of gifts as well as publications about the Tarbat peninsula, the archaeological campaigns, the Church of St Colman and the Pictish stone monuments of the region

The Tarbat Discovery Programme was voted Best Archaeological Project by the British Archaeological Awards 2010.

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