Tarradale Through Time Blog


by Eric Grant - 13:32 on 22 August 2018

This is a repost with permission of an article that originally appeared in the July/ August 2018 edition of History Scotland magazine.

Recent archaeological discoveries on the Black Isle are rewriting the early prehistory of northern Scotland. Members of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society have been very active in field walking and survey work in the Tarradale area, and particularly in fields occupying raised shorelines (former estuarine terraces and beaches) east of Muir of Ord near the head of the Beauly Firth. Significant finds have been made from field walking including a wide range of flint artefacts, fragments of both stone and bronze axes as well as shards of prehistoric and medieval pottery.

Above: Flint flakes and debitage found by fieldwalking​

Above: Neolithic and bronze age arrowheads

These finds have produced a great deal of data which has been spatially recorded and the patterns emerging from mapping and analysis, along with crop mark evidence from aerial photography, point to a rich multiperiod archaeological heritage in the area. A number of potential archaeological sites has been identified, but because most of the area is good quality agricultural land that is intensively cultivated there are few identifiable remains on the surface, but selective test pitting over the last few years indicates good survival of remains underneath the plough soil. This encouraged the North of Scotland Archaeological Society to initiate a three-year project TARRADALE THROUGH TIME: community archaeology in the Highlands and to apply for funding for a more detailed investigation  of some of the identified sites. From the beginning the project has engaged with the local community in order to widen access to heritage and to underline the premise that archaeology belongs to the community and not just to the archaeologists who explore it.

Bringing the Mesolithic to the Black Isle

Although there is an increasing number of excavated sites and radiocarbon dates for the Mesolithic in Scotland they are heavily weighted to the west coast with only a few excavated sites on the east. Until the Tarradale project, there were no dated Mesolithic sites discovered in the Black Isle. A cumulative distribution map of the project’s lithic finds from Tarradale (flint, chert, quartz and similar raw materials) for all periods shows a distinct concentration near the northern edge of the inner Beauly Firth and field walking also found evidence of at least seven shell midden sites within the same area. All the shell middens are located on the edge of just above former shorelines which are now up to 250 m inland due to changing land and sea levels since the end of the ice age.

Above: Distribution of fieldwalking lithic finds and shell middens

Test pits in 2011 and 2015

A small test pit excavation on the site of one of the shell middens in 2011 found charcoal and antler that have been radiocarbon dated to 6600-6000 BCE, the earliest securely dated archaeological sites in the Black Isle. The shell midden providing this evidence is located at a height of about 20 m OD and lies on the edge of a small promontory that represents the degraded slope between two raised shorelines. The extensive nature of the shell midden suggests that Mesolithic hunters and gatherers lived there on a seasonal or permanent basis for some considerable time, exploiting local resources of shellfish, deer and edible plants. Until this shell midden was investigated, the nearest dated evidence for Mesolithic activity was on the south side of the Moray Firth at Castle Street in Inverness, where an excavation in the 1980s yielded calibrated dates suggesting occupation between 6500 and 5700 BC, and thus broadly compatible with the first Tarradale dates, although the Castle Street Mesolithic layers were located at around 9m OD, rather lower than the Tarradale shell midden.

Above: Members of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society excavating a test pit at a shell midden site revealed by ploughing

In 2015, further test pits located another shell midden about 500 m further east, also on a raised shoreline at the northern edge of the Beauly Firth and adjacent to the grounds of Tarradale House. Radiocarbon dating of birch charcoal and antler from this shell midden gave dates between 4460- and 4050 BCE.

These dates are 2000 years later than the dates (approx. 6600 to 6000 cal BC) obtained from the  previously excavated shell midden to the west, suggesting that Mesolithic occupation and exploitation in the area continued for a very long period or possibly that there were two or more separate periods of Mesolithic activity. Interestingly this second site was at a height of about 9 m OD and thus lower than the earlier shell midden, showing that different landscape units were exploited depending on the relative sea level at any one time. The surviving animal bones from this later site, indicate exploitation of cattle, red deer, pig, horse, seal and sheep (or goat or roe deer). The bird bones included guillemot (or razorbill) and gannet. The Mesolithic diet also included bony fish such as saithe, cod, herring place and goby. It is considered that the fish remains are evidence of fishing from inshore shallow waters, or by boats very close to inshore, although pre-Iron Age evidence of exploitation of herring is apparently unusual in Scotland. A wide range of mollusc shells was identified, all likely sourced from the Beauly Firth or nearby. The carbonised plant remains represented a range of trees, with alder, birch, hazel, oak, ash, Scots pine type, elm and willow all present.  There were also some fragments of carbonised hazel nutshell.  The plant remains recovered from this site are consistent with the types of trees that would have been available in the local woodlands throughout much of the Holocene period.  However, the wide range of tree types that have been used as domestic fuel (particularly oak and elm) is considered more indicative of an earlier prehistoric date when the local woodlands would still have been relatively undisturbed. 

Shell midden excavations - October 2017

These finds from small-scale test pits and trenches indicated the potential for larger scale excavations particularly as the 2015 shell midden excavation had located stone structures underneath the midden. It was decided to extend this trench into a full-scale excavation forming one of the components of the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project. In October 2017 this site was excavated more fully, along with a series of test pits and trenches at another promontory, 350 m further east and where field walking had again suggested the presence of shell middens. As it turned out, the 2017 investigations were to produce the kind of results that archaeologists sometimes dream about.

The 2017 excavation extended the 2015 trench for some metres to the west and inland towards the base of the steep bank marking the rise to the next highest raised shoreline. The shell midden layers were investigated by area excavation using a grid system for the recovery of small finds and wet-sieving and flotation of samples. Hand-retrieved material included frequent fragments of worked and unworked animal bone, tooth and antler, some struck quartz flakes and a few pieces of struck flint. A number of possible stone settings indicate that structural evidence may be preserved on the site. This site was accessible to the general public and at an open day visitors were enthralled to see archaeology in action when a rare antler T-axe was discovered near the top of the shell midden. This was excitement enough, but a few days later a second antler T-axe was discovered, though in more fragmentary conditioned compared with the relatively well preserved earlier T-axe.

Above: Two views of antler T-axe (before conservation) showing shaft hole and cutting edge at left hand side

Antler T-axes are rare anywhere in Scotland and to find two on one site was exciting enough but close to where the second T-axe was discovered a fragment of a biserial barbed antler point (i.e. a spear or harpoon) was uncovered. Finding an antler harpoon within a Mesolithic shell midden was a eureka moment for the excavator and created a sense of euphoria among the rest of the excavators. Further discoveries included many pieces of animal bone (some of which may be artefacts such as pins while others are mainly fragmentary food wastes) and pieces of broken antler, including a handle manufactured from a red deer antler tine. Significant quantities of charcoal and fish bones were retrieved from wet sieving and flotation, which we expect to extend the range of species identified in 2015 once post-excavation analysis has been completed. The organic materials that will be used to date this deposit are currently being analysed and selected but it expected that the shell midden, including the antler T-axes and the harpoon, will be dated to the later fifth millennium BCE.

Above: Part of a biserial barbed projectile (ie a harpoon or spear) before conservation

The finding of two T-axes is a major addition to prehistoric material culture as only three identified T-axes are currently known from Scotland, all from central or western Scotland. These finds indicate that the Tarradale Mesolithic site is of considerable significance not only in Scotland but within the British Isles and Europe. The addition of these two further T-axes to the Scottish inventory changes the finds map of T-axes by bringing northern Scotland into a distribution that extends from eastern Europe through central Europe, the low countries and Denmark to Scotland.

A parallel excavation also took place in 2017 at a small and now inland promontory facing the Beauly Firth, approximately 350m to the east.  Excavations here showed clear survival of shell middens on the raised shoreline forming the top of the promontory and also on the raised shoreline at the base of the promontory, (c 17 and 9m OD respectively). On top of the promontory, test pits uncovered a shell midden up to 20cm thick at the southeast end.  Distinctive horizons were observed within the midden suggesting different periods for its formation. A small amount of animal bone and quartz was recovered from this area and a significant deposit of large struck stone flakes and a stone core were found. At the base of the promontory, two trenches examined the lower raised shoreline where extensive shell middens were again revealed, including upper and lower shell midden layers separated by a gravel and cobble interface. The shells consisted of mostly small fragments of mussel, oyster and scallop, with cockles present in the lower layer, and a thick deposit of whole oyster shells. Within the lower shell layer, a thin charcoal and ash layer was thought to represent in situ activity. Small finds comprised mainly worked and unworked mammal bone and antler and several struck quartz flakes.

The relative paucity of lithic finds from both these complexes of sites suggest that the occupants were short of flint and resorted to using quartz and coarse stone, supplemented by artefacts of antler, bone and teeth in lieu of flaked stone tools.

Future investigations

so far three shell midden sites have been identified and excavated all located on former shoreline is on the north side of the Beauly Firth. Several other shell middens are known in the area though some that were originally located on less steep shorelines have been badly destroyed by ploughing. The importance of these significant Mesolithic sites merits further investigation, and particularly the site where the T-axes and the antler spear/harpoon came from, as the midden there was not excavated down to the underlying stone structures or extended inland where there was the suggestion of further buried features. The location of these stone settings suggests the possible presence of some kind of shelter, perhaps a wigwam type of construction with the supporting timbers lodged in the stone settings and the interior roughly cobbled, perhaps by simple redistribution of the stones of the raised beach. This possible structure appears to have been surrounded by the shell midden and on abandonment, the footprint of the inferred shelter had filled up with an approximately circular pad of clay and silt, presumably washed down from the relict shoreline above and filling the depression vacated by the structure. This interpretation should be seen as no more than speculative at the present time and it is hoped that further investigations will lead to a more detailed interpretation of what will almost certainly become one of the most important Mesolithic sites in northern Scotland.

Above: Excavation of shell midden showing stone settings and partly excavated clay/silt pad in foreground that may mark the site of a habitation

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