Issue: Bronze Age farms and Iron Age farm mounds of the Outer Hebrides

Publication Type
Abstract Hebridean sites of the coastal sand cliffs and associated machair, or sandy plain have been known for many years. Artefacts and ecofacts of various types have long been collected from archaeological sites in the eroding sand-cliffs of the machairs of the Outer Hebrides. Early in 1983, personnel of the then Central Excavation Unit of Historic Scotland's predecessor revisited very nearly all of the coastal archaeological sites then known in the Long Isle, with the specific task of identifying those at immediate threat from coastal erosion and of assessing the feasibility of their excavation or preservation. Some 32 sites were seen to be undergoing active erosion; at nine of them preservation was not being pursued and excavation was feasible. These sites were of two morphotypes: sites exposed in roughly vertical sand-cliffs and sites exposed over relatively large horzontal areas of sand deflation. It was decided to examine one sand-cliff site along its exposed face. The site selected was Balelone in North Uist, its excavation designed to explore both the problems associated with the excavation of deep midden sites with complex stratigraphy and the not-inconsiderable problems of excavation in sand. In the light of the Balelone trial excavation, a new approach was called for. A structured approach aimed firstly at establishing the three-dimensional extent of the sites to be examined. Four sites were then sampled (the sand-cliff sites of Baleshare, on the island of the same name off the west coast of North Uist and Hornish Point, South Uist and the deflation sites of South Glendale, South Uist and Newtonferry, North Uist) within a rigorously-defined research framework.<br /><br />The machair sites were formed by sand accretion, facilitated by human activities ranging from construction to refuse disposal and cultivation. Their formation was intermittent and they underwent episodes of major erosion, isolating the sites from the landscape mass of the machair sands. Despite their apparent wealth of suitable material, the dating of Hebridean coastal sites presents special problems. The strategy here was to provide a dating framework for the sequences on each site, from which the dates of archaeological significant structures and events could then be arrived at by extrapolation. Preliminary dates from the earliest and latest strata at Balelone spanned such a small period that a First Millennium BC date-range could be assigned. At Baleshare, the deposits investigated were chiefly later Bronze Age; following abandonment (roughly 200 radiocarbon years) of the Period I cultivated soil Period II represented extensive, manured, cultivated fields in the vicinity of a settlement now lost to the sea. As Period II went on. the settlement seems to have moved closer to the excavated area. After another hiatus of a minimum of 350 radiocarbon years, there were further cultivated plots and associated settlement of Iron Age date (Period III). By contrast, the site at Hornish Point (including successive wheelhouses and associated cultivation areas) is considered to be all of one - dynamic, Iron Age - period, lasting some 300 radiocarbon years (with potentially earlier structures unexcavated). A post-medieval blackhouse of characteristic Lewisian form had been cut into the settlement mound. The three dates from Newtonferry suggest that some Early Medieval activity took place at the site, while the bulk of the deposits date from the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries AD. At South Glendale, the radiocarbon dates indicate occupation sometime between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries AD; stratigraphically lower, fragmented and truncated remains were prehistoric, probably early Bronze Age.
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Author John W Barber
Editor Anne Crone
Ronan Toolis
Publisher Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Other Person/Org Geoffrey Collins (Author contributing)
Lisbeth Crone (Author contributing)
Alan Duffy (Author contributing)
Andrew J Dugmore (Author contributing)
Nyree Finlay (Author contributing)
Will Forbes (Author contributing)
Annemarie Gibson (Author contributing)
Paul Halstead (Author contributing)
Kenneth R Hirons (Author contributing)
Heather F James (Author contributing)
Andrew Jones (Author contributing)
Glynis Jones (Author contributing)
Frances Lee (Author contributing)
D Lehane (Author contributing)
Ann MacSween (Author contributing)
Antoinette M Mannion (Author contributing)
Ian D Mate (Author contributing)
Roderick P J McCullagh (Author contributing)
S P Moseley (Author contributing)
Anthony Newton (Author contributing)
Chris Pain (Author contributing)
Chris Pain (Author contributing)
Alix H Powers (Author contributing)
James S Rideout (Author contributing)
William Ritchie (Author contributing)
E Marian Scott (Author contributing)
Dale Serjeantson (Author contributing)
Andrea N Smith (Author contributing)
N Thew (Author contributing)
Year of Publication 2003
Volume 3
ISBN 0-903903-72-5
Subjects / Periods
Bronze Age
Note Is Portmanteau: 1
Source DigitalBorn
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Monograph Chapter Title Sort Order Both Arrows Access Type Author / Editor Page
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Abstract
0
1 - 11
This chapter presents the background to the project, details of the coring programme and the technique of tapestry excavation (excavation of a strip of deposits along an exposed face), excavation methodology, data management, methods for observation and interpretation and presentation of results.
Geoffrey Collins
William Ritchie
Ian D Mate
12 - 22
This chapter considers geology, machair geomorphology in the Western Isles, the agricultural capability of the machair units (the low machair plain, the high machair plain and the dune systems), climate, the physical landscape as a settlement resource, landscape formation, the chronology of machair formation and of peat formation.
23 - 31
Natural resources for flesh, fish, fowl and vegetation have an economic significance for early settlers, and are therefore discussed here. This is followed by a brief archaeological survey. Drowning of the coastline of the Western Isles has removed the evidence for coastal sites of the Mesolithic period. Neolithic evidence includes 34 megaliths and 7 occupation sites, while early Bronze Age settlement evidence is limited. In the later Bronze Age/early Iron Age 14 settlement mounds have been identified. The main focus of the archaeological survey is on the Iron Age. Structures, material culture and the evidence for metalworking are considered. Much of the material culture derives from eroding sand faces and is therefore without context although pottery has been recovered from archaeological sites.
Heather F James
Peter Strong
32 - 42
Details of site location are followed by a description of the site prior to excavation. It was visible as a 2-m high elongated, grass-covered mound with a stone structure near its centre. The site is described in a series of nine blocks with remains including midden deposits, a drystone structure, pits and postholes. Information on animal bone and radiocarbon dates is integrated into each of the descriptions which are followed by interpretations of the features.
Heather F James
Alan Duffy
43 - 71
Details of site location are followed by a brief description of the 48-metre length of midden deposit prior to this excavation, and an account of earlier work. The excavation is described in a series of 29 blocks. Remains include midden deposits, dumped deposits, a grave pit containing an inhumation, substantial structural phases, floor layers associated with a circular structure and cultivation layers. Artefacts and ecofacts comprise pottery (including a near complete vessel), a quernstone, slag and animal bone. Many radiocarbon dates are integrated into the archaeological description.
Heather F James
Roderick P J McCullagh
72 - 103
Details of site location and topographical survey are presented for this 50-metre length of midden deposit. A second midden was recorded nearby in 1980 and there are a number of other types of archaeological sites in the vicinity. Radiocarbon dates are exclusively Iron Age and are integrated into the archaeological description along with artefacts and ecofacts. The site was divided into two areas, the southern Area A was characterised by deeply stratified layers while Area B in the north was characterised by masonry structures. The 31 blocks within these two areas contained remains including cultivation deposits, windblown deposits, midden deposits, a wheelhouse, masonry, structural debris, a revetment wall and a blackhouse. Animal bone, fish, shellfish and bird bones including great auk were recovered. Of particular note was the presence of juvenile human remains and four processed animal carcasses in a series of pits at the base of block 18.
Heather F James
Will Forbes
104 - 108
Details of site location, topographical survey, site history and a nearby cairn are presented. Two areas were excavated. Area I contained pits, a hearth, paving stones and stakeholes suggestive of settlement. Area 2 contained the remains of a post-medieval byre overlying midden and cultivation deposits.
Heather F James
James S Rideout
109 - 113
Details of site location, previous work and site history are presented. Nearby sites include cist burials, standing stones, a possible earth house, a Norse burial cairn and a local tradition of a settlement. Excavation revealed midden deposits, windblown sands and a stone setting of medieval or post-medieval date.
114 - 125
Six principal areas of research seemed to present themselves. The nature of the sites themselves, their structures and deposits constitute the first and their chronology, the second. The regional environment in which they functioned, through time, may be considered next, because it sets outer limits to the possibilities for the development of the economies of the sites, the fourth research area. Technology and trade, while aspects of site economy, merit separate consideration and the settlement landscape, the distribution and location of these sites is also of sufficient importance to stand alone, as a research topic. A list of questions for the sites is listed under the following subheadings: the sites; deposits; structures; artefacts; chronology; regional environment; site economies; technology; trade; site distribution and location. This is followed by the methods employed to answer them. Specialist methodologies comprise those for coarse pottery, mammalian fauna, fish bones, pollen, charred plant remains, snails, phytoliths, lake sediments and diatoms.
126 - 139
This chapter presents specialist reports on artefact assemblages. Most of the coarse pottery came from Balelone, Baleshare and Hornish Point. It is acknowledged that many more well dated assemblages are needed to advance the pottery sequence for the West Coast Islands on a local and regional level. Lithics were mainly flint and quartz. The small size of the assemblages recovered and the types of contexts, cultural deposits and conflation deposits precludes any detailed discussion of the material. Geochemical analysis of pumice demonstrated that it can be correlated with dacitic pumice in Iceland, Ireland, Scotland and Norway. This material would have been collected either from contemporary or raised beach deposits and would have been used as an abrasive. Worked bone and antler included a noteworthy bone comb fragment from Hornish Point.
Frances Lee
Andrew K G Jones
Paul Halstead
Dale Serjeantson
140 - 152
An extended inhumation from Baleshare was an adult female with poor dental health and joint disease. At Hornish Point a juvenile had been distributed within four pits. Deliberate disarticulation or butchery was evidenced by cut marks on the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae. Animal bone was mainly sheep with cattle, pig, red deer, dog, seal and otter. Many cut marks and burnt bones were identified. A few deposits appear to be deliberate burials of new born animals, of butchery waste and perhaps in one case, of the remains of a funerary feast. A great diversity of fish bones included large shark, gadoids, wrasse, mackerel and several kinds of flatfish. Bird bones included the extinct great auk and crane, along with waterfowl, waders and seabirds.
Glynis Jones
153 - 158
Crops were mainly barley with a little wheat. Wild species included sedges, heath grass, knotgrass, brassicas/charclock, heather ling or heath, dock and chickweed.
Antoinette M Mannion
159 - 162
The specific origin of the midden organic horizons remains an enigma and the pollen analytical data prompt more questions than answers. Of the possible origins only an origin from animal faeces can be discounted. Moreover, the presence of a relatively wide variety of pollen taxa can only be adequately explained by considering the exploitation of the most abundant habitats in North Uist, ie the machair grassland, peatland and moorland communities and possibly the cultivation of specific crops such as cereals. A combination of specific crops such as cereals. A combination of practices involving the exploitation of all the dominant habitats for thatching and/or animal bedding and/or fuel as well as the cultivation of specific crops would account for the pollen spectra of the Balelone midden organic horizons. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that the producers of the midden were indeed using such a wide variety of natural resources but there is no viable palaeoecological test which suggests itself as the panacea to this enigma.
N Thew
Chris Pain
163 - 177
This study covers deposits ranging from the later Bronze Age to the later Iron Age as well as the post-Medieval period. Unfortunately, the results of the analysis thus far seem to indicate that more work needs to be done on unravelling the imprint of biological succession so that it is possible to compare later faunas with earlier ones. At Baleshare, Balelone and Hornish Point the dominant species included Pupilla muscorum, Cochlicopa spp, and Vallonia spp which appear to have been in competition: rises in one species coinciding with decreases in other species. The restricted number of species from the four study sites implies that extreme conditions with low diversity and poverty of habitats prevailed.
Alix H Powers
178 - 189
This study demonstrates that areas of ancient human occupation and activity are characterised by concentration of phytoliths which are orders of magnitude higher than occur naturally in coastal dune systems. Some aspects of human activity can be distinguished, ie the introduction of peat, turves, plant or animal waste and possible differences in pasture/grazing in the area.
Antoinette M Mannion
S P Moseley
190 - 198
Chapters 16 and 17 describe analyses of pollen, diatoms and the geochemistry of lakes sites increasingly distant from the excavated areas. The aim has been to investigate, if possible, the scale of landscape impact of the Bronze Age settlements of the islands, given that it seemed likely that the earlier deposits at Baleshare were of similar age. We also wished to investigate the landscape impact of the Iron Age settlers which, on then current evidence, was on a much larger scale than the impact of earlier, or later, settlement in the Long Isle. The pollen and diatom work indicated that, following the development of the machair in this area, probably in the late Neolithic, its botanical signal largely obscured evidence for human activity. Analyses were therefore undertaken to ascertain the usefulness of studying machair development and the environmental history of the blacklands/machair ecotone using sediments from lake deposits on the machair margin and in the eastern catchment of the islands.
Kenneth R Hirons
199 - 205
Chapters 16 and 17 describe analyses of pollen, diatoms and the geochemistry of lakes sites increasingly distant from the excavated areas. The aim has been to investigate, if possible, the scale of landscape impact of the Bronze Age settlements of the islands, given that it seemed likely that the earlier deposits at Baleshare were of similar age. We also wished to investigate the landscape impact of the Iron Age settlers which, on then current evidence, was on a much larger scale than the impact of earlier, or later, settlement in the Long Isle. The pollen and diatom work indicated that, following the development of the machair in this area, probably in the late Neolithic, its botanical signal largely obscured evidence for human activity. Analyses were therefore undertaken to ascertain the usefulness of studying machair development and the environmental history of the blacklands/machair ecotone using sediments from lake deposits on the machair margin and in the eastern catchment of the islands.
206 - 243
The project results are discussed in six separate sections: project review; site formation; radiocarbon dating; site interpretations, physical archaeology of the sites and cultural archaeology. The project review considers the success of the methodology employed and the relative archaeological value of the various studies along with specific specialist recommendations. Section two deals with soil matrix, anthropic and non-soil natural components, processes of accumulation, loss of sediments, depositional rates and preservation conditions. Section three considers individual site chronologies and the calibrating of the marine reservoir effect. Section four presents a phased discussion for each of the sites. Section five covers structural and artefactual evidence. The final section looks at site economy, animal husbandry, landholdings. food storage and preparation, settlements and marginality.
245 - 260
261 - 272
273 - 325
All specialist tables.