Thursday, 23 July 2015

Ardnamurchan Transitions Team at Swordle

The archaeologists of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project have been in residence at Swordle Farm for about ten days now, and this year's dig is beginning to produce some exciting results. Not that things have been plain sailing for them: the students in these tents were given a very hard time last Friday when we had an unusually unpleasant gale: while only one of the tents was actually blown away, but several people had to take refuge in the buildings.

They're working in two areas this year. This is the site of the clachan of Swordle Huel, where Helena Gray is leading the excavation of one of the houses. As so often happens here, the site has probably seen more than one phase of occupation, with a thumbnail scraper and quartz core with a worked flake indicating that it may have been occupied as early as Mesolithic times.

The trench they've dug cuts into one end of the house. A beautifully build house wall is at centre with, at left, a younger but much less well-built wall, perhaps part of a small byre. The house itself we can date very accurately, to 1848 when the tenants were required by their landlord to rebuild their houses in stone to very high specifications - yet they were cleared from the area in 1853. This is described in the Diary's 'History of Swordle' - link here.

On the inside of the wall is a very fine fireplace, but no metal grate, suggesting that this was removed and taken with them when the occupants were cleared. The quality of the dressing of the stone is witness to the amount of effort and money that must have gone into the construction of this house.

The artefacts found in the house are all 19th century. While some of the interior was covered with flagstones, most is of mud, suggesting, again, that the floor may have been removed before the house was abandoned. There is a also some evidence that this building may have been lived in later than the others. Perhaps, when the clachan was cleared, its occupant stayed on to work for the farmer who tenanted the sheep run.

The detail of the records kept by the excavators is impressive. This plan is just one of several drawings that have been made, and it shows the house wall at middle left, with the fireplace marked, and the younger wall at centre right. All this material is added to that of previous years, so the team is building up an impressive fund of information about this area.

This is Dun Murchain, a steep-sided ridge of rock which protrudes into the sea about a mile to the west of Swordle. The team last spent a season on top of the ridge in 2012, when they showed that the summit was used in the smelting of iron. What they have proved this year is that this was done on an almost industrial scale.

There are five small excavations along the ridge. The first three are close together. The one on the left has provided evidence of use before the Iron Age, so this site is even older than they had expected. The centre one has a rounded 'cairn' structure similar to the one they found last time, and a cobbled floor area. But the one of the right is most interesting, as it shows that, within it, iron was being worked. There is evidence of iron ore being pounded up - they have found some 16 hammer stones - and of it being stored here, perhaps to be moved up to the next site for working.

This is an example of one of the hammer stones. The type of rock selected seems to vary, suggesting that more than one process may have been going on here.

The fourth site is the most spectacular. It is surrounded by a stone wall - clearly visible on the far side of the excavation - which was probably raised by the use of peat blocks, within which they have found masses of charcoal and iron ore. At the far side from where this picture was taken can be seen a gap in the wall which was a door, facing towards the summer setting sun. Most of the main finds, which include crude pottery and a slag material, were found in this area, as if the occupants swept the floor and pushed the waste out of the door. There was also a round, flat, paved area, at centre - now removed - very similar to the one found nearby in 2012.

The two experts leading the work here are Paul Murtagh, left, and Olllie Harris. They're seen at the fifth trench, nearest the sea, in the centre of the widest area. Some pottery and charcoal has been found here, showing that the area was in use, but it's not clear yet what happened here.

The picture they have built up is of iron being worked on a large scale - but high on a hill so the fires could have been seen from tens of miles away. In those days, iron smelting was a magical process, a power which was broadcast far and wide. Ardnamurchan, in having this, was a special place.

The team are available again for an open day on Sunday, and will be working at this site all next week.

The success of this project is reflected in an award they won last year - the Archaeology Training Forum's "Training Project of the Year", which is tribute to the success they have had with their students.

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