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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Monuments and Water: A re-interpretation of the Grey cairns of Camster, Caithness
By Amelia Pannet

The Neolithic archaeology of Caithness is little known to most people outside northern Scotland, despite the wealth of evidence that litters the landscapes. This is no doubt a consequence of the relative lack of archaeological investigation in the area since the 19th Century when distinguished antiquarians such as Anderson and Rhind carried out ground-breaking excavations of many chambered cairns and Brochs. Here in lies the irony; the centre of antiquarian exploration is now considered by many as peripheral to studies of British Prehistory (Mercer 1992). That said, however, fieldwork carried out by Henshall, Corcoran and Masters, amongst others, has provided an invaluable corpus of data from which we can move forward and try to bring Caithness in line with the rest of British archaeology.

The majority of fieldwork undertaken in the past in Caithness has tended to be monument-centred, examining individual chambered cairns or so called groups of cairns, and overlooking the wider context into which these structures were placed. The concept of the "landscape", which has been fashionable in archaeological research since the 1970's (Darvill 1994), and which has enabled a greater insight into Prehistoric cosmologies, has not really been applied to the Neolithic remains here. Iwant to take a landscape approach in this paper, and examine the most renowned of the Caithness chambered cairns, the Grey cairns of Camster, in relation to the surrounding topography, landscape and natural elements.

Caithness is a very distinct county, with its flat and gently rolling topography in stark contrast to neighbouring Sutherland, whose mountains form prominent peaks bordering the lowland plain to the south and west. To the north the distinctive hills of Hoy dominate the skyline, and form another prominent boundary, while to the east is the North Sea. Despite its topography and extensive covering of heather moorland, Caithness is far from the bleak county that many perceive it to be. Indeed, when combined with the dramatic extremes of weather that it experiences, the landscape of Caithness can be incredibly beautiful and yet somewhat daunting.

The landscape is not entirely comprised of lowland plain; there are several prominent areas of higher ground that appear to have been significant features in the creation of many of the monumental landscapes. These include the Morven range, Beinn Freiceadain and Ben Dorrery, Ben Griam Beg and Ben Griam Mor on the periphery of the landscape, and Spittal Hill, which occupies a central position. In an area such as Caithness where long distance views are the norm, these distinctive topographic features would have played an important role in the lives of mobile populations. They would have enabled people to orientate themselves around the landscape, following well-worn paths and exploiting particular resources. As Tilley (1994, 38) notes in his examination of traditional Australian Aboriginal populations, "Attachment to and knowledge of a particular stretch of land was a fundamental part of existence." We can suppose, therefore, that knowledge of paths of movement through Caithness, and an understanding of landscape 'markers' was an integral component of life here too. Such markers are likely to have been imbued with symbolism and myth, with tales told to reinforce their central role in daily routines of movement (Bradley 1993). Ancestral power and knowledge would have been appropriated simply by moving along existing paths through the landscape, and through this movement the complex relationships between humans and their natural surroundings would have been renewed (Tilley 1994).

Water also dominates this landscape, and there are few places where the sea, a loch, a burn or a wetland area is not visible. The rain adds to this perception, particularly as it is possible to see showers moving across the land and sea from great distances. I will be examining the topography and natural elements of Caithness further, in relation to the monumental landscape at Camster.

Monumentality in Caithness
The origins of chambered cairns in northern Scotland are traditionally associated with the introduction of domesticated plants and animals sometime in the early 4th Millennium BC (Richards 1992). At this time the newly Neolithic populations are assumed to have adopted farming, or elements of it, together with a sedentary lifestyle and new technologies. However, recent analysis of this supposed Neolithic 'package' has called into question the idea that the construction of monuments was a direct consequence of the adoption of agriculture (Bradley 1993), concentrating instead on shifts in cosmological perceptions.

Several authors have noted (Bradley 1993, Edmonds 1999b, Richards 1992) that one of the most important changes seen at the beginning of the Neolithic was the emergence of a different perception of time and space from that seen within the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer societies. The world ceased to be understood in terms of movement within and between places, and instead began to be perceived from places (Richards 1992, Thomas 1991).

The most recognisable of these places in Caithness are the chambered cairns. Through their incorporation in the landscape, the builders of these monuments appear to have been cementing the significance of certain locales into the human consciousness. According to Richards (1992) their construction effected "conceptual and physical order on the fluidity of existence and the natural world". Chambered cairns are also intrinsically linked to the dead and the creation of the ancestors, and serve to objectify the past in the present through physical architecture (Richards 1992, Tilley 1994).

In his discussion of the Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, such as those found in Caithness, Richards (1988) suggests that they were constructed from an external point of view, with the linear design of the chamber allowing visual access to the interior of the tomb from the forecourt area. He concludes that this construction would have resulted in differentially weighted space throughout the tomb, with the innermost compartment providing the focal point for activities within the chamber. The upright orthostats dividing the chamber are seen as doorways, leading visitors along a path to the deepest point of the structure (Richards 1992, 71). The end compartment, which contains the large backslab, is, therefore, the ultimate goal, the end of the path. The backslab represents the final doorway, the door to immortality through which the living cannot pass (ibid. 73).

In Caithness the living are, in archaeological terms, relatively invisible. We have no evidence of settlements such as those found in Orkney, and few clues to the daily rhythms of life during the Neolithic period.

I suggest that we should view the populations not as sedentary arable farmers, but as semi-nomadic, exploiting both natural resources and the newly introduced domesticated plants and animals. In a landscape as rich and varied as Caithness it is difficult to envisage people giving up a relatively easy hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a difficult and uncertain agricultural one. This, I believe, is a fundamental element in our understanding of the chambered cairns of Caithness; they were created by people who were still moving around the landscape, exploiting different resources at different times of year.

However, the very fact that these monuments were built indicates the effect that agriculture, in whatever form, had on the Neolithic populations. People were no longer living with nature; they were attempting to control it (Bradley 1993).

The Grey cairns of Camster
The Camster cairns are probably the best known of all the Neolithic sites in Caithness. Camster Round was initially explored in the 1850's and 1860's, and its chamber was found to be virtually intact (Davidson & Henshall 1989). After further excavation and consolidation in the 20th century, it remains one of the best preserved Neolithic chambered cairns in northern Scotland. It was found to contain a large amount of human bone, together with animal bone and flint. There was also evidence of burning in the centre of the chamber, where quantities of charcoal and ash were particularly abundant (Davidson & Henshall 1989).

The excavations of its neighbour, Camster Long by Anderson in 1866, and Corcoran and Masters in the 1970's (Davidson & Henshall 1989) revealed a complex monument, with several apparent phases of construction (Masters 1997). Two chambers were located at the northern end of the cairn, each seemingly enclosed within an initial round cairn structure. The northern chamber was of a simple polygonal form, with a short passage, orientated SE, while the southern chamber was a more complex tripartite structure with a passage orientated almost due east (Masters 1997). It has been suggested that these would have stood as independent structures, before their consolidation within the later long cairn (Ashmore 1996). The simpler polygonal chamber would probably have been the primary construction on the site, followed by the more complex tripartite chamber (Masters 1997), possibly contemporary with the construction of the tripartite chamber and cairn of Camster Round. The evidence is not conclusive, however, and it has also been suggested that the monument is of single-phase construction (Masters 1997), with the circular revetments included as "constructional devices to support the chamber construction" (Masters 1997, 178). On investigation, both chambers were found to contain very little; a few fragments of bone and a sherd of pottery in the northern, polygonal chamber, and a compacted floor containing a small amount of ash and bone in the southern chamber (Davidson & Henshall 1991).

Of particular interest to the excavators was the discovery of evidence for pre-cairn activity beneath the southern end of the long cairn (Masters 1997). This consisted of a number of burnt areas, varying in size and on the same axis as the later cairn.

Dates from the charcoal indicate that this activity occurred in the early centuries of the 4th Millennium BC (4950+/-80 BP, Masters 1997). Finds of pottery and flint debris associated with this burning activity may indicate that early Neolithic communities were using the site for temporary occupation and the manufacture of stone tools (Masters 1997, Wickham-Jones 1997).

The Camster Landscape
From a landscape perspective, the Camster cairns are sited in relative isolation from the rest of Caithness. Camster Round is located on a fairly flat terrace, while Camster Long occupies a ridge to the NNW. The surrounding landscape is fairly enclosed, with higher ground on all sides, and restricted views. None of the main topographic features of the Caithness landscape are clearly seen from these sites, with only the very top of Spittal Hill visible from the northern forecourt of the long cairn. To the cast of the cairns the small Camster Burn flows northwards up its narrow valley, and is visible from both sites. However, slightly to the south of the cairns, but now blocked from view by a modern forestry plantation, is the confluence of several small tributaries which combine to form this burn. Interestingly, this confluence can be regarded as the source of the Wick River, one of the two main watercourses in Caithness.

It is this confluence that I now want to explore, as a possible way of understanding the significance and evolution of this monumental landscape. Water is a symbolic natural element that features heavily in many 'traditional' cosmologies (Bradley 2000, Richards 1996, Govinda 1992), and is often associated with concepts of birth, regeneration and purification (Richards 1996). Water features, particularly rivers, serve to physically divide and define the landscape, forming boundaries and thresholds (Edmonds 1999a) from and through which the encountered world is perceived. As Richards (1996) points out, the flow of rivers from the source to the sea also provides a potent metaphor for movement, journeys and progression. In the Neolithic, therefore, rivers may have embodied a physical representation of the seasonal routines of movement through the landscape, from which sites such as Camster may have been accorded their significance.

The location of the Camster cairns, and the evidence for earlier activity, gives weight to this argument. As I stated earlier, the cairns are located in relative isolation, with virtually no visual access to other areas of Caithness. This was clearly a deliberate act on the part of the cairn builders, designed perhaps to control and order perceptions of the encountered world. Had the builders chosen to construct their monuments on the terrace directly above and to the west of the actual site the engagements with the landscape and natural elements would have been dramatically different. Here, Loch Camster is located in an area of flat heather moorland, from which there are extensive views over the northern half of Caithness, with views of Warth Hill and Hoy to the north, Spittal Hill, Beinn Freiceadain and Ben Dorrery to the west, and eastwards towards the Hill of Yarrows. By disregarding physical features in the landscape that are prominent in the vistas from many other chambered cairns in Caithness, the builders of the Camster cairns appear to have been relating to a very specific cosmological scheme that revolves around the significance of the Camster Burn.

The discovery of pre-cairn activity dating to the earliest Neolithic on the ridge below Camster Long points to why the site was chosen for monumental construction, but, why did that particular location attract activity in the first place? In practical terms the ridge provides an area of elevated ground from where there are good views across the surrounding flat terrace, although there are several other glacial undulations in the vicinity that would have served this purpose equally well. The ridge on which the cairn is sited is however, the best place in the landscape to view the southern end of the bum, and the confluence areas.

I suggest that this confluence and the subsequent journey of the river through the landscape may have been regarded as a symbolic medium through which cosmologies and life cycles were expressed. The water that flows from this source travels from the upland region, through one of the most fertile tracts of land in Caithness and to the sea. It is possible that these different ecological zones featured in the seasonal movements of the nomadic communities, and were exploited for their natural resources. The location of Camster, in an upland area, therefore, together with the interpretation of the pre-cairn burning and flint working as evidence of temporary settlement, (Masters 1997, Wickham-Jones 1997) indicates that it may indeed have been a location for gatherings or occasional visits during these seasonal rounds (Edmonds 1999b). The function of these gatherings remains a mystery, but as Mark Edmonds (1999a) points out "The importance of water as a source of fertility and as an agent of transformation would not have been lost on people at the time". By choosing the ridge as a focus of activity and cairn building, therefore, the Neolithic populations may have been drawing on notions of purity and fertility often attributed to a river source, to ensure prosperity in the coming season.

With the construction of the chambered cairns, the relationship between the Neolithic populations and the river is likely to have shifted from an emphasis on fertility to focus on regeneration and rebirth. As I discussed earlier, the construction of chambered cairns is thought to have been associated with the creation of an ancestral 'whole'. Positioning the cairns above the source of the Camster Burn, therefore, the Neolithic populations appear to have been drawing on the ability of water to purify and transform the human body (Richards 1996), to enable the transition from individual to ancestor. I suggest this only tentatively, as the evidence for burial is limited from the Camster cairns, however, I do feel that such acts may have been more symbolic than physical.

The construction of the chambered cairns at Camster also enabled the concept of place to be permanently fixed in the landscape. Their construction in an area already imbued with cultural significance served to physically reference the ancestral presence in the landscape (Tilley 1996), which, in turn, may have sustained a sense of genealogy and tenure (Edmonds 1999b). Despite the relatively static nature of the modern Camster landscape, this is an area that would have been constantly re-worked and reinterpreted with each successive generation. Shifts in ideology and cosmological outlook would have lead to the constant adaptation of the symbolism embedded in the landscape. Recognition of this is significant if we are to be able to gain an understanding of how and why Camster developed.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between the Camster chambered cairns and one of the dominant natural elements in Caithness, water. I have suggested that the Camster burn may have played a significant role in the creation of the monumental landscape through its involvement in the human routines of movement within and between the different ecological zones. I have also tried to show that the symbolic significance of this locale probably extends back into the Mesolithic period, when communities understood their place in the world in terms of their movement around the landscape. In the Neolithic a new sense of being was established, and people began to transform and domesticate the natural world that they inhabited. However, it would seem that the builders of the Camster cairns were drawing on features of ancestral significance, features that had perhaps been fundamental to the cosmologies of the hunter- gatherer populations, and were consequently imbued with genealogical power. The creation of permanent architecture at this locale prevented the power from being lost (Tilley 1994).

Natural elements are an established and fundamental part of the cosmologies of many traditional cultures (Bradley 2000), and recognition of this will, I believe, enable us to gain a greater understanding of how and why Neolithic monumental landscapes were established. In Caithness, in particular, I feel that water, in its many forms, dominated the daily routines of both Mesolithic and Neolithic populations, providing both natural resources and most importantly, a symbolic metaphor for life itself.

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See Also
Another version of this article with diagrams and photos published earlier on this web site
More photos the Grey Cairns Of Camster

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