Let me start by thanking all of last week’s participants very much! We made a really great start to the project, recording around 50 sites, many of which were previously entirely unknown prior to the LiDAR survey. But what does unknown really mean? Although many of these sites were not recorded on Canmore or on the Highland HER, that doesn’t mean that no-one knew about them at all; farmer Helen Harper was aware of a number of hut circles on her land close to Hill of Shebster, only one of which was recorded on Canmore/HER, and she also pointed us in the direction of another possible hut circle in a cultivated field, now all but invisible, and unrecognisable in the LiDAR data. So we can’t necessarily claim that no-one knew about these ‘new’ sites – local knowledge is key!
Monday was spent at Castlehill Heritage Centre, with participants learning how to intepret the LiDAR data and identify possible archaeological sites. This meant that we were all familiar with the data and how to use it when we went out in the field later in the week, viewing the LiDAR data on tablets to help us navigate our way around the Bronze Age landscape.
We spent Tuesday to Thursday close to Broubster Village. The juxtaposition of post-medieval and prehistoric remains made our task all the more complex, as we had to try to carefully tease apart the sites, working out which period they belonged to, making written records and taking photographs. Thursday was particularly rewarding, as we visited an area whose significance had been acknowledged, but that has never been surveyed before – the record on Canmore notes the presence of nine burial cairns and eleven hut circles, but there are no plans showing where they lie in relation to one another. The cairns are largely clustered together in the northern area, with the hut circles and settlement remains to the south – a clear distinction between the funerary and the domestic. Unfortunately it looks as though the largest cairns were explored by our antiquarian predecessors – it is not unusual to find evidence of excavations going through the top or side of a cairn, to see what lay within. However, modern excavation of such sites shows that they retain much information, as antiquarian excavation methods were not so comprehensive as our own! They are disturbed but not destroyed, and traces of antiquarian activity simply represent another chapter in the complex story of these ancient sites.
On Friday, we headed towards Hill of Shebster, examining a number of sites on its lower slopes and to the west. In particular, we visited a row of four possible hut circles (below), aligned in a perfect row, close to modern farm buildings. We confess to feeling apprehensive – the footprints of cattle feeders can sometimes sneakily disguise themselves as hut circles in the LiDAR data! However, we found three hut circles, evenly spaced 25m apart in a perfect line, and only ONE cattle feeder ring!
On closer analysis of the LiDAR data, we also noted lynchets (a ledge on the downhill side of a plot, resulting from prehistoric ploughing activity – can you see them in the image above, running broadly SW-NE?) between the hut circles, suggesting that each hut circle had its own patch of land. They show up quite clearly on the LiDAR data, but are only just visible on the ground! While it would be tempting to interpret the hut circles as evidence of a little hut circle community – three roundhouses, all occupied simultaneously – their use may be separated by many generations. Alternatively, the three sites might be associated, but may have fulfilled different functions. Not all hut circles necessarily represent houses, and we may be looking at one house with two outbuildings, for example.
We finished Week One with some fabulous hut circles further west from Hill of Shebster. These substantial sites sit on a low ridge with fabulous views of the surrounding landscape, with the sea to the north-west and the hills to the south.
One of our volunteers, Chris Sinclair, brought his drone out with him and took some great aerial shots of a number of sites, head over Castlehill Heritage Centre’s Facebook page to find links to these images. Thanks, Chris! Getting a bird’s-eye view is a great way of getting a fresh perspective, contributing to our understanding and interpretation of archaeological sites.
Remember to sign up for Summer School Week 2, which runs from 13th to 18th of July. We are fired up after a successful first week and cannot wait to get back out into the landscape to identify and record more of the traces of Caithness’ enigmatic Bronze Age past.