Issue: The excavation of four caves in the Geodha Smoo near Durness, Sutherland

Publication Type
Abstract In response to the threat posed by marine and river erosion, a series of deeply stratified midden deposits was excavated in caves leading off a narrow, rock-cut inlet known as the Geodha Smoo, near Durness, Sutherland. These included the famous Smoo Cave (NGR: NC 4136 6714), at the southern end of the inlet; two smaller caves cut into the western wall of the inlet (Glassknapper's Cave and Antler Cave); and a fourth cave (Wetweather Cave) in the eastern wall. The majority of excavated deposits from these caves appear to relate to Viking/Norse or post-Norse activity, with fish bones, marine shells and mammal and bird bones representing the processing and consumption of marine and terrestrial foods. Possible evidence for metalsmithing in the form of iron slag and boat nails could suggest that boats were repaired in the sheltered inlet. Four radiocarbon dates from Smoo Cave and Glassknapper's Cave provide evidence for use of these sites between the eighth and 11th centuries AD. Convincing evidence for pre-Norse activity, although unsupported by radiocarbon dates, was recovered from Glassknapper's Cave in the form of probable Iron Age pottery, while late Neolithic pottery came from floor deposits in the Wetweather Cave.
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Author Tony Pollard
Editor Debra Barrie
Publisher Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Other Person/Org D M Aldritt (Author contributing)
James H Barrett (Author contributing)
Effie Photos-Jones (Author contributing)
Catherine Smith (Author contributing)
Robert Squair (Author contributing)
Year of Publication 2005
Volume 18
ISBN 0-903903-86-5
Source DigitalBorn
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Abstract
Robert Squair
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Diane M Alldritt
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Ruby Céron-Carrasco
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Catherine Smith
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Ruby Céron-Carrasco
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James H Barrett
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Effie Photos-Jones
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Tony Pollard
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Tony Pollard
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In response to the threat posed by marine and river erosion, a series of deeply stratified midden deposits was excavated in caves leading off a narrow, rock-cut inlet known as Geodha Smoo, near Durness, Sutherland. These included the famous Smoo Cave, at the southern end of the inlet; two smaller caves cut into the western wall of the inlet (Glassknapper's Cave and Antler Cave); and a fourth cave (Wetweather Cave) in the eastern wall. The majority of excavated deposits from these caves appear to relate to Viking/Norse or post-Norse activity, with fish bones, marine shells and mammal and bird bones representing the processing and consumption of marine and terrestrial foods. Possible evidence for metalsmithing in the form of iron slag and boat nails could suggest that boats were repaired in the sheltered inlet. Four radiocarbon dates from Smoo Cave and Glassknapper's Cave provide evidence for the use of these sites between the eighth and eleventh centuries AD. Convincing evidence for pre-Norse activity, although unsupported by radiocarbon dates, was recovered from Glassknapper's Cave in the form of probable Iron Age pottery, while Late Neolithic pottery came from floor deposits in the Wetweather Cave. Includes
1
In response to the threat posed by marine and river erosion, a series of deeply stratified midden deposits was excavated in caves leading off a narrow, rock-cut inlet known as the Geodha Smoo, near Durness, Sutherland. These included the famous Smoo Cave (NGR: NC 4136 6714), at the southern end of the inlet; two smaller caves cut into the western wall of the inlet (Glassknapper's Cave and Antler Cave); and a fourth cave (Wetweather Cave) in the eastern wall. The majority of excavated deposits from these caves appear to relate to Viking/Norse or post-Norse activity, with fish bones, marine shells and mammal and bird bones representing the processing and consumption of marine and terrestrial foods. Possible evidence for metalsmithing in the form of iron slag and boat nails could suggest that boats were repaired in the sheltered inlet. Four radiocarbon dates from Smoo Cave and Glassknapper's Cave provide evidence for use of these sites between the eighth and 11th centuries AD. Convincing evidence for pre-Norse activity, although unsupported by radiocarbon dates, was recovered from Glassknapper's Cave in the form of probable Iron Age pottery, while late Neolithic pottery came from floor deposits in the Wetweather Cave.
2 - 5
This section presents details of site location and description along with project background.
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An account of the methodology employed is followed by a detailed archaeological description of the excavated section. It is acknowledged that the identification of six main archaeological horizons is a simplification of the stratigraphy. Features included two middens, a hearth and possible stone structural elements. A radiocarbon date of 780-1120 AD at 2 sigma confidence was obtained from the hearth. There was certainly evidence for earlier activity and the possibility of continuity into the medieval period.
9 - 14
This section presents an account of the excavation methodology followed by archaeological description of each of the caves in turn. An important aim of the project was to recover bulk samples from the excavated deposits. Deposits in Glassknapper's Cave were complex and although there was no convincing evidence of substantial structural elements, two stone concentrations appeared to represent artificial arrangements. Three radiocarbon dates ranged from cal AD 770-1160. Antler Cave represented a relative paucity of deposits although it was consistently wet and was not intensively excavated. The cave appears to have been used on a more casual basis than the others. The existence of Wetweather Cave only became apparent during the project. Only a brief assessment was carried out. Occupation appears to date back to the Neolithic and there is evidence for features of some complexity which were cut into the floor of the cave.
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The pottery assemblage comprised approximately 350 sherds of various dates (Neolithic, Norse, medieval and tentatively post-medieval) indicating that the caves were a focus for sporadic activity if not continuous occupation over several successive periods in the past. A small group of well preserved bone and antler items were recovered although Antler Cave had only antler tines. Iron nails included clench nails which have a strong association with boat construction but not of any specific period. A copper-alloy pin from Wetweather Cave could have been Norse or medieval in date.
Effie Photos-Jones
22
The concentration of iron in one of the three samples is suggestive of iron smithing slag. However, work on traditional bloomery making in the Highlands has revealed a relatively high percentage of iron in what is certainly tap slag from a smelting cycle.
James H Barrett
Catherine Smith
D M Aldritt
23 - 39
A series of specialist reports on fish, mammal, bird, amphibian bones, marine shells and plant remains from the caves forming the Geodha Smoo. The evidence seems to favour fishing for consumption in the caves rather than for the preservation and consumption of the fish elsewhere. The marine shells indicate the use of molluscs for quite specific purposes with each cave demonstrating a different use, as a food resource, for fishing bait and the extraction of purple dye. This combined with the evidence of the plant remains suggests an economy seeking to support itself on a local scale, possibly supplemented later by grain and other goods transported over short distances.
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The excavation of the Geodha Smoo cave complex resulted in the recovery of numerous archaeological deposits containing well-preserved artefactual and environmental evidence. The deposits clearly indicate the importance of this coastal location in the past. The deposits in the Wetweather Cave indicate prehistoric activity, but most of the evidence, from all the other caves, indicate their use during the Viking, Late Norse and post-Norse periods.
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