Swartigill Blog 2022
At the end of another successful digging season at Swartigill Burn, I wanted to take some time to reflect upon what makes the site so special to the community, the participants and the visitors.
Firstly, Swartigill Burn is a beautiful and peaceful spot that we know has been valued and visited for thousands of years, whether as the site of a home, as a place of ritual significance or even more recently, a favourite picnic spot.
Walking to the site across the moorland introduces you to the scenic surroundings of Swartigill. We experienced beautiful blue skies, aromatic heather blossom, multitudes of buzzing insects, flashes of exuberantly swooping swallows and rare precious glimpses of a hen harrier, buzzard and short eared owl.
Interaction with nature has taken on a deeper significance recently and it is easy to imagine that our Iron age ancestors would notice and value such things too.
When at last the site becomes visible, tucked snuggly in the river valley, you realise that, secondly, Swartigill is a complex and fascinating settlement, remodelled and reused for millenia and well worth the gasp of “Wow! It’s so big now” uttered by Thrumster School as they revisited this year.
Although we are privileged to have many important archaeological sites in the Yarrows area, this is an unusual and important opportunity to excavate a spot previously unexplored by earlier antiquarians or archaeologists. The buildings and their contents have lain undisturbed, sealed by layers of silt, waiting to reveal their story.
Yarrows is dedicated to promoting an understanding and appreciation of the Yarrows archaeological heritage and so aim to facilitate a systematic and thoughtful unpicking of the swartigill settlement thus developing a deep awareness of past societies here and their way of life.
The UHI Archaeology Institute and ORCA are helping Yarrows Heritage Trust to fulfil this aim.
Paul Simonite photograph
Rick Barton expertly guides the excavation process, ably assisted by his excellent colleagues, Martin, Bobby, Holly and Linda, by their hardworking and enthusiastic UHI students, by YHT members, and of course, by many dedicated local volunteers. Areas are carefully excavated, precise records are kept, theories are discussed, comparisons with other sites made, all to build up a clear picture of the story of the site.This knowledge can then be shared both locally an within the wider archaeological community.
In this way, thirdly, Swartigill is an amazing focal point for learning, for the archaeologists, volunteers, visitors and especially the children from local schools. The children’s enthusiasm is infectious and they always ask interesting questions!
The Scottish curriculum for excellence encourages that children “can use evidence to recreate the story of a place… of local historical interest” SOC 1-03a and “can compare aspects of people’s daily lives in the past with (their) own by using historical evidence” SOC1-04a.
By visiting the site, looking at the buildings, listening to the theories, learning to excavate and using the artefacts to learn about daily life in the Iron Age, the children are developing a deeper understanding of swartigill and are starting to make a connection between themselves and their Iron Age forbears.
This is evidenced by their fantastic feedback:
What did you enjoy?
Looking at the site
“I liked drawing because there were loads of details I could add to it” Fergus P2
“ I liked drawing the houses because I put people in them” Hannah P2
“ I enjoyed seeing the walls and imagining how it used to be” Natalie P7
Here are some examples of the children's drawings
“ I liked digging because I like finding things” Vivian P1
“I liked using the trowel” Alice P1
“I liked digging … and putting the spoil in the bucket” Jamie P2
“I enjoyed the digging the most because it was exciting that
I could find something from the Iron Age” Jack P5
“I liked seeing the bead. It was a broken bead” Owen P1
“ I liked the artefacts there was a smooth stone for grinding it’s rough on the back”
“ I enjoyed seeing the artefacts” Logan P4
“I liked the quern stone for grinding corn” Maisie P5
“I enjoyed seeing the artefacts and learning how people used to live” Orla P7
“At Swartigill dig I enjoyed looking at artefacts because I like learning about all the
different things that they do in their everyday lives” Harry P7
What did you learn?
“ I learned how to use my trowel” Jamie P2
“Don’t dig, scrape!”Ella and Rosie P3
“How cool it is to be an archaeologist” Theo P5
“They made knives out of iron” Jamie P1
“They had a stone for sharpening their knife” Brody P2
“I have learned that the Iron Age people’s knives went blunt and they used
a whetstone to sharpen them and a pillow stone was used for shaping
metal” Marcus P6
“They had round stone houses” Harry P2
“They made spoons out of bone” Alice P2
“They used a comb to brush their hair” Lilly P2
“They wore necklaces” Zoe P2
“I have learned they ate lots of things I eat” Lucy P3
“People have houses in a field and you can find beads and discovers walls
and the iron age people made these houses. The Iron Age was 2000 years
ago and the houses are still there”Ella P5
“The deeper the thing is, the more old it is” Drew P6
“That the iron age had a different (life) from us “ Aiden P7
“They have fires … to keep you warm and they used to put stones in the fire
and then put them in cold water and it would warm it up but the stones would crack.
They used a saddle quern and ground flour for bread” Kloe P7
Rick Barton of ORCA showing the children some of the artefacts
These are the future guardians of our archaeological heritage and it is heart warming to see such a clear development of understanding and appreciation of their heritage.
Finally, the Swartigill Burn excavation is great fun. Old friends reconnect and new friends are made. Pleasure is gained from working in the fresh air, in beautiful surroundings, with a team of fellow enthusiasts all striving to achieve a common aim. Hard physical work moving earth and stones combines with the mental challenge of unpicking the sequence and function of the site, but what satisfaction is gained when the plan and purpose of a building becomes clear. Excitement is shared when small finds such as a glass bead or pottery fragment is found, providing a direct personal connection with an individual from the past.
And if that wasn’t enough, on sunny afternoons Islay would bring us delicious and rejuvenating ice cream treats!
Although the Swartigill Burn site is closed for now, the post excavation work continues for the UHI archaeological Institute, ORCA, Rick and Bobby. The many soil samples taken from the site are to be processed, charcoal carbon dates obtained and photographs and plans considered, all to increase the understanding of Swartigill.
Hopefully we will be able able to dig again next year as there is still more to learn. As P6 Drew says “the deeper the thing is , the more old” so it will be exciting to explore even earlier chapters of the Swartigill story. I know that the school children are already anticipating next summer’s visit.
I would personally like to thank YHT for making it happen and all the funders that have invested in this project.
The staff and children of Thrumster and Watten schools for their enthusiasm, all the volunteers for their hard work and support.
All the visitors for their interest and appreciation and of course, Rick, Martin, Bobby, Holly, Linda, Kev, Travis , Sara and all the UHI students who have taught me so much.
Miniature glass beads found in 2021 Pic:Tom O'Brien
Glass bead found in 2022 Pic: Bobby Friel
Val Ashpool with her find of the Guido spiral bead