Swartigill Burn Dig 2021

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Orca and Yarrows Heritage Trust were back to the Swartigill Burn dig this year. Please get in touch if you would like to volunteer or just come for a look for next year's dig. 
Click below to see reports from previous years and Highland Archaeology Festival talk by Martin Carruthers 


Day 1 : Monday 23rd August

We were lucky with the weather today. On arrival we trundled the equipment from the van to the site where we erected a bell tent for the site team and volunteers. Removing the tarp from the site showed that the site had weathered very well for having been left since 2019, there were no signs of damage, we also rescued 7 frogs! so good deed for the day was done. After lunch we had the excavator to de turf sections of the site to the south and west. Substantial stonework is already starting to emerge which is in line with the evidence of resistance on the geophysics results.

Day 2 :  Tuesday 24th August

We arrived on site to sunshine. Throughout the day we had quite  few volunteers and visitor to the site. The aluveum has started to be cleared from the south west corner of the trench, and is showing stonework which appears to be on a north- south alignment, but as yet , no clear structural features are evident. 
At the section closest to the burn of Swartigill areas of deposits were photocleaned where it rises to the north. There were finds of multiple pieces of prehistoric pot , some of it appearing quite diagnostic of mid to late Iron Age with some nice averted rim sections.

Day 3 : Wednesday 25th August

The weather today was a little drizzly, which was in fact perfect conditions for photographing the stonework and deposits in Structure B. First, we needed to remove the dust and lose soil that had accumulated over the floor deposits in the structure, which too most of the day. ORCA Project Officer Bobby Friel used his Unmanned Arial System (often referred to as a drone) to take hundreds of photographs for a photogrammetric survey of the site, from which we will build a 3D model.

Meanwhile, in the new areas of the site uncovered by the machine excavation, we continue to excavate a swath through the widespread alluvial silt and mineralised soil deposits which shroud the archaeological remains on the site. A north-south alignment of rubble is beginning to emerge, likely representing a tumbled wall line, with tantalising traces of ash rich deposit disappearing under the rubble.

We were delighted to welcome Caithness resident and archaeological enthusiast George Watson to site. After George retired from Dounreay Nuclear Power Plant, he travelled all over Caithness visiting archaeological sites and has accumulated an enviable understanding of the cultural heritage of the region. On his first visit to the Burn of Swartigill, we spoke at length about how the similarity and differences between Swaritgill and the numerous other sites in the area. George was particularly interested in how the landscape might have changed in the years since the Iron Age.

In the southwest extension to the trench, Deryck, Anthea and Islay have been defining the extent of the structural remains in this area to the south, excavating through thick layers of very gritty and stony alluvium. It appears that the stonework is curving back around to towards the east, and potentially joining up with Structure C, a building with edge set stone forming the inner face.

Alannah and Mary have also been removing that all-encompassing layer of alluvium to reveal a darker layer that contains carbonised material, as well as yet more structural features. These may relate to the souterrain Structure A, but time will tell. It may be a much more complicated arrangement of structures than previously envisioned.

On the subject of the souterrain, Calum has been investigating the are where the construction of the revetment wall on the north side of the passage has truncated deposits and remains of earlier features. This is an important sequence of archaeological contexts which will hopefully tell the story of how that building was constructed and when, so Calum is taking his time and recovering a lot of samples.

Work is also progressing on the section of the site that was truncated by the burn, previously investigated in our first season of investigations at the site in 2015. This area is also quite complex in terms of the number of features and how they relate to each other. In 2019, we excavated a cist which had been inserted into these rubble deposits, and there are signs of walls formed from large boulders projecting to the north into the burn. The erosion from the burn (and the sheep that sheltered under the bank) has afforded us the opportunity to investigate this site, but it has also cut a swath through a series of structures which we can now only see as truncated remnants in the side of the burn.

Another dry, bright and warm day one site, and we are again focussing on the section of the site truncated by the burn. The boulder wall which projects towards the burn has been shown to be sitting on a layer of grey clay, very low down and close to the natural layers which predate the occupation of the site. It is likely that this layer represents the ancient land surface onto which some of the earliest structures in the settlement were constructed. This makes the careful recording and collection of samples from this area all the more important.

We first looked at this area back in 2015, when Martin Carruthers discovered a deposit which yielded a cache of prehistoric pottery pressed up against the remains of that early boulder constructed wall. Some of this pot had very a distinctive form of decoration, comprising fingernail impressions beneath the rim. While excavating rubble from around this area, Travis encountered yet another cache of pottery with similar fingernail depressions around a sherd of rim. Could this be from the same vessel? We will be looking at the form and fabric of both bits of pottery in the near future, so watch this space.

In the centre of the site, Holly has completed a plan of the whole of the interior of Structure A, which will allow us to finish the recording in this area and move on to the sampling of the hearth deposits and occupation deposits which occupy the centre of the building.

The theme for today was photography and recording, and the cloud cover provided the perfect conditions for fulfilling this task. We cleaned and photographed the western extension from the north end, where Alannah and Mary have been investigating the jumble of structural features in this area. Calum has been planning the area of the souterrain construction cut, so that he can start to remove the deposits to the north of this feature. Previously we have recovered a large number of prehistoric pottery fragments from this area, and we are anticipating that this trend will continue. Each fragment of pottery is recorded in three dimensions using a GPS system, so that we can look for patterns in deposition which might reveal some information about how the layer was formed.

Deryck and Anthea have been defining the new features emerging from the alluvium, and cleaning them for photographs. With the photographs out of the way, it was time to crack on with the planning of these features, but not before we recovered some fragments of quern stone from along the north-south aligned structure in the southwest corner.

Over at the burn section, Travis has encountered a layer of ash rich deposit which contains a large amount of burnt bone, further adding to the complexity of the picture in this area.

Day seven. 29/08/21. Sunday. A slightly later start, but no less busy on site. Planning and recording all along the western extension was completed by the end of the day, ready to start a fresh on the sampling and excavation in these areas next week. On the subject of sampling, Rick and Holly began the painstaking process of picking apart the numerous layers of occupation and hearth deposits in Structure B. These layers will be sampled in a grid, which will allow us to look in great detail at the sort of material, both artefacts and ecofacts, which may tell us about the sort of activities that were being undertaken on these ancient floor surfaces.

Today was ORCA Project Officer Bobby Friel’s last day one site for this season. Bobby’s experience of excavating sites in the Highlands and Islands, as well as an UAS (unmanned Aerial System) operator, has made him an indispensable member of the Swartigill dig team. Although we will miss Bobby’s skill as an archaeologist, and his banter, we wish him all the best on his forthcoming travels, and look forward to seeming him again at Swartigill next season.

It’s the start of a new week at the dig, and just as we bifd farewell to Bobby Friel, we welcome back returning volunteers Roland Spencer-Jones and Leia Tilley, as well as a new digger to the site, UHI Arcaheology undergraduate Amy Blank.

In the western extension, the pace of excavation has accelerated, after much of the photography and planning was completed yesterday. The archaeologists can start to take away more of the rubble and later layers in the western extension, revealing more of the underlaying structures and deposits, which are rich in cultural material, including artefacts and environmental evidence. Elsewhere on the site, the careful and measured pace of excavation, recording and sampling continues. Each scrape of the trowel reveals further evidence about how the sort of activities that went on here over two thousand years ago. Much of this evidence will not be fully understood until the samples are processed and analysed, but we are learning new things each day.