Category Archives: SCOTLAND

Unique Medieval Vessel Restored in Scotland

Unique Medieval Vessel Restored in Scotland

When the Galloway hoard was unearthed from a ploughed field in western Scotland in 2014, it offered the richest collection of Viking-age objects ever found in Britain or Ireland. But one of the artefacts paled in comparison with treasures such as a gold bird-shaped pin and a silver-gilt vessel because it was within a pouch that was mangled and misshapen after almost 1,000 years in the ground.

Now that pouch has been removed and its contents restored, revealing an extraordinary Roman rock crystal jar wrapped in exquisite layers of gold thread by the finest medieval craftsman in the late eighth or early ninth century. About 5cm high, it may once have held a perfume or other prized potion used to anoint kings, or in religious ceremonies. It had been carefully wrapped in a silk-lined leather pouch, reflecting its significance.

The hoard, which included about 100 objects, was buried around AD900 and contained artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Ireland and as far away as Asia. It was unearthed by a metal detectorist on what is now Church of Scotland land in Kirkcudbrightshire.

The rock crystal jar was part of the Galloway hoard, unearthed in Kirkcudbrightshire in 2014.

After a fundraising campaign to raise £2m, it was acquired by National Museums Scotland in 2017.

Dr Martin Goldberg, NMS’s principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections, described the jar as “really beautiful” and all the more exceptional because his research has led him to conclude that the rock crystal carving was in fact, Roman. It was perhaps 600 years old by the time it was transformed into a gold-wrapped jar.

He said: “So it’s a really surprising and unique object.”

Dr Leslie Webster, former keeper of Britain, prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, said: “Rock crystal is unusual in itself. It … was greatly prized in the antique world for its transparency and translucency, and so it’s associated with purity. So it was, I think even in its time, very, very special.

“I’ve seen a lot of Anglo-Saxon finds over the years in my professional career, some of them amazing. But this absolutely knocks them all into a cocked hat.”

The base of the rock crystal jar.

The restoration has revealed an unexpected Latin inscription on the jar’s base. Spelt out in gold letters, it translates as “Bishop Hyguald had me made”. This is crucial evidence that some of the hoard’s material may have come from a church in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which included Dumfries and Galloway and stretched as far north as Edinburgh and as far south as Sheffield.

At the start of the 10th century, Alfred the Great was pushing back the Danes, laying the foundations of medieval England and Alba, the kingdom that became medieval Scotland. It is unclear whether the hoard was buried by a Viking – Norse sagas refer to riches being buried to be accessed in the afterlife – or someone fearing Viking raids at a time when ecclesiastical treasures were being robbed from monasteries.

Goldberg said that silk was then a particularly luxurious and exotic material: “It’s come from Asia, so it’s travelled thousands of miles. It’s an example of how precious they thought this object inside was,” he said.

Although Bishop Hyguald may have been a prominent figure in Northumbrian ecclesiastical circles, church chronicles of the period are incomplete, partly because of the Viking invasions.

Goldberg expressed excitement at finding the name. “So much of the past is anonymous, especially when you’re looking at very early history,” he said. “There are very few names to work with. But this is adding new information, building a much richer picture.”

The rock crystal design resembles the capital of a Corinthian column, with carved lobes that look like foliage, he realised. “It’s almost a perfect model of a Corinthian column, but the scale is minute,” he said.

There is the possibility that this jar still bears trace elements of the potion it once held and that its precise chemicals can be revealed.

Goldberg said: “The type of liquid that we would expect would be something very exotic, perhaps a perfume from the Orient, something’s that’s travelled in the same way that the silk has. There were certain types of exotic oil that were used in anointing kings and ecclesiastical ceremonies.”

Ninety-seven of the hoard’s artefacts are included in a touring exhibition, titled The Galloway hoard: Viking-age treasure. It is at Kirkcudbright Galleries, near the site of its discovery, until 10 July, transferring to Aberdeen Art Gallery from 30 July to 23 October. The jar is undergoing final work but, from Monday, a new film and digital model will be featured.

Viking sword discovered on Papa Westray, Orkney has ‘many stories to tell’

Viking sword discovered on Papa Westray, Orkney has ‘many stories to tell’

A Viking sword found at a burial site in Orkney is a rare, exciting and complex artefact, say archaeologists. The find, made in 2015 on the northeast coast of Papa Westray, is being carefully examined as part of post-excavation work.

The sword was found at a Viking burial site on Papa Westray, Orkney

Archaeologists have now identified it as a type of heavy sword associated with the 9th Century. The relic is heavily corroded, but x-rays have revealed the sword’s guards to be highly decorated.

Contrasting metals are thought to have been used to create a honeycomb-like pattern.

Archaeologists examining the weapon said it had “many stories to tell”.

The remains of a scabbard, a sheath for the blade, was also found.

AOC Archaeology’s Andrew Morrison, Caroline Paterson and Dr Stephen Harrison suggested there was more information still to be gleaned from the finds.

The sword’s upper and lower guards are highly decorated

In a statement, the team said: “To preserve as much evidence as possible, we lifted the whole sword and its surrounding soil in a block to be transported to the lab and forensically excavated there.

“It’s so fragile we don’t even know what the underside looks like yet, so our understanding is sure to change in the coming months.

“The iron in the sword has heavily corroded, with many of the striking details only visible through x-ray.”

The excavations at Mayback revealed a number of finds, including evidence of a rare Viking boat burial, and a second grave with weapons, including the sword.

Archaeologists said the graves maybe those of first-generation Norwegian settlers on Orkney.

AOC Archaeology has been working with Historic Environment Scotland on the research.

Excavation planned along the river after 1200 prehistoric tools found in Scotland

Excavation planned along the river after 1200 prehistoric tools found in Scotland

A river in Aberdeenshire has yielded more than 1,200 Mesolithic tools. The flints, which were discovered by researchers and volunteers just three days ago, were used by people who had lived along the Dee 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Finds include a broken piece of a hammer-shaped object called a mace head.

Archaeology group Mesolithic Deeside now hopes to uncover more clues to prehistoric life at the site at Milton of Crathes.

It has organised a week-long excavation from 11-14 November.

Flints, pieces of worked stone, have been found at Milton of Crathes in the past.

A broken piece of a mace head has been among the finds at the site

The tools are thought to have been used as scrapers for turning raw animal hide into clothing, and as blades for cutting.


Mesolithic Deeside co-secretary Sheila Duthie said: “When I started finding flints over 20 years ago, I could never have imagined contributing to such a massive project which is, without doubt, broadening our understanding of prehistoric human activity on Deeside.”

“My ideal pastime is footerin’ in flat fields with fine folk finding flints, fair or foul.”

Flints are worked pieces of stone and are thought to have been used for scraping and cutting

Archaeologists stunned by 5,000-year-old ‘Scottish Pompeii’ settlement

Archaeologists stunned by 5,000-year-old ‘Scottish Pompeii’ settlement

Duncansby Head lighthouse marks the most northeasterly point of the British mainland. It’s almost 880 miles from Land’s End in the southwest of England. Just beyond here are the Orkney islands, over 70 of them, many of which hold ancient secrets.

While 20 of the islands are inhabited, most of the population of about 22,000, live on the largest one known as the Mainland.

Orkney’s history goes back thousands of years ago — around 6,000, it is believed.

It was here that the people of the Neolithic era — the New Stone Age — settled on Orkney.

The remnants of their vibrant culture remain scattered across the archipelago and were explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Aerial Britain: Scotland‘.

Archaeologists stunned by 5,000-year-old 'Scottish Pompeii' settlement
Archaeology: Skara Brae has stunned researchers, it is described as the ‘Scottish Pompeii’

Skara Brae on the Mainland’s west coast has attracted particular attraction, as the documentary’s narrator noted: “It’s a 5,000-year-old settlement that has been called the Scottish Pompeii.”

An incredible window into the lives of the ancient people who once lived there, it was only discovered in 1850 when a severe storm stripped the earth from the site.

Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, each house shares the same basic design — a single large room fitted with stone-built cupboards, dressers and beds, all laid out around a square hearth.

Here, the inhabitants would gather around the fire during Orkney’s long and dark winters.

The Broch of Gurness, also on the Mainland, is a later settlement dating from around 500 BC.

At its centre is a brooch or stone tower.

It would probably only originally have reached a height of around 30 feet and was most likely inhabited by the principal family or clan of the area.

The narrator said: “The entire settlement may have been home to as many as 40 families.”

Three Phases of Wooden Wagon Way Uncovered in Scotland

Three Phases of Wooden Wagon Way Uncovered in Scotland

BBC News reports that three layers of wooden tracks constructed for the horse-drawn Tranent Waggonway have been uncovered in East Lothian by researchers from the 1722 Waggonway Project.

Three Phases of Wooden Wagon Way Uncovered in Scotland
The 1722 Waggonway Project said the early railway was unique in archaeology

The Tranent Waggonway in East Lothian was first constructed in 1722.

It was initially built for hauling coal from a pit at Tranent to Cockenzie and Port Seton for use as fuel in a process for making salt.

New archaeological excavations have revealed three wooden railways, each one laid immediately on top of the last.

The 1722 Waggonway Project said it appeared to have been an attempt to upgrade the railway with “crudely cut timbers” over a short period of time.

The gauge – the distance between the two rails – was also changed from an initial 3ft 3in (about one metre) in the first phase to 4ft (1.2m) in the second and third phases.

The project team said there was no other site like it in railway archaeology.

Its research has identified the three phases of upgrades happening between 1722-25, 1728-30 and 1743-44.

The second phase was described as “extremely well constructed”, with cobbles laid to form a track between the rails for the horses that pulled the waggons.

The new excavations were done this year

Railway historian Anthony Leslie Dawson said: “Whilst we know these railways had a limited lifespan due to their method of construction, to see this process of continual replacement and upgrade – including a change of gauge – in the archaeological record is outstanding.

“The waggonway excavation has shown that these waggonways are far more complex than the single-phase structures previously excavated, and the survival of timber on-site including joints helps us further understand the construction of these early railways.”

The project’s archaeologists also excavated a salt pan building in Cockenzie, and discovered evidence of use of the site in the production of salt lasted from 1630 to about 1780.

Mysterious stone balls made 5,500 years ago were discovered on the island’s ancient tomb

Mysterious stone balls made 5,500 years ago were discovered on the island’s ancient tomb

Mysterious stone balls made 5,500 years ago were discovered on the island's ancient tomb
One of the polished stone balls was found in a Neolithic tomb on Tresness in the Orkney Islands. Hundreds of such balls have been found but no one knows what they were used for.

Two polished stone balls shaped about 5,500 years ago — linked to a mysterious practice almost unique to Neolithic Britain — have been discovered in an ancient tomb on the island of Sanday, in the Orkney Islands north of mainland Scotland.

Hundreds of similar stone balls, each about the size of a baseball, have been found at Neolithic sites mainly in Scotland and the Orkney Islands, but also in England, Ireland and Norway, Live Science previously reported.

Some are ornately carved — such as the famous Towie ball discovered in northeast Scotland in 1860 — but others are studded with projections or smoothly polished.

Early researchers suggested that the balls were used as weapons, and so they were sometimes called “mace heads” as a result. Another idea is that rope could have been wound around the lobes carved into some of the balls to throw them.

Archaeologists Reveal Medieval Saint’s Hut on Scottish Island
Archaeologists have found evidence that the remains of a hut on the island of Iona date to the late sixth century A.D., the exact period when Saint Columba lived and worked at the site. Credit: University of Glasgow.

But most archaeologists now think the stone balls were made mainly for artistic purposes, perhaps to signify a person’s status in their community or to commemorate an important phase of their lives, said archaeologist Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire in England, who led the excavations of the tomb on Sanday.

The two stone balls found at the tomb near the beach at Tresness on Sanday — one made of black stone and the other of lighter-coloured limestone — are very early examples of such objects and were smoothly polished, rather than being carved like the Towie ball. Carving balls tended to happen later in the Neolithic period, she said, while polishing balls was generally an earlier practice.

The two polished balls “are much simpler, but they are still beautiful objects,” Cummings told Live Science. “They would have taken quite a long time to make because it is quite time-consuming to polish a stone … You’ve got to sit there with some sand and some water and a stone, and basically put the work in.”

Neolithic tomb

The tomb was built about 5,500 years ago when the coast was much further away. It’s now in danger of being damaged by a storm.

This is one of the few times that stone balls have been found in their true archaeological context, Cummings said, which could shed light on the purpose of the mysterious objects. Each of the balls was found in the corners of two different compartments used to inter human remains in the burial chamber of the tomb, while other objects — especially pieces of pottery — were found along the compartment walls.

“Probably what was happening was that people were putting little slabs down and putting pots on top of these slabs,” Cummings said. “They really seemed to be interested in the walls and the corners.”

Inside the tomb, archeologists also found a deposit of cremated human bones near the entrances of two of the five compartments in the burial chamber, as well as several “scale knives,” which were made by breaking beach pebbles into flakes that had a sharp edge.

“You can use it as a really good butchery tool — and we found tons of those in the [tomb], which is really surprising. And that begs the question of what they [the makers] were up to,” Cummings said.

People may have used knives to separate the flesh from the bones of the dead. “It might suggest they were manipulating the human remains that were placed in the chamber — there are many traditions and lots of examples of that,” she said.

Ancient islands

The Orkney Islands are beyond the very northernmost tip of mainland Scotland. They are dotted with archaeological sites, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site, called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney around the Ness of Brodgar complex and the Neolithic village at Skara Brae, which suggests the islands were well-populated about 5,000 years ago. 

“The Orkney Islands might seem remote when you look at a map, but when you come here you see they are incredibly rich agricultural land that’s very easy to work,” Cummings said. “I think Neolithic people got here and were really successful — they found an environment that they just thrived in.”

The excavations on Sanday have been a joint effort between the University of Central Lancashire team, led by Cummings, and archaeologists from the National Museums Scotland led by Hugo Anderson-Whymark. The ancient tomb is near the coast and is vulnerable to being disturbed by a storm at sea, so the researchers are trying to find out as much as possible before the site is damaged, Cummings said.

The tomb and a Neolithic settlement they’ve excavated about a mile (1.6 kilometres) away would have been farther from the coast about 5,500 years ago, and the landscape would have had more trees than it does now, she said.

Although the tomb was investigated in the 1980s, only superficial excavations were made that didn’t reveal its old age. During the latest excavations, which took about four years to conclude, the researchers applied the latest archaeological techniques to the tomb, including making a three-dimensional photogrammetric model of it, Cummings said.

The archaeologists will now conduct analyses of the data gathered during the excavations, she said, which hopefully will provide even more information about the Neolithic people of the islands.

Scientists Reconstruct First-evolved Plant Roots Using 400-million-year-old Fossil

Scientists Reconstruct First-evolved Plant Roots Using 400-million-year-old Fossil

A plant fossil from a geological formation in Scotland sheds light on the development of the earliest known form of roots. A team led by researchers at GMI – the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Oxford realize the first 3D reconstruction of a Devonian plant-based exclusively on fossil evidence.

Artist’s reconstruction of what Asteroxylon mackiei would have looked like in life. Each leafy shoot is roughly 1 cm in diameter.
Artist’s reconstruction of what Asteroxylon mackiei would have looked like in life. Each leafy shoot is roughly 1 cm in diameter.

The findings demonstrate that the appearance of different axis types at branching points resulted in the evolution complexity soon after land plants evolved sometime before 400 million years ago. The results are published in eLife.

New research demonstrates how the oldest known root axed developed more than 400 million years ago. The evolution of roots at this time was a dramatic event that impacted our planet and atmosphere and resulted in transformative ecological and climate change.

3D reconstruction of Asteroxylon mackiei made from digitally re-assembling thin slices of rock. The reconstruction shows the highly branched leafy shoot in green and the rooting system in blue and purple. 3D scale bar 1 x 0.1 x 0.1 cm

The first evidence-based 3D reconstruction of the fossil Asteroxylon mackiei, the most structurally complex plant from the Rhynie chert has shown how roots and other types of axes developed in this ancient plant. The fossil is preserved in chert (a type of flint) found near the village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

The specimens are exceptionally well-preserved in the 407-million-year-old rocks from the Early Devonian period.

The extinct genus Asteroxylon belongs to the group of plants called the lycophytes, a class that also comprises living representatives such as isoetes and selaginella.

The reconstruction has allowed researchers, for the first time, to glean both anatomical and developmental information of this mysterious fossil. This is of particular significance because previous interpretations of the structure of this fossil plant were based to a large extent on comparisons of fragmentary images with extant plants.

A thin slice of the 407 million-year-old Rhynie chert mounted on a glass slide showing the amazing preservation of fossil plants preserved within. Specimen number 4178 in the paleobotanical collection at the University of Münster, Germany. Each interval on the scale bar is 1 mm.

The reconstruction demonstrates that these plants developed roots in an entirely different way than extant plants develop roots today. The rooting axes of A. mackiei are the earliest known types of plant roots.

“These are the oldest known structures that resemble modern roots and now we know how they formed. They developed when a shoot-like axis formed a fork where one prong maintained its shoot identity and the second developed root identity,” says Dolan.

This mechanism of branching, called “dichotomous branching,” is known in living plants within tissues that share structural identity. However, as Dolan stresses: “No roots develop in this way in living plants, demonstrating that this mechanism of root formation is now extinct.” Their findings demonstrate how a now extinct rooting system developed during the evolution of the first complex land plant.

View over the village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The fossil deposit known as the Rhynie chert is named after the village of Rhynie where it was first discovered just over a century ago

“100 Years after the discovery of the fossils in Rhynie, our reconstruction demonstrates what these enigmatic plants really looked like! The reconstruction also demonstrates how the roots formed” exclaims GMI group leader Liam Dolan, co-corresponding author on the work.

Understanding the structure and evolution of these plants from the Early Devonian period provides us with an insight into events at a key time in Earth history just after plants colonized the dry surfaces of the continents as they began to spread – radiate – across the land.

“Their evolution, radiation, and spread across all continents had a dramatic impact on the Earth system. Plant roots reduced atmospheric CO2 levels, stabilized the soil and revolutionized water circulation across the surfaces of continents,” states first author and co-corresponding author Alexander (Sandy) J. Hetherington, group leader at the University of Edinburgh. At the root of the environmental and ecological impact of the plant, evolution are the plant roots themselves!

Hetherington highlighted how his research was enabled by fossils that were collected by generations of palaeontologists that are housed in many different museums and universities.

“The answers to so many of the key questions of evolution are lying in shelves in these institutions,” said the scientist who is now based at the University of Edinburgh. “Using digital 3D techniques it is possible for the first time to visualize the complex body plan of A. mackiei allowing us to discover how these enigmatic plants developed. It was brilliant to finally see details that had previously been hidden.”

5,000-Year-Old Wood Uncovered at Scotland’s Ness of Brodgar

5,000-Year-Old Wood Uncovered at Scotland’s Ness of Brodgar

Over the years of excavation, the Ness has produced so many surprises that some archaeologists thought we had exhausted all the possibilities.

Not so! 

Today we have yet another “first” as of Jan and Jo, working in Structure Twelve, and in the area to the east of the southern hearth, found Neolithic wood!

To be precise, this astonishing new discovery is in the vicinity of robbed-out orthostats close to the grand eastern entrance, which regular readers will remember is flanked and made special by two large external orthostats.

The wood is contained in two post-holes, but these are unusual ones and quite different to the many small, roundish stake-holes in Structure Twelve’s floor – the most recent of which were discovered by Gianluca yesterday.

5,000-Year-Old Wood Uncovered at Scotland’s Ness of Brodgar
The two Structure Twelve post-holes with wood remaining. (Sigurd Towrie)

To the astonishment of Jan and Jo, the new post-holes are rectangular – indeed one is almost square – and at around 5 cm and 10cm wide, they are noticeably bigger than the stake-holes that represent cooking arrangements throughout the building.

Their unusual shape is likely to come from the way in which the wood was prepared, most probably being split radially and thus having a rectangular profile. Site director Nick thinks they may have been replacements for an orthostatic division that had provided a screen relating to the east entrance in the second phase of Structure Twelve’s life.

The wood is not in good condition, which is hardly surprising after thousands of years in the ground. It is, however, in a slight dip in the floor which may have allowed moisture to be present, thus preserving the material. As it is far too mushy to be lifted there are ongoing discussions as to the next move.

Jan, Jo and supervisor Clare photograph the post-holes discovered in Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)

The aim is to recover it in a manner that might allow identification of the type of wood present. It might also be possible to see if the wooden stakes had been sharpened before being driven into the floor.

The post-holes could be half-sectioned, which might allow a view helping identification. Alternatively, micromorphological Jo may be able to insert one of her Kubiena tins (little open-ended square tins) to retrieve material.

We will let you know what happens.

Planning is underway in the northern end of Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)
The not-quite-finished result. (Sigurd Towrie)

Elsewhere in Structure Twelve, Sigurd is now planning his area of the north end and we have welcomed back Jenna and Andy Boyar, who has replaced Chris working outside the blocked north-west entrance.  We wish safe travels to Chris and his wife, Jenny, and look forward to seeing them again next year.

In Structure Ten, Travis has been transferred from Trench J to give him a change of scenery and some new challenges as he works towards his archaeology diploma.

He has taken over the area where Ellen was removing the last of the black deposit over the yellow clay floor in the northern recess. Travis will complete the task.

This was also Holly’s last day in Structure Ten, but we have no doubt that she will be back in the future. In Trench J, and as mentioned yesterday, Michaela has continued to remove dumps inside the blocked south-east entrance of Structure Five and this will put us in a position to remove more of the stone blocking.

Chris and Ceiridwen in Structure Thirty-Two following the discovery of a pottery spread. (Sigurd Towrie)

Also in Trench J, but this time in Structure Thirty-Two, Ceiridwen and Ray are uncovering a large pottery spread. The pot appears to be fairly fragmented so they are progressing with the utmost care. It is unlikely that this pot will be lifted until next week, so we will let you know what happens.

Speaking of pot, Roy has been working on the early round-bottomed vessel from Structure Five, which we mentioned earlier in the week.

Much of the pot was covered in clinging, and rapidly hardening, midden material but careful cleaning has revealed several more sherds, all with the distinguishing striation marks on the exterior surface made by the potter’s finishing process.

In addition, the two main sherds can now be seen to join, as can three other sherds which seem to be from the pot rim.

More may yet be discovered and, once more, we will let you know.

We were visited today by a film crew from Caledonia Productions in Glasgow.

They are doing preparatory work for a full-scale documentary next year and interviewed Nick, Mark, Clare and Gianluca.