Friday, 8 August 2014

Huge Neolithic Structure at Swordle

Archaeologists from the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project (ATP) will be packing their trowels today after another highly successful and very exciting season at Swordle Bay.  They've been here for three weeks and, during that time, have given a public talk, held two open days, hosted local people at the dig, and excavated the largest area ever, doing work on a complex Neolithic cairn structure and two Bronze Age cist burials.

Picture shows Swordle Bay from the southeast, with the area of the dig in the centre.

The main areas of work have been:
1. The Bronze Age burial cist under Ricky's Cairn;
2. The Neolithic tomb of Cladh Andreis;
3. The 'tail' of Cladh Andreis, a mound of rocks some 60m long; and
4. A small Bronze Age cist cut into the side of the 'tail'.

As reported in the Diary, here, Professor John Robb of Cambridge University removed human bones from the cist under Ricky's Cairn, but they came from at least two bodies, not one as reported.  While these have gone away for detailed analysis, ATP's Paul Murtagh has been carefully removing the stones that formed the cist - they're behind him to the left - and has found more bone material along with a beautiful Bronze Age jet bead, probably from Whitby, the fourth to come from this site.

This picture shows the completed work on the Cladh Andreis chambered cairn.  The archaeology revealed by the team is extremely complex but, in brief, consists of a long, rectangular stone-lined burial chamber with stone covers dated to 5,700 years ago which contained numerous fragments of human bone.  It was later re-used as a burial area by Bronze Age Beaker people and, later again, by the Vikings, though their purpose isn't clear.  Sadly for the ATP, the site was subsequently dug into, perhaps in Victorian times, and damaged.

Running roughly north-northeast from Cladh Andreis is a 'tail' composed of lumps of rock.  While to the untrained eye this may look like a pile of rubble, the archaeologists have good evidence that the NNE end (seen here) may hide a second circular Neolithic tomb, earlier or later than Cladh Andreis, which was subsequently joined to Cladh Andreis to make this huge structure.  It too has later been reworked, and there are signs of possible use as a dwelling and a kiln.

The scale of the structure is impressive.  Bearing in mind that this is a good millennium older than Egypt's pyramids, it's an immense undertaking, and indicates that the people who constructed it were both socially advanced and highly organised.

Set into the side of the tail is this small cist burial containing fragments of bone which will go away for further study.  While we have to await dates, Bronze Age burials set into Neolithic tombs are common, and indicate that, over thousands of years, this part of Ardnamurchan had considerable significance.

A great deal more remains to be done, but the ATP team is going home with the knowledge that they have revealed much more about a fascinating and hitherto unknown period of west coast Scotland's ancient history.

The ATP website is here.

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