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Battlemoss 2005

Excavations at Battle Moss Ring Cairn
4th 22nd July 2005
In 2003, excavation was carried out at Battle Moss stone row by Cardiff and Glasgow Universities, under the direction of Drs Kenneth Brophy, Amelia Pannett and Andrew Baines. This excavation concentrated on the stone rows, but also revealed a previously unrecorded ring cairn, 50m to the north, dated to the Early to middle Bronze Age (c. 2300 1500 BC). This was a highly exciting and significant discovery, providing an opportunity for the first modern-day, scientific excavation of a Bronze Age cairn in Caithness. Due to time constraints, investigations at the cairn were limited to the central area, with narrow trenches cut across the structure of the cairn in order to determine its original design. The excavation yielded some important and exciting results:

  • The discovery of small, discrete patches of cremated bone within the fill of the central area provided information regarding the manner in which the monument was sealed.

  • The discovery of cremated bone lying on possible cist cover slabs, in association with one/two ceramic urns.

  • Dating of this deposit of cremated bone has produced a date of around 1600 cal. BC, which relates to the middle of the Bronze Age and concurs with the accepted date range for the pottery.

  • The discovery of a Beaker pot in close proximity to a possible side slab from a cist. The date range for pottery of this form is between 2300-1700 BC, demonstrating that the cairn was in use over a considerable period of use.

  • The layout of the structure of the cairn indicates that it underwent several phases of redesign, with the kerbing surrounding the main cairn changed and augmented on at least two occasions.

The results of the excavation led us to interpret that the cairn had originated as a small round cairn containing a central stone lined cist, into which the Beaker had been deposited. At a later stage the cairn was enlarged, and the oval central space created. This involved the removal of much of the cist structure. The focus of the central space in this latest phase appears to have been the deposition of two cremation deposits, over which inverted urns were positioned. The central space was subsequently filled using a mixture of soil (much of which appears to have been taken from the surface of the ridge, as flint tools dated to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods were found throughout the soil fill), stone and cremated bone.

Aims of the 2005 season
The 2005 season will complete the excavation of the cairn, revealing the entire structure, and taking a section of it down to ground level to investigate the possibility of pre-cairn activity. The excavation will have 3 main aims:

  • Determining the layout of the different phases of cairn construction, in order to understand how the possible cist cairn from the Beaker phase was redesigned and incorporated into the final structure of the monument.

  • To fully investigate the foundation layers of the central space, to determine whether the slabs on which the urns and cremated bone were deposited cover a feature in similar structures excavated elsewhere in Scotland, shallow scoops have been found, cut into the subsoil, containing burials and other deposits.

  • To investigate the pre-cairn surface to establish whether the site provided the focus for activity pre-dating the construction of the cairn. The discovery of a lithic scatter characteristic of Mesolithic activity 10m to the SW of the cairn suggests that the area had been in use over a considerable period of time, and investigation of the pre-cairn surface may help us to understand why the cairn was located here.

We hope that the planned work will be able to tell us a lot more about the true nature of the cairn structure, and how it was constructed and redesigned throughout the Bronze Age.

The 2005 excavation will be undertaken by students from Cardiff University, under the direction of Drs Amelia Pannett and Andrew Baines. We will be working 6 days a week, between 9am and 5pm. We would welcome volunteers if you would like to take part in the excavation, even if only for a few days, your help would be gratefully received. Full training will be given. Contact Meg Sinclair at Dunbeath Heritage Centre on 01593 731233 for more details.

We would also welcome visitors to the site, and will provide guided tours to ensure you see all the latest discoveries, as well as getting an understanding of the site as a whole. Visitors will be welcome between 10am and 4.30pm every day. An open day will be held during the excavation (date to be confirmed), during which visitors will be able to take part in the excavation, see the latest discoveries, and hear our latest ideas about the site! There will also be activities for children organised by Nan Bethune of CAT.

We are looking forward to returning to Caithness, and continuing this exciting project. We would like to thank James and Sybil MacKay for allowing us to excavate on their land, CAT and YHT for their support of this project, and Meg Sinclair for all her assistance in the planning stages!

Amelia Pannett

Battlemoss Excavations Web diary 24th July 2005
The Final Week
The final week of the excavation began with a distinct change in the weather unfortunately. Nevertheless, we ploughed on with the digging and recording. We spent several days investigating the section between the kerbing and the central section, removing all of the small cairn material to reveal a layer of boulders and large slabs butting up against the outer edge of the central setting. This appears to be integral to the design of the central setting, creating a substantial structure around which the rest of the cairn was built. Between these large stones and the kerbing, the hollow had been filled with smaller, angular stones and slabs, similar to the material which overlay the entire monument in its upper levels. This was removed, to reveal an old ground surface this is very similar to the surface revealed around the stone rows last year, and resembles a chocolate and biscuit crunch cake (particularly good comparisons can be drawn between this material and a variety of said cake sold at the esteemed House of Bruar)! The old ground surface continued under the kerbing, and was identified across the entire trench, preserved beneath the spread of cairn material. Relatively large quantities of flint were recovered from this material, including pieces comparable with the assemblage found last year at the western end of the cairn ridge.

Elsewhere, work continued on the removal of the cairn material down to the old ground surface. Interestingly, however, this surface was overlain across much of the main monument (that within the kerbing and the tentatively identified secondary phase of building) by the continuation of the yellow/grey silty soil identified in the central setting. It would seem that this material had been spread across the site prior to the construction of the cairn, perhaps to level the ground, or, more ominously, to seal a feature below. As work continued in the central setting, half-sectioning the yellow/grey material it started to become clear that this was going to turn out to be more complicated than we had anticipated (or hoped). On Monday a large flat slab started to appear beneath the soil. Interestingly, it lay directly beneath (albeit sealed by 15cm of material) the large flat slab we had found in 2003, on which were found the two largest deposits of pottery and cremated bone. The remainder of the material within the central setting was rapidly removed to reveal the whole of the slab, and, amid much excitement and anticipation, the slab was lifted. As with 2003, where the lifting of the slab had revealed the top of the yellow/grey silty soil we had just dug through, the lifting of this slab revealed the top of yet another deposit of cultural material! It did, however, appear that we had a large pit or scoop, filled with stone rubble and yellow silty soil. A slot was dug through it to investigate it further, and revealed what appears to be a large area of quarried bedrock, infilled using rubble perhaps created through quarrying activities, and an apparently sterile soil. As with 2003, this final discovery occurred as the rest of the trench was being rapidly backfilled, and so we were not able to fully investigate this feature. It is possible that it is a large pit or scoop, cut into the bedrock and it is possible that it may contain cultural deposits at its base. Alternatively, it could indeed be a quarry site, where stones for the building of the cairn and perhaps even the stone rows were extracted. I am, perhaps optimistically, inclined towards the first idea, as there are so many outcrops of rock and loose boulders lying around the edge of the Loch of Yarrows, it would seem unnecessary to quarry into the bedrock to recover useable stones. Whatever the truth is, it will have to wait until the autumn, when I am hoping to return for a few extra days to get to the bottom of it!

Despite the uncertainty surrounding this scoop or pit, the rest of the sequence of construction is now fairly well understood:

1. The initial phase of activity involved the digging of the pit/scoop/quarry on the site of the cairn.

2. This feature was then covered by a layer of soil c.15cm thick, which was spread across an area approximately the same size as the subsequent cairn. The soil was clearly the result of cultural activities, and contained charcoal, ash, cremated bone, pottery and flint.

3. The central setting of the monument was constructed, and surrounded by an earthen mound (the putative Beaker cist we thought we had identified in 2003 now appears not to have been a feature of the monument). It is not clear whether the central setting was filled at this time further examination of the material sampled from different areas will hopefully shed light on this.

4. At approximately the same time, the kerbing on the NE side of the monument was constructed (it is unlikely that this continued around the entire circumference of the cairn), and the section between the earthen mound and the kerbing was filled with stones.

5. Finally, a thin layer of stones was spread across the whole monument, extending beyond the limits of the kerbing. While this would never have been a large, prominent feature, it would have completely hidden all of the structural features of the earlier cairn.

The excavation has been a great success, and the site has proved to be considerably more interesting and complex than we initially suspected. The results of this seasons work will be compiled over the next few months, and updates will be put on the website on a regular basis. The results of this seasons work, together with the 2003 excavation results will be published in a Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph towards the end of next year. I will be presenting the results of this years work in an evening lecture as part of Highland Archaeology fortnight in October (date to be confirmed).

I would like to thank everybody involved in this seasons work, particularly Meg, George, Gordon, Wayne and Islay. Thanks also to CAT, particularly George Bethune and Meg Sinclair, and CASE for all their assistance in the funding of the work. Thanks again to Bill for providing all technological assistance and for hosting this web diary. Finally, a huge thanks to James and Sybill MacKay for once again letting us dig up their field!

If anyone would like to contact me to find out more about the excavations, please email me at Amelia_pannett@hotmail.co.uk

Battle Moss Excavations web diary 17th July 2005
Work this week has focussed on the removal of cairn material, revealing the lower courses of stone across the monument. This has been a slow job, as each layer has to be drawn before it can be removed. The results have proved interesting though, and have confirmed an observation made in 2003: that the southern side of the monument appeared to have been disturbed, with any kerbing removed. This was thought to relate to the final phase of development of the monument, where it was transformed into a putative platform cairn.

Kerb stones were revealed in the north-eastern quadrant of the site, immediately below the upper levels of cairn material. The kerb comprised large, flat slabs and boulders, distinct from the surrounding material. The kerb was around 2.5m from the inner setting of stones that defined the central area, and appeared to delineate a circular cairn. A thorough re-examination of the section cut through this part of the monument in 2003 revealed that the kerbing formed the revetment of a stone built cairn, which apparently post-dated a smaller earthen cairn. Further work will be carried out in this area to try and tie down the sequence more comprehensively, and to investigate the area outside the kerbing. A detailed 3D plan of the kerbing was made, taking around 10 EDM points on each stone, to enable us to reconstruct the feature digitally at a later date.

Interestingly, no other definite kerb stones were revealed, with the remaining quadrants containing only layers of angular stones of various sizes that make up the cairn structure. This may be due to extensive disturbance, although we are remaining open minded at this stage!

Work began in the central setting, removing the last of the deposits containing pottery and cremated bone that we identified in 2003. Several small sherds of pottery were recovered, including a small piece of probable Beaker. Beneath the deposits containing pottery and cremated bone, a layer of yellow/grey silty soil was revealed. This was initially thought to be the reworked top of the natural till: perhaps a redeposited, trampled surface. It contained a large quantity of charcoal, pottery and flint, and so is clearly a cultural deposit. Work began on investigating this deposit, to determine how deep it is, and what lies beneath! We are initially half-sectioning the central setting, to reveal how the material looks in profile. We were immediately surprised by the depth of this material, having thought it would be a few centimetres at most, it is continuing ever downwards. At present it is around 10cm deep, and shows no sign of petering out!

It has been an interesting week; one that has thrown up several unexpected elements of the monument. As far as we can discern at present it would appear that the monument was constructed in 3 phases:

1. The construction of an earthen mound covering a possible cist remains of which appear to include a decayed upright slab on the SW side of the central setting, and the Beaker pottery.

2. The redesigning of the central area, and the construction of the setting defined by large slabs and boulders. The kerbing and stone cairn appear to relate to this phase. It is possible that the central setting would have remained open.

3. The final phase of construction was the enlargement of the monument by the addition of a layer of small angular stones, which spread out beyond the limits of the kerb. It is possible that the infilling of the central setting, and the deposition of the pottery and cremated bone occurred at this stage also.

Of course, this is all likely to change in the next week as we reveal more of the central setting and main structure of the cairn!

19 July 05
Archaeology Project At Battlemoss Near Yarrows
Work is well under way on the cairn the Battlemoss site near Yarrows by a team of archaeologist from Cardiff university under the management of Ameliia Pannet who has spent the last few years looking at the archaeology in the area.  Caithness Archaeology Trust has helped facilitate the work and volunteers are welcome to go along and help.  Visitors are welcome to see the site - Check the What's On for details.  The cairn was discovered during another excavation project in 2003 when the stone rows were uncovered for the first time.

Battle Moss Excavations web diary 10th July 2005
The first week of excavation has gone very well, with everyone working extremely hard to ensure the heavy work of deturfing and removing the backfill from 2003 was finished as quickly as possible. We now have a 10m by 10m trench open over the cairn, which appears to have exposed the edge of the monument on three sides. The trenches from 2003 have been cleared out despite the presence of rabbit holes on the surface, the central setting of the monument survived remarkably well under the layer of protective material laid down at the end of the previous season.

The cairn material, comprising small angular stones, has been cleaned back and planned, and the job of removing it has started in earnest! We will be removing around s of the cairn material, revealing the different phases of design and kerbing tentatively identified last year. The pre-cairn ground surface will also be revealed, in the hope that we might be able to identify pre-cairn activity on the site.

The main focus of interest this week has been the survey, undertaken by Dr Steve Mills of Cardiff University. This has concentrated on the stone rows (excavated in 2003), building up a detailed picture of the precise location and alignment of each stone. This was designed to test one of our theories about the monument that many of the stones were deliberately set at an angle, creating alignments between the monument and chambered cairns, cairns and standing stones in the surrounding landscape. The results have proved very exciting, and have demonstrated that a large number of the stones are orientated towards monumental features on the surrounding hills. This appears to suggest that the monument was more about referencing the local landscape, and monuments within it than about itself as an individual feature. It has also allowed us to see that there is subtle variation across the monument, with small clusters or groups of stones showing similarities in their orientations. This may suggest that the monument was constructed in piecemeal fashion, with groups of stones added over a long period of time, rather than the whole setting being constructed in a single event.

This work is only in its very early stages, but it has already added considerably to our understanding of the monument, and is allowing us to ponder new ideas about why it was constructed. It is clearly not a definitive answer, but it can perhaps help us move away from the assumption that stone rows were intrinsically linked with celestial events, which is a step forward!

The site is open to visitors from 10am to 4pm every day, and there will be an open day next Saturday (16th July). We would also welcome anyone who would like to come and work on the site with us, full training will be given!

Battlemoss 2003
Details about the previous Battlemoss excavation when the Ring Cairn was discovered.
Battlemoss 2003 Excavation Photos