Category Archives: SCOTLAND

5,000-year-old Neolithic Passage Tomb Studied in Scotland

5,000-year-old Neolithic Passage Tomb Studied in Scotland

The research was carried out at the communally-built dry-stone tombs in Maeshowe, led by Jay van der Reijden, a master student at the University of Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The tombs, referred to as ‘houses for the dead’, showed similar layouts to that of domestic houses.

Ms van der Reijden’s found the side chambers showed inverted architectural designs to give the effect that the chamber is within the underworld.

A new study has revealed that parts of Maeshowe, a 5,000-year-old tomb in Orkney, were built upside down to represent the afterlife.

She said: “I’m delighted that my research, studying the order by which stones have been placed during construction, has been able to reveal novel results and that it is, therefore, able to make a real contribution to the field of archaeology.

“Visualise the wall-stones are like wallpapers, and when you repeatedly hang them upside down in distinct locations patterns become discernible. The swaps include the reversal of multiple architectural features normally placed on the right-hand side being on the left only inside the side chambers.

“The interpretation is that the side chambers are built to be within the netherworld, by the main chamber walls acting as membranes, separating this life and the next, and that the internal walling material is conceived to physically represent the underworld.”

Maeshowe, which is visible for miles around, dates from 2,700 BC and is one of the fascinating ancient monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

The tomb is accessed by a long, narrow passageway which leads into a large central chamber, with three side chambers, where the dead were laid to rest. The chambered tomb is aligned perfectly with the setting sun during the time around the winter solstice when it shines deep into the passageway and illuminates the rear wall of the main chamber.

Visitors to Maeshowe will also see Viking-era graffiti in the central chamber, left by a group of Norsemen who broke into the tomb to take shelter one night during Christmas 1153.

The men were led by Earl Harald through the snow from Stromness to the parish of Firth.

The 30 inscriptions found in Maeshowe, make it one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe and can be viewed by torchlight.

The latest research will be published Cambridge University’s Archaeological Review, which is due out by the end of the year.

Nick Card, excavation director of the Ness of Brodgar, said, “Despite being a focus of attention since its first modern-day entry over 150 years ago, the iconic Maeshowe continues to reveal its secrets through careful and considered study.

This study offers new ways of approaching and understanding the construction and use of not only this monument but has wider implications for the study of Neolithic stone-built monuments and the society that constructed them.”

2,700-year-old Iron Age ‘loch village’ discovered in Scotland

2,700-year-old Iron Age ‘loch village’ discovered in Scotland

During a small-scale dig, archaeologists discovered what was initially believed to be a crannog – a loch shelter, a loch-dwelling often found on the banks of a loch or sited on an artificial island.

Archaeologists at the remains of an extensive iron age ‘loch village’ in Wigtownshire. 

Instead, they discovered at least seven houses built in wetlands around the now in-filled Black Loch of Myrton, near Wigtownshire, in south-west Scotland. Called a “loch village,” this type of site is unique in Scotland and there are few other comparable sites elsewhere in the British Isles.

Similar lake villages have been found in Glastonbury and Meare, both in Somerset, but this is the first loch village to be uncovered in the north of the Border.

Archaeologists at the remains of an extensive iron age ‘loch village’ in Wigtownshire. 

Scotland’s Iron Age began some 2,700 years ago.

The Wigtownshire dig was a pilot excavation of what was thought to be a crannog, under threat by drainage operations.

However, during the excavation over the summer, AOC Archaeology Group – which worked on the dig in conjunction with local volunteers – discovered evidence of multiple structures.

During the dig, which was part-financed with £15,000 from Historic Scotland, archaeologists realized that what appeared to be a small group of mounds was a stone hearth at the center of a roundhouse.

The timber structure of the house has been preserved, with beams radiating out from the hearth, forming the foundation, while the outer wall consisted of a double-circuit of stakes.

Rather than being a single crannog, as first thought, it appears to be a settlement of at least seven houses built around the small loch. Crannogs were probably the centres of prosperous Iron Age farms, where people lived in an easily defended location to protect themselves and their livestock from raiders.

Nancy Hollinrake, who runs an archaeology business with her husband in Glastonbury and who is also on the committee of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, said she was excited by the find.

She explained that although there were hundreds of crannogs in Scotland, this was different.

“It says a lot about the degree of protection they would have needed – having that many crannogs in one area,” she said.

“The industry would have been iron – and they would have been able to get the temperature of a furnace up to a point where they could smelt iron and make glass,” she added.

“There would have been high levels of craftsmanship and exchange of goods.

“They would also have carried out enamelling, bronzework, as well as spinning, weaving and dyeing large amounts of cloth. They decorated braids and played games with dice.”

Graeme Cavers, of AOC Archaeology, who is the co-director of the site, said that because the land was abandoned after the Iron Age, the buildings were well preserved.

“Waterlogged wood also offers the opportunity to date the structure very accurately using dendrochronology – or tree-ring counting – to give a date accurate to within a few years or even months, rather than the decades or centuries usually provided by radiocarbon dating,” he added.

One of Scotland’s great mysteries: the 5,200 years old carved stone balls

One of Scotland’s great mysteries: the 5,200 years old carved stone balls

Scottish carved stone balls are a mysterious class of artefacts, and scientists have been the subject of much speculation by scientists over the years.

In all, more than 500 stone balls were collected, the largest to fit neatly into the palm of the hand. They were designed so that a number of knobs protrude from the surface and some have beautiful, intricate patterns incised onto them.

So elaborate are the carvings that early archaeologists didn’t believe it was possible for them to have been made using flint tools, so they dated them to a later period. But we know they were indeed carved using flint and date back to around 3,200 BC to 2,500 BC, a time when people in Scotland were leaving their lives as hunter-gatherers and settling into life in farming communities.

What were they for?

Although no hard evidence exists to definitively determine their function, many have speculated as to the stones’ purpose.

Some believe that they were part of a weighing system for primitive scales, but others argue that their weights vary too much for that to be practical. They might have been used to weigh down fishing nets, or as bearings to move bigger rocks, but then why would they be carved so elaborately?

Australian author Lynne Kelly has proposed that the stone balls served as “memory devices” that could have been used as mnemonic aids to the oral history of the times, much like Australian Aboriginal cultures used rock art and their surroundings.

Three Scottish examples, in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
Some suggest the carved stone balls were used as weapons.

Others have suggested they were used as weapons — either fixed to a wooden handle or simply thrown. But most of the stones show no signs of the kind of damage you’d expect to see on a weapon.

“It is perhaps best to think of them as ceremonial or stylized weapons,” explains Hugo Anderson-Whymark, curator of National Museums Scotland. “Things that could inflict damage if you wanted to use them, and may in some circumstances have been used that way, but are more likely to be objects which represent the status or power of the individual that held them in that community.”

Prehistoric stone balls in 3D

In an effort to gain more understanding, and make the stones more accessible to the public, Anderson-Whymark has created 3D images of the balls. Using a technique called photogrammetry, Anderson-Whymark took hundreds of 2D images from every angle to create very detailed 3D renderings of 60 carved stone balls.

The images, which have been uploaded online for anyone to see, revealed details of the stone balls that had not previously been visible.
“Actually being able to see them in virtual reality is hugely valuable,” Anderson-Whymark told CNN. “It allows us to see some fine details which we didn’t spot before.

“There’s one of them that has concentric lines on the circles, and no one had ever seen that before and it’s been in our collection for well over 100 years,” he added.

The 3D images also revealed that some of the stones were modified over time, possibly across generations. It’s still unclear what that could mean, but Anderson-Whymark said that at the very least it opens the door to other possibilities about the balls’ purpose and significance to people of that era.

“It’s telling us how they were worked and re-worked over time. It’s allowing us to explore that bigger story of how they were made and how they developed, which is potentially going to tell us more about that bigger theory of how they were used,” Anderson-Whymark said.

Some of the 3D images of the carved stone balls revealed previously unknown details about their design.
Carved stone balls, classed as Neolithic
Many of the balls have not had their discovery site recorded and most are found as a result of agricultural activity.

While a few of the balls have been found in Ireland and northern England (one even travelled to Norway), all the others have been found in Scotland, mostly in Aberdeenshire. Five were found at the remarkably preserved Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland.

National Museums Scotland, in Edinburgh, has the world’s largest collection of these carved stone balls at around 200 (including 60 casts). Perhaps most famous among them is the Towie ball. Found in Aberdeenshire in the 19th century, it features neatly carved circles, spirals and lines on four knobs.

“The Towie carved stone ball is the finest example of a carved stone ball from Scotland and the motifs on it are just absolutely incredible,” Anderson-Whymark said. “The very fine grooves on the surface are about a millimetre across and have all been carved with a flint tool. Incredibly fine, delicate workmanship.”

An enduring enigma

According to the museum, the patterns on the Towie ball are sacred symbols resembling those in a passage grave in Ireland. Anderson-Whymark says the similarities in the design raise interesting questions about the relationships between these locations.

“One thing they show is that there was perhaps a long-distance contact in that period which we don’t always give prehistoric people credit for,” he said.

“Certainly, when we look at Orkney, we see objects which are moving up from around the west coast through the western seaways … The grooved ware (a style of British Neolithic pottery) originates in Orkney and it travels south towards Ireland and into southern Britain as well.
“We’re seeing things, ideas and people moving with them through that time.”

The enigma of the stone balls will endure for now, and while we may never know exactly what they were used for, we can still appreciate them as fine examples of Neolithic art.

600-Year-Old Skeleton found beneath Edinburgh School Playground

600-Year-Old Skeleton found beneath Edinburgh School Playground

A skeleton discovered in a school playground could be that of a 600-year-old pirate, according to archaeologists. City of Edinburgh Council workers found the remains at the city’s oldest primary school while carrying out survey work to build an extension.

Victoria Primary School is close to Newhaven’s harbour, where workers had expected to find remains of the original marina but instead made the gruesome discovery.

Archaeologists have since studied the bones and initially thought they were Bronze Age because they were in such poor condition and found next to 4,000-year-old shards of pottery.

The school, pictured, is the oldest primary in Edinburgh and the discovery came as workers built an extension.
Remains were found at Victoria Primary School, Edinburgh

But during carbon dating, they were found to be from the 16th to 17th centuries.

The skeleton is believed to belong to a man in his fifties – who was probably a criminal. Six hundred years ago Newhaven dockyard was home to a gibbet – commonly used to execute witches and pirates.

Experts think the man could have been killed in the device for criminal behaviour or piracy before his body was dumped in the nearby wasteland.

The condition of his bones and his burial site close to the sea rather than in any of the nearby graveyards suggests that after his execution the man’s body was displayed insight of ships to deter other pirates.

His burial in a shallow, unmarked grave also suggests he had no relatives or friends in the area. Forensic artist Hayley Fisher, along with AOC Archaeology, has created a facial reconstruction of the pirate’s skull.

Councillor Richard Lewis, Culture Convener for the City of Edinburgh Council, said: ‘Edinburgh has an undeniably intriguing past and some of our archaeological discoveries have been in the strangest of places.

‘Thanks to carbon dating techniques, archaeologists now know that the skeleton was likely to have been a murder victim – and quite possibly a pirate.

‘It’s fantastic that through the Council’s archaeology and museums service, we are able to investigate such discoveries and add to our understanding of Newhaven’s heritage.’

Laura Thompson, Head Teacher at Victoria Primary School, said her pupils were excited about the discovery.

She said: ‘As the oldest working primary school in Edinburgh, we are proud of our history and heritage and the school even has a dedicated museum to the local area.

‘The pupils think it’s fantastic that a skeleton was found deep underneath their playground.

‘The archaeologists will hold a special lesson with some of the children about how they have used science to analyse the remains and it will be a good learning opportunity for them.’ 

Intact 3,000-Year-Old Horse Harness Unearthed in Scotland

Intact 3,000-Year-Old Horse Harness Unearthed in Scotland

A metal detectorist has discovered a rare hoard of Bronze Age artifacts, which experts describe as “nationally significant”, in the Scottish Borders. Mariusz Stepien was searching a field near Peebles with friends when he found a bronze object buried half a meter (1ft 8in) underground. Archaeologists called to the site near Peebles also excavated decorated straps, buckles, rings, ornaments, and chariot wheel axle caps. 

Evidence of a decorative ‘rattle pendant’ from the harness was also discovered – the first one to be found in Scotland and only the third in the UK.

The hoard has been moved from the site in a large block of soil and taken to the National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh. Experts, who described the objects as ‘nationally significant’, have dated them to the Bronze Age, which began around 2,000 BC and lasted for nearly 1,500 years. 

Objects which are believed to be decorative and functional pieces of a Bronze Age harness

The period marks a time when bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for making tools.  Communities in Late Bronze Age Scotland (1000-800 BC) often buried hoards of metalwork.  

‘This is a nationally significant find – so few Bronze Age hoards have been excavated in Scotland,’ said Emily Freeman, head of the Treasure Trove Unit (TTU) overseeing the recovery and assessment of the find.

It was an amazing opportunity for us to not only recover bronze artifacts but organic material as well. There is still a lot of work to be done to assess the artifacts and understand why they were deposited.’ 

The Crown Office, which runs the TTU, told MailOnline it can’t provide a more specific location of the discoveries than ‘near Peebles’ because of the ‘security and privacy concerns of the landowner’. 

The collection was promptly reported to TTU and excavated by archaeologists from National Museums Scotland.  The metal objects are believed to be decorative and functional pieces of a Bronze Age horse harness, while the sword is still in its scabbard and encrusted within the chunk of rock. 

The complete horse harness – preserved by the soil – and the sword have been dated as being from 1000 to 900 BC. These are rare objects, some of which are unique in Scotland,’ said National Museums Scotland. They have affinities with objects across Europe and were likely deposited by a well-connected community. 

‘The organic preservation in the hoard is remarkable and includes leather and wood that is three thousand years old. 

This allows archaeologists to see how the horse harness was assembled – this has never been seen before in Britain. The hoard was uncovered by Mariusz Stepien, 44, who was searching a field near Peebles with friends on June 21 this year when he found a bronze object buried about a foot and a half underground.

The team also found decorated straps, buckles, rings, ornaments and chariot wheel axle caps

The group camped in the field and built a shelter to protect them find from the elements while archaeologists spent 22 days investigating.

‘I thought I’ve never seen anything like this before and felt from the very beginning that this might be something spectacular and I’ve just discovered a big part of Scottish history,’ said Stepien.  

‘I was over the moon, actually shaking with happiness.

‘We wanted to be a part of the excavation from the beginning to the end.

‘I will never forget those 22 days spent in the field. Every day there were new objects coming out which changed the context of the find, every day we learned something new.

‘I’m so pleased that the earth revealed to me something that was hidden for more than 3,000 years. I still can’t believe it happened.’

As he was getting strong signals from the earth around the initial object, Stepien contacted the TTU to report his find.   Scotland’s TTU is ‘the first port of call’ for new discoveries and carries out investigations and object assessments of new objects. 

All ancient objects newly discovered in Scotland need to be reported to the TTU, as they belong to the Crown, whether or not they’re precious metal. We could not have achieved this without the responsible actions of the finder or the support of the landowners,’ said Freeman. 

‘The finder was quick to action when they realized that they had found an in-situ hoard, which resulted in the TTU and National Museums Scotland being on-site within days of discovery.’

Scottish Farmer Discovers 5,000-Year-Old Lost City

Scottish Farmer Discovers 5,000-Year-Old Lost City

Scotland is full of vivid, complex history, as is the case for other European compatriots. And no, it’s not all the violent headlines that Braveheart sees — though there is a great deal of war in the country’s rearview mirror.

Nonetheless, not so long ago, a farmer discovered something amazing about ancient Scotland buried in the sand dunes of one of the northernmost islands of the country The kicker? He found this amazing discovery behind something unbelievably ordinary…

Around 1850 a Scottish farmer passed through the sand dunes of the western shore of the island of Orkney. There he pushed a rock aside and discovered something that had been hidden for thousands of years.

At first, he saw what looked like a simple hole, but when he peered inside, he couldn’t believe his eyes: it was a passageway that appeared to be a part of an entire labyrinth of rooms and corridors. An entire ancient city was hidden behind an ordinary slab of stone that whole time!

The settlement, it turned out, was the remains of Skara Brae, a neolithic city. Researchers believed that the ancient settlement might’ve been over 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than even the Egyptian pyramids.

Luckily, because the city had been covered by the sand dunes, it remained preserved for centuries until the farmer found it, untouched by other humans and hidden from the wear and tear of the passage of time.

Researchers believed that this was one of the oldest permanent settlements in Great Britain.

Each house had been sunk into middens, mounds of waste used to stabilize the structure and insulate those insides from Scotland’s brutal climate.

Though only eight houses now remain, it is believed the settlement was once much larger.

Researchers estimated this ancient lost city could have been home to between 50 and 100 people.

All of the houses were connected using a tunnel system, but those tunnels could be closed off and separated with large, sliding stone doors.

Early citizens would then be able to travel throughout the city, but close off their homes for privacy when they needed to.

Each hut contained multiple bedding areas; in most of the huts, researchers discovered, one of the bedding areas was typically larger than the others. These rooms were presumably reserved for the heads of the house—kind of like ancient master bedrooms.

The houses also contained a waterproof storage bin. Researchers believed this could’ve been an indication that these early people stored fresh fish in the huts. If that was the case, fish was likely their main source of food.

There are still questions to be answered about this hidden city and its people. Nevertheless, there is so much we can learn from ancient cities like this.

For many years, archaeologists thought that every important Egyptian discovery was already found. But that all changed recently.

Evidence of 5,000-year-old Neolithic fabric found in Orkney

Evidence of 5,000-year-old Neolithic fabric found in Orkney

In Orkney, Scotland, archeologists found new evidence of ancient fabrics from the Neolithic era more than 5000 years ago.

Cord impression with textile to the right

The only discovery in Scotland, the second of its kind, came from a fragment of pottery with an impression of a cloth stamped into its surface, found at Ness of Brodgar. 

The site is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site on the small island archipelago off the northern coast of Scotland.

Ness of Brodgar is a large Neolithic site in Orkney

Because it’s rare for organic material from prehistory to survive outside of very specific oxygen-free conditions, researchers studying Neolithic textiles have generally had to rely on secondary evidence like pottery fragments.  

This latest discovery came from the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), which in 2019 began working to find pottery fragments with these types of impressions on them, known as ‘sherds.’

The team used a technique called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) to examine the sherds, which involves taking multiple photographs of them with a slightly different angled source of light in each frame. 

These images were analyzed by a computer program that created a highly-detailed digital image of the sherds, that could be more closely examined than the real physical fragment.   

RTI analysis of the outer face of the sherds suggested multiple fragments had been ‘co-joined’ with a cord cloth, possibly in the shape of a basket-like object.

The inner face of the fragments had a different patterned impression that researchers believe came from the clothing worn by the potter who made the original piece. 

‘There is no evidence of textile tools available in Neolithic Orkney, suggesting textiles were made by hand, or using tools made with organic materials that have not survived in the archaeological record,’ Ness of Brodgar’s site director Nick Card said.

‘This lack of material culture around textile production can help us to infer what techniques they may have been using.’ The patterns match similar findings at other sites in the region, that suggest using textiles with clay vessels was common.  

‘A growing number of base sherds from the Ness have impressions of coiled mats used in the construction of clay vessels,’ Card said.

An impression on clay of the Orkney woven fabric

‘These match examples found at Barnhouse and Rinyo in Orkney and also at Forest Road in Aberdeenshire.

‘All specimens suggest fibre mats of spiral construction that may have eased the turning of the pot as it was formed and even facilitated its transportation whilst it was dried and then fired.’

The announcement of the Orkney discovery comes just a month after researchers in France discovered strands of woven yarn believed to be between 41,000 and 52,000 years old. 

The yarn fragments were believed to have been used to bind simple tools and could have been used in more complex forms of weaving.  

Hillfort revealed to be the largest Pictish site ever discovered in Scotland

Hillfort revealed to be the largest Pictish site ever discovered in Scotland

The fort, overlooking the small village of Rhynie, is believed to be one of the largest ancient settlements ever discovered in Scotland.

Researchers think that as many as 4,000 people may have lived in more than 800 huts on the Tap O’Noth in the fifth to sixth centuries.

However, the settlement may date back as far as the third century, which would make it Pictish in origin.

Researchers excavating around a construction at the Tap o’ Noth site.

The Aberdeenshire settlement may, in fact, date back as far as the third century, meaning it is likely to be Pictish in origin.

The Picts were a collection of Celtic-speaking communities who lived in the east and north of Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

The "Craw Stane", a Pictish symbol stone depicting a salmon and an unknown animal, with Tap o’ Noth in background.
The “Craw Stane”, a Pictish symbol stone depicting a salmon and an unknown animal, with Tap o’ Noth in background.

It was previously thought that settlements of that size did not appear until about the 12th century.

At its height, it may have rivalled the largest known post-Roman settlements in Europe.

Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen used radiocarbon dating to establish timeframes.

Judging by the distribution of the buildings, they are likely to have been built and occupied at a similar time.

Many are positioned alongside trackways or clustered together in groups, the University of Aberdeen said.

Drone surveys showed one hut that was notably larger, suggesting a hierarchy.

The site is near Rhynie in Aberdeenshire

Professor Gordon Noble, who led the research, said the discovery was “truly mind-blowing”, adding that it “shakes the narrative of this whole time period”.

He continued: “The size of the upper and lower forts together are around 16.75 hectares and one phase at least dates from the fifth to sixth centuries AD.

“This makes it bigger than anything we know from early medieval Britain.

“The previous biggest known fort in early medieval Scotland is Burghead at around five and a half hectares, and in England, famous post-Roman sites such as Cadbury Castle is seven hectares and Tintagel around five hectares.”

He said the site was “verging on urban in scale and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this”.