History and Archaeology Essay

At Loch Tay there is a crannog by Oakbank which has had multiple excavations reveal lots of finds. A crannog is an island which is often made artificially on a loch, usually dating from prehistory to medieval. This particular crannog dates back to around about 595 BC, making it an Iron Age site. Finds at this site included bits of iron slag, confirming that the people at the time were definitely in the Iron Age. This iron slag may have been spilt from moulds that the people living at the crannog had been using to make tools. This means the Iron Age had civilised tools and were therefore quite advanced when compared to earlier inhabitants of this part of Scotland. This is further demonstrated by the other finds from the same dig: a peg, whistle, and cereal remains. All of these show that these people were capable of carrying out a number of more complex tasks. The peg means that the inhabitants of the crannog had clothes, probably made from wool, which they dried on lines. The fact that they had woollen clothes means they must have farmed sheep, and the cereal remains means they must have also practiced arable farming as well. The whistle means these people were capable of carving some very complex shapes from wood, and perhaps had some advanced techniques for doing so.

 

 

 

Castle Fraser standing stones are situated in an arable field not far from Castle Fraser itself, at grid reference NJ 71508 12533. It is a recumbent stone circle thought to have been made at some point in the late Bronze Age. It is identified as a recumbent stone circle by the recumbent, a stone laid on its side between two tall, upright rocks called flankers, and several other shorter rocks placed upright in a circle around a slightly raised centre area. The original circle of stones no longer stands because some of the rocks have been knocked over, at least one was knocked down by agricultural machinery, possibly more, or over time the rocks have become less stable. Below is a very rough sketch made at the time of the visit, rotated so north is at the top edge of the sketch.

P1150351

 

As can be seen from the sketch, the recumbent is on the south-southwest side of the circle and there are six other stones that can be seen around the circle. There were originally ten stones; one recumbent, two flankers, and seven others around the circle. At the time of visiting the site there were nine stones visible, one had been removed at some point, and three of them were lying on their sides. There is also evidence that the circle was paved with rocks to a diameter of 16 metres, sort of shown by the circle in the centre, although obviously not to scale.

The main technique used to investigate the site was field walking whilst visiting the site, to see the arrangement of the stones and the area in which they were situated, although the site was not very easy to study due to the long grass that has grown over it. Field walking was the easiest technique to use to gain an understanding of the site and it was also the only one that could be carried out without using special equipment. Pictures were taken of the stones for reference at a later date and I have researched on the internet to find any details of features that I may not have seen. This has revealed that others have used other techniques to survey the area including aerial photography, photography from ground level and excavation. The photos taken from above have helped me see the layout of the stone circle in a way that I could not see it from the ground, and the photographs taken in the past, such as one on the Canmore website taken in 1902, have helped me see the previous condition of the site and therefore helped explain its current condition.

The archaeological excavation which was carried out by Charles Elphinstone Dalrymple in the 19th century has helped to reveal roughly when the stone circle was built. Dalrymple’s finds included three potsherds from Late Bronze Age flat-rimmed ware, a lot of pieces of daub (plaster, clay, or another substance used for coating a surface) with wattle impressions, and two pieces of charcoal. Charcoal has also been found around the bottoms of some of the standing stones.

To clarify, an archaeological excavation is a method of discovering objects of historical interest, such as was done by Dalrymple at this site. Excavations typically take place at sites where there is a strong suspicion that there will be something to find buried beneath the earth. The main concept of excavation is that the soil is built up in layers over time, and therefore the layers nearest the surface are the youngest, and the layers further down are older, and will hopefully hold finds which can be excavated. This is called stratification and it helps archaeologists to work out how old their finds are, so layers of soil are removed one-by-one. In this case, they were right to carry out an excavation. The site was appropriate as it was clearly a place that was used by people quite often. The excavation helped to date the Stone Circle that could be seen at ground level, and it helped to give an insight into the lives of the people that used the stone circle all those many years ago. However, the archaeological dig that was carried out back in the 19th century will not have been as exact and precise as a dig that would have been carried out today. Technology has advanced, we are more knowledgeable and we have better ways of doing things now. It is quite possible that Dalrymple has missed out on some finds because his excavation technique was not what it could have been if it had been done in the 21st century. That said, how would we have advanced to this stage in our ability to excavate an area without missing anything? The archaeological excavation carried out on this site was necessary for the deeper understanding of what this site was for.

 

This site is protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, meaning it is protected and cannot be removed or destroyed. If someone were to do so they would be breaking the law. There is free access to the site for anyone who respects the Countryside Access Code. Since this site is in the middle of an arable field, there is no easy access and most people may not want to bother walking across a field to see the remains of a recumbent stone circle which is becoming overgrown with grass. There is a muddy car park in one corner of the field which offers little space for cars as the farmer uses it for his equipment, therefore there is restricted access but that doesn’t appear to be a problem as few people visit the site anyway.

 

The organisation responsible for the site is Historic Scotland, and they will check the site every few years to ensure no damage is being done to it or has been done to it. I suspect they will want to clear the grass from the area as the roots may be digging deep enough to mess with the layers of deposits which may be finds if a dig is carried out in the future. There is also a small local group which occasionally check archaeological sites and do a bit of voluntary work to keep them tidy.

P1140841
The recumbent between two flankers

 

About 200 metres to the east of the site discussed above is another small patch of standing stones which I did not study. This is however quite an important piece of information because it means there is another site very nearby so there is a possibility that more finds may be found if a dig were to take place between the two sites. There is a possibility that there was something between the two stone circles, perhaps just a path, but even then there may have been objects left next to the path which would reveal more about the history of the area.

Since the sites are on agricultural land which is being used, it would be difficult to start an excavation as this would mean stopping the farmer from working on his own land. There is the possibility of something being brought up to ground level by ploughing which takes place on the land anyway, so someone could go to the site on the day that the farmer decides to plough his field to check if any finds are made visible. Even easier than this would be to walk between the two groups of standing stones and studying the ground between them to search for anything that may have already been brought to the surface.

Other techniques would be expensive as they require quite technical equipment, such as phosphate analysis which might reveal that there was a small animal pen where lots of dung has left a high phosphate concentration. Metal detectors may not be very productive as the only dig that has been done on this site has turned up non-metal finds so it is perhaps unlikely that there is any metal to be found at or between the recumbent stone circle and the other standing stones.

Another method which may be used to reveal other sites for conducting archaeological techniques would be to look for areas nearby which have the same features as the sites already discovered, such as the fact that the recumbent stone circle is on raised ground. This means that it is likely any other sites nearby which have been lost will have been on slightly raised ground. Any small mounds may be worth exploring.

 

Site management at the Castle Fraser recumbent stone circle is minimal. There are very few visitors to the site so there has been nothing done to accommodate visitors. There’s a small, muddy car park but that is there for the farmer, and there is no path to the stone circle, you must walk along the edge of the field and then across it to get to the stone circle, where the ground is rough underfoot and the grass is overgrown. This provides many problems for visitor access. It is possible that someone would injure themselves whilst walking about on the uneven ground, and then it would be difficult to get back to the car park because they would need to get through the field. This could be avoided if the vegetation is cleared fairly regularly from the site so visitors could see the ground they are standing on. There is space at the side of the field for a narrow path to be made, although this may have been left by the farmer for a reason, so it would be best to consult the farmer as to the possibility of putting a small path in place.

Parking is limited, but this isn’t a problem because, as mentioned already, very few people visit the site. One problem that may arise at some point would be if wheelchair access was needed. It would be extremely difficult for a wheelchair to get to the stone circle, and harder still to move about once at the circle. Due to the area in which the site is, I don’t feel it is possible to put measures in place which would allow wheelchair access.

A stone has already been damaged by agricultural practice, although that happened quite a long time ago. I think that may have been what made Historic Scotland decide to request the farmer left a sort of buffer zone around the stone circle (an extra metre or so of space on all sides of the circle) to leave the farmer room to manoeuvre machinery without damaging the stones. If the stone which fell over and split in half was knocked over despite the buffer zone, this zone may need extended slightly.

 

Traprain Law, situated in East Lothian just south of East Linton, is a hill surrounded by low, flat ground on which a fort was discovered after numerous archaeological finds. These have ranged from ‘bone objects’ to a silver hoard, and cover many different ages from Neolithic to Roman. The age that I will focus on here though, is the Neolithic age. There have been a few finds at this site to indicate humans took up some sort of settlement here during Neolithic times. Polished stone axes discovered relatively recently point towards Neolithic settlement, as they did not have the knowledge required to form Bronze into tools, hence the period after the Neolithic ages being called the Bronze ages as technology became more advanced. Some rock art that was discovered at Traprain Law also pointed towards Neolithic settlers occupying the area, however a new panel being discovered has possibly changed this view. There is brief mention of some other Neolithic implements being discovered at the site but there is not sufficient evidence that people stayed here permanently in Neolithic times, but perhaps they used the site as a ritual focus or as a burial site.

 

All the ages discussed above (Neolithic, Bronze, Iron) quite clearly have different signs when it comes to finds. When an excavation reveals stone tools, you immediately think that the other finds from this layer of soil will be from the Neolithic age, because at that point in history, humans had not yet developed methods in which to extract metals from the earth and therefore had to use stone tools. There are other signs, such as the fact that farming was introduced from mainland Europe around this time, so finding traces of piles of grain may indicate that a site has ties to Neolithic times, however farming is still practiced with grains and therefore you couldn’t rule out the Bronze-age or Iron-age based on that evidence alone. But you could rule out any time period before then. Buildings and architecture can be a good sign of an age, although this isn’t so true for the Neolithic age because the houses they built in this period were made of wood, and remains are not often found.

Tools can continue to be an indicator of a time period, as in the Bronze-age humans had managed to gain access to bronze and they used this material for tools such as axes, and also weaponry. Agriculture also spread rapidly across the British Isles in the Bronze-age and this can be seen as more sites will show signs of farming. But tools are really the best indicator in this age as bronze was used a lot around this time period.

Again, the clue is in the name. Iron-age sites will have signs of the use of iron. Whether this is recovery of iron tools, or just bits of iron (e.g. iron slag at Oakbank Crannog) and sometimes there are signs that humans have been extracting iron and forming it into shapes. Weaponry in particular can demonstrate Iron-age influence; it is known that Britain became more tied to mainland Europe as sword types became more like those found across the rest of Europe. Other artefacts from northern Europe brought across the North Sea, and from Mediterranean Phoenician traders who came to Britain looking for minerals during this time will also be clear signs that a site is of Iron-age origin. Again, architecture can be used to suss out when a building was made. Hill forts and many other defensive structures such as Brochs were built in the Iron-age which makes it very easy to work out what time period a site is from if it’s a large building.

 

Reference:

 

  1. Canmore, 2015, Traprain Law, https://canmore.org.uk/site/ [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
  2. Canmore, 2015, Loch Tay, Oakbank, https://canmore.org.uk/site/ [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
  3. Canmore, 2015, Castle Fraser, https://canmore.org.uk/site/ [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
  4. For Dummies, 2015, The Historical Periods of Britain, http://www.dummies.com/how-to/ [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
  5. Wikipedia, 2001, Recumbent Stone Circle, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recumbent_stone_circle [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
  6. Wikipedia, 2001, British Iron Age, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Iron_Age [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
  7. Wikipedia, 2001, Bronze Age Britain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronze_Age_Britain [accessed 15 Nov 2015]
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History and Archaeology Essay

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