Caithness Broch landscapes (Scotland)
Andrew Heald (National Museums Scotland), Jon Henderson (Nottingham) and John Barber (AOC Archaeology Group)
Excavating deposits of human and animal bone within
an intramural cell at Whitegate Broch, 2006
The Caithness Broch Landscapes Project was initiated in the summer of 2002 with the first stage focusing on the re-survey and excavation of broch settlements examined by Sir Francis Tress Barry in the latter half of the nineteenth century (Anderson 1901). Operating alongside new fieldwork at five sites (Everley, Nybster, Whitegate, Keiss Road and Keiss Harbour), a re-analysis of the surviving collections donated by Tress Barry to the National Museum of Scotland is currently in progress.
A key objective of the project is to assess the potential of Barry's sites to provide further insight into wider issues concerning the Atlantic Scottish Iron Age.
There are three main components to the project:
- re-analysis of the existing artefact and manuscript collections
- survey of the monuments examined by Barry in Caithness
- re-excavation of a selection of these sites
After Barry's death 1500 objects were donated to the National Museums of Scotland and study of this material forms the cornerstone of the project. The collection comprises a significant assemblage of native and Roman pottery, of bone and stone artefacts, and some metal and glass finds.
Roman pottery from Keiss broch.
Image left: Weaving tablet blank of bone from Keiss broch. Image right: Composite iron & bronze shears from Keiss broch.
Painted pebble from Keiss broch
Images © Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland
As the majority of these have never been published, publication is important in itself. Analysis of the assemblages will incorporate new analytical techniques (where appropriate) and results will be discussed within a wider Iron Age framework. As well as this detailed work an essential element will be interpreting the data in new ways, discussing topics such as resource exploitation, technology, status, identity and so on where the evidence allows.
DEM of Keiss Road Broch, 2006.
None of the sites excavated by Barry in Caithness have ever been adequately published and many (such as Skirza and Everley) have never been surveyed. Consequently, an integral element of the project is the production of modern surveys of the remaining upstanding buildings and landscape features of the areas excavated by Barry.
Alongside detailed Total Station survey and hand drawn elevations and plans, sites are surveyed using laser scanning technology to provide accurate quantitative data and create millimetre accurate three dimensional models. In addition, digital elevation models of the surrounding land are created to better understand and visualise the wider landscape setting of these sites.
To fully understand the artefacts it is necessary to attempt to contextualise the finds. This is approached through examination of the structural record and wider models of settlement of Iron Age Caithness. The first stage described above focused on detailed structural and architectural survey. However, such an approach can only answer a specific range of questions, to fully understand the importance of Barry's sites and finds, new excavations at Everley, Nybster, Whitegate, Keiss Road and Keiss Harbour form a central element of the project.
Everley Broch interior, 2002.
Well feature under excavation at
Whitegate Broch, 2006.
Previously, only one broch in Caithness, Crosskirk, has been subject to modern excavation techniques and regrettably there are ambiguities in the published stratigraphy from this site and the C-14 dates recovered. All in all, we know very little about the date, use and purpose of brochs in Caithness.
Barry's sites provide an ideal opportunity to investigate such issues (Heald and Jackson 2001). Our excavations have demonstrated that Barry's investigations were in no way complete and often did not penetrate primary levels of occupation. Barry and his team tended to stop when they hit structural evidence, such as a layer of paving, because he was mainly interested in 'opening' the sites and displaying them to visitors. As these sites are palimpsests of occupation lasting hundreds of years, earlier occupation deposits often lie untouched beneath the layers Barry uncovered. Equally, as he was mainly concerned with structure, Barry's trenches tended to follow the walls of the sites, leaving large areas of sites relatively undisturbed. Our excavations have allowed us to identify primary deposits, stratigraphy and structural features which will allow us to date the construction and use of these sites through time.
The Caithness Broch Landscapes Project is funded by the National Museums Scotland, AOC Archaeology, The University of Nottingham, and Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise. The project operates with the consent and generous support of the landowners, tenants and local community, Historic Scotland, Highland Council, and the Caithness Archaeological Trust.
The Caithness Broch Landscapes Project accords with the approach espoused by the Caithness Archaeological Trust and the River of Stone Programme and ultimately aims to create 'heritage assets' - sites prepared for access which are of use as a resource to visitors and the local communities of Caithness.
Anderson, J. (1901) 'Notice of nine brochs along the Caithness coast from Keiss Bay to Skirza Head, excavated by Sir Francis Tress Barry, Bart, MP, of Keiss Castle, Caithness', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 35 (1900-1): 112-48.
Heald, A. and Jackson, A. (2001) 'Towards a new understanding of Iron Age Caithness'. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131: 129-148.
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