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Battlemoss Excavation Index

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The Excavation of Battle Moss Stone Row – August 2003
Setting The Scene

The excavation of Battle Moss stone row – August 2003

Excavation directors: Dr Kenneth Brophy (Glasgow University); Amelia Pannett (Cardiff University) and Dr Andrew Baines (Archaeological consultant).

Stone rows in Caithness and Sutherland

Battle Moss stone row is located on the eastern shore of the Loch of Yarrows, 100m from the modern loch edge (ND 312440). It is one of only 23 such monuments known in Scotland and they are unique to Caithness and Sutherland. It comprises eight roughly parallel rows of small upright stone slabs (no more than 50cm high), and originally total at least 160 stones. Perhaps only 100 survive today. The site is located around 7km to the north of the most famous of these monuments, the Hill O’Many Stanes, at Mid Clyth (ND 295384). This site is on a larger scale to Battle Moss, containing several hundred stones arranged in two adjacent ‘fan-shaped’ settings. Over 200 stones still survive on the small hill, with the settings tapering towards the top of the slope. This monument is under the guardianship of Historic Scotland and is signposted from the A99.

In Caithness similar monuments are found distributed throughout the county, with concentrations of several settings at both Garrywhin and Dounreay. At Garrywhin (ND 314413) an extensively ruined fan-shaped setting can be seen just below and to the north of the Garrywhin chambered cairn (also known as Cairn O’Get and signposted from the A99). Here, only around 50 stones still survive, aligned to taper towards a small cairn that contains a cist, which was found to contain sherds of Early Bronze Age pottery and some human teeth. An association with a small cairn is a common feature of the multiple stone rows of Caithness and Sutherland, and it is this association that has led to the presumption that the stone rows are Early Bronze Age in date (2200-1700B BC). However, none of the sets of row have been excavated, and as a consequence this chronological relationship has never been proven.

All the sites in both Caithness and Sutherland have been surveyed by Leslie Myatt, and the results of his work have enabled a detailed understanding of the current state of the monuments. The stone rows were also extensively studied by Professor Alexander Thom in the 1960s and 1970s, and his theories and interpretations have dominated the study of these enigmatic monuments since. Thom believed that the alignment and orientation of each stone row related to particular lunar events, and that these sites may have been used to predict events from the changes to the seasons to eclipses and meteor showers. While these ideas are controversial, and Thom has been criticised for the methodologies used during his investigations of the sites, these monuments continue to be studied by astroarchaeologists, and the astronomical significance of the alignments continues to be debated.

A large number of myths surround the stone rows in Caithness, and the stones are traditionally believed to be grave stones, marking the burial places of those killed in clan battles – hence the name Battle Moss. Indeed, the OS Namebook (1872) records the boggy area beside the stone row as Bloody Moss. Superstition suggests that anyone who removes a stone from one of these sites will be dead within the year, and there is a well known story of a farmer from Bruan who removed a stone from the Hill O’Many Stanes. He had taken the stone to use as a lintel (either for a door in the new house he was building or for the fireplace of a kiln – there is some debate over this!), however, as soon as he had the lintel in place it burst into flames. The farmer panicked, removed the stone and returned it to its original position within the stone row.

Geophysical Survey at Battle Moss – June 2003

A geophysical survey was undertaken by a team from Glasgow University in the first week of June 2003. Both resistivity and magnetometry were used, and a large area of the field containing the stone rows was surveyed. The aim of this survey had been to see if we could trace any subsurface archaeological features, such as stone holes from missing stones, post holes, pits or anything else! The original plan of Battle Moss stone row, drawn by Dryden in 1871 suggested that a single line of standing stones extended northwards from the eastern edge of the monument, but all of these stones have subsequently been removed, and this aspect of the site was not recorded in any of the more recent surveys. Unfortunately, we did not pick up any traces of features that correspond with this alignment. We also surveyed a small apparently natural knoll to the north of the site, as we believed that a small round cairn might have been built here. We were more fortunate with the results in this area, and we appear to have confirmation of the presence of a small circular feature exactly where we expected it! A series of other anomalies in the area between the stone rows and this possible cairn have been interpreted as possible pits – 3 large (1.5m – 2.5m in diameter) circular features were picked up running in a line SE-NW. These appear to be too regular and too evenly spaced to be natural features. All of the features identified will be investigated during the excavation.

While the geophysics was being undertaken, Kenny and Andrew investigated the stone rows themselves, to ascertain the precise state of the monument. Using Dryden’s original plan they traced the location of each stone he had recorded to determine how the site had deteriorated during the intervening 140 years. Surprisingly, it seems that the majority of the stones recorded on this plan still survive, although a number have been toppled or broken. They were also able to identify several other stones that Dryden missed, and may have discovered a new line of stones that has not been recorded in any of the surveys. So, it would appear that the site is not quite as ruined as we had anticipated.

Excavation at Battle Moss – 9th – 28th August 2003

The excavation is being undertaken by a team comprising students from Glasgow and Cardiff Universities, as well as local volunteers. We will be uncovering sections of the monument itself, as well as the features revealed by the geophysics. Within the area of the stones we will put a trench along the line of a row, and another across the width of the monument in order to understand how the site was actually constructed. We aim to excavate the sockets of several stones, and hope that they will contain pottery, flint, charcoal or any other material that will enable us to date the construction of the monument either typologically or using radiocarbon dating techniques. We also hope to determine whether there are any other structural features such as pits or postholes within the confines of the monument that may predate its construction. One of the most interesting elements of the site that we want to investigate is whether the stone rows were originally laid out in straight lines (as suggested by Thom) or whether the lines were as wiggly as they now appear to be. Thom argued that the wobbly appearance of the stone rows was a result of soil movement over the millennia since their construction, but we are not entirely happy with this suggestion. Investigation of the original design of the site will help to establish whether the astronomical alignments proposed by Thom and others are tenable.

North Yarrows lithic scatter

In conjunction with the excavations at Battle Moss we will be undertaking a small scale test-pitting survey of a significant lithic scatter in the fields adjacent to the stone rows. This scatter was identified in 2002 by a team of local fieldwalking volunteers working under the guidance of the Caithness Fieldwalking Project (a project led by Amelia and Andrew). The lithic material from this area is very interesting, containing tools diagnostic of the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods, and is one of the largest scatters so far identified in Caithness. Geophysics was also carried out in this area in June 2003, although it failed to produce any significant results. Nevertheless, we will be digging a number of 1m x 1m test pits in and around the scatter to see if we can locate any occupation features, ie. pits, post holes, hearths etc. This will build on the work started at the Mesolithic site at Oliclett in 2001 and 2002, and will hopefully provide more details about the domestic occupation of the Yarrows basin.

Site visits and open days

We will be working every day except Sundays and would welcome visitors between 10am and 4pm – the students working on the site will be available to provide guided tours. We will also be holding an open day (to be publicised in the local press and on this website). We would welcome anyone interested in working on the excavation, full training will be given! If you would like to volunteer please contact Islay MacLeod at Thrumster House on (01955) 651387