Issue: Excavation of a Bronze Age kerbed cairn at Olcote, Breasclete, Near Calanais, Isle of Lewis

Publication Type
Abstract An archaeological excavation was carried out by the Centre for Field Archaeology (CFA) from October to December 1995 of a Bronze Age kerbed cairn at Olcote, Breasclete, Isle of Lewis (NGR: NB 2180 3475). The cairn was discovered by CFA during an evaluation of a dense scatter of worked and unworked quartz made by local archaeologists, Margaret and Ron Curtis. The remains lay in the path of the improvement of the single track road through Breasclete. A range of archaeological features and deposits was identified and recorded within the excavation trench. These fell into three groups on stratigraphic grounds: pre-cairn features, including pits, spade or cultivation marks and a buried ground surface; the cairn itself, including inner and outer kerbs, burnt peat deposits, a central cist and other features; and modern deposits which cut the cairn, including post-holes and field drains. Excavation and post-excavation were wholly funded by Historic Scotland.
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Author Tim Neighbour
Editor John H Lewis
Debra Barrie
Publisher Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Other Person/Org Stephen P Carter (Author contributing)
Michael Church (Author contributing)
Melanie Johnson (Author contributing)
Kathleen McSweeney (Author contributing)
Paula Milburn (Author contributing)
Graeme Warren (Author contributing)
Year of Publication 2005
Volume 13
ISBN 0-903903-81-4
Source DigitalBorn
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Abstract
Tim Neighbour
0
An archaeological excavation was carried out by the Centre for Field Archaeology (CFA) from October to December 1995 of a Bronze Age kerbed cairn at Olcote, Breasclete, Isle of Lewis (NGR: NB 2180 3475). The cairn was discovered by CFA during an evaluation of a dense scatter of worked and unworked quartz made by local archaeologists, Margaret and Ron Curtis. The remains lay in the path of the improvement of the single track road through Breasclete. A range of archaeological features and deposits was identified and recorded within the excavation trench. These fell into three groups on stratigraphic grounds: pre-cairn features, including pits, spade or cultivation marks and a buried ground surface; the cairn itself, including inner and outer kerbs, burnt peat deposits, a central cist and other features; and modern deposits which cut the cairn, including post-holes and field drains. Excavation and post-excavation were wholly funded by Historic Scotland.
1
An archaeological excavation was carried out by the Centre for Field Archaeology (CFA) from October to December 1995 of a Bronze Age kerbed cairn at Olcote, Breasclete, Isle of Lewis (NGR: NB 2180 3475). The cairn was discovered by CFA during an evaluation of a dense scatter of worked and unworked quartz made by local archaeologists, Margaret and Ron Curtis. The remains lay in the path of the improvement of the single track road through Breasclete. A range of archaeological features and deposits was identified and recorded within the excavation trench. These fell into three groups on stratigraphic grounds: pre-cairn features, including pits, spade or cultivation marks and a buried ground surface; the cairn itself, including inner and outer kerbs, burnt peat deposits, a central cist and other features; and modern deposits which cut the cairn, including post-holes and field drains. Excavation and post-excavation were wholly funded by Historic Scotland.
Tim Neighbour
2 - 4
The project was originally conceived as the examination of a quartz scatter and the discovery of the buried structure was unexpected. Details of site location and other cairns in the vicinity are presented.
Tim Neighbour
5 - 22
An account of the excavation methodology is presented along with the research goals, which of necessity, were formulated during the project as the discovery was unexpected. A description of the results of test pitting is followed by a phased archaeological description. The phases are as follows: phase 1 - features beneath the cairn; phase 2 - cultivation marks and preparation of the ground; phase 3 - the kerbed cairn, including its construction and subsequent adaptation with a number of sub-phases; phase 4 - post-cairn features which cut the cairn including postholes and field drains; phase 5 - a variety of unphased negative features of irregular shape, all located outwith the cairn.
Tim Neighbour
23 - 24
With the exception of a date from the basal fill of the central cist (which is presumed to be redeposited), the dates cluster around the period 1900 to 1500 BC. This supports an early/middle Bronze Age date for the cairn.
Kathleen McSweeney
25 - 27
The cremated remains were found beside a broken cremation urn. The volume of the cremated remain was very small and the individual fragments were in very poor condition. Consequently, only a small percentage of the total could be identified and very few of the fragments provided any meaningful information. It cannot be stated with any certainty how many individuals were represented. Sex is unknown and there was no evidence of disease or cause of death.
Melanie Johnson
28 - 33
The pottery assemblage from Olcote cairn comprises 42 sherds from a near-complete cremation urn with a total weight of 1094 g, plus a further 397 sherds and fragments weighing 2248 g. The minimum number of vessels represented is 20. The majority of the pottery consists of plain body sherds and, apart from the urn, there are only 17 diagnostic sherds: five plain rim sherds, three decorated rim sherds and nine decorated body sherds. The sherds are mostly very small, with an average weight of only 6 g (excluding the urn); many of them are also abraded. Pottery was recovered from contexts throughout the cairn and from pre-cairn and post-cairn horizons.
Michael Church
34 - 46
The acidic nature and relatively low organic and moisture content of the site has precluded the preservation of bone, shell, uncarbonized plant macrofossils and insect remains. The routine soil tests confirmed the presence of an altered relic soil beneath the cairn. The correlation between the enhance magnetic signal and the high concentration of carbonized plant macrofossils in the ash spreads confirms the taphonomy of the archaeobotanical assemblage from the burning and dumping of ash from peaty turves and other incorporated plant material into the main body of the cairn. Two of the three fills within the cists displayed magnetic enhancement from the input of ashy material from the ash spreads. Therefore the ash spreads were incorporated into the body of the cairn immediately after the cist was constructed or the cist was not lidded when the deposit was made. The excavation demonstrated that the ash layer was probably cut to insert the cist. It is likely that the ash was redeposited in the cist during this process.
Graeme Warren
34 - 46
A vast assemblage of worked and natural quartz, flint and other kinds of stone was recovered from, on, within, under and near the cairn at Olcote. In an interpretative sense the assemblage remains a little obscure. A range of deliberate deposits of lithic material can be identified, including the deliberate smashing of quartz pebbles, a raw material that may have had some associations with funerary contexts, during and/or after the construction of the cairn, which appears to have been carpeted with it. Finely made formal artefacts were also deposited into and under the cairn. These included types of objects that often had funerary associations. The area around the cairn included scatters of worked quartz and flint. It is possible that stone-working was attracted to this location by the presence of the cairn itself, or that the cairn was built in an area already significant for stone-working.
Michael Church
51 - 52
In general, the archaeobotanical assemblage represents a mix of material relating to the fuel source and other plant material incorporated into the fire. Many of the carbonized plant macrofossils relate to the burning of peaty turf. They include relatively large quantities of small culm bases, nodes and rhizome fragments, fibrous burnt peat and seeds and other plant components of heathers, sedges, and grasses, notably heath-grass.
Stephen P Carter
53 - 57
The analysis of the thin-section evidence offers some guidance to the archaeological interpretation of these deposits. The soil underlying the sediments had been truncated shortly before their deposition; this activity may have been part of the preparation of the site for the cist and cairn. The sediments can be divided into two types: cold fuel ash from the fires burning peaty turves and unidentified herbaceous plants. The role of the layers of plants in any burial activity is obscure but they have been repeatedly interleaved with ash and this suggests more than an accidental presence in the deposits.
Paula Milburn
58 - 59
The absence of significant amounts of pollen and/or other microscopic organic remains and the differing amount of microscopic organic remains and the different amounts of microscopic charcoal recording in pollen samples 1, 3 and 4 accord with the results of the thin-section analysis. The presence of organic residues in pollen sample 2 corresponds to the presence of significant amounts of relatively well preserved pollen.
Tim Neighbour
60 - 64
The cairn at Olcote formed the latest recognisably prehistoric component of a site which perhaps developed since the Neolithic. The formless array of pits sealed beneath the cairn almost defies interpretation. Such confused post and pit patterns are common in Neolithic sites of probable domestic character, and it is conceivable that the pits preserved beneath the cairn at Olcote fall into this category. The cairn itself is of unusual morphology, dating from the mid 2nd millennium BC. Recent excavations in the Hebrides have revealed cairns of strikingly similar morphology and these are discussed here. Soil micromorphology has demonstrated that the topsoil was stripped prior to its construction and the body of the cairn was formed of ash from burnt peaty turves and peaty soil.
Tim Neighbour
65
The site at Olcote is multi-phase and is suspected to span from the Neolithic to the middle Bronze Age. The earliest features on the site were pits of probable Neolithic date. While it is possible that these pits were of domestic origins, the possibility that they were the remains of excarnation platforms has been explored and the link between them and the chambered cairn within the circle at Calanais has been discussed. A kerbed cairn sealed most of the pits. The cairn had two kerbs, in common with a number of other such monuments that have been excavated in the Hebrides and it is suggested the double kerbed cairn is a specifically Hebridean variant. Despite its complexity, it is suggested that the cairn was a single phase construction with, at most, one addition, a possible satellite cist of suitable size for an inhumation. The central cist contained the cremated remains of one or two teenage or younger individuals. A vessel within the cist had been disturbed and was suspected to have originally covered the cremated remains.
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67 - 70
71 - 77
Paula Milburn
Stephen P Carter
Michael Church
Michael Church
Graeme Warren
Melanie Johnson
Kathleen McSweeney