Category Archives: SCOTLAND

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”.

Scottish storms unearth 1,500-year-old Viking-era cemetery

Scottish storms unearth 1,500-year-old Viking-era cemetery

The native Picts, a Celtic-language speaking tribe, once populated the Scottish Islands, similar to the natives that live on what is now Scotland. 

Archaeologists and volunteers are working to preserve human bones exposed by recent storms in an ancient cemetery above a beach on the Orkney Islands.

Several powerful storms on Scotland’s Orkney Islands have now revealed ancient human remains in a Pictish and Viking cemetery dated back to about 1,500 years ago.

To order to protect the damage to the former Newark Bay cemetery on Orkney’s largest island, volunteers are now placing sandbags and clay around. The site dates from the middle of the sixth century when ancient Pictish people inhabited the Orkney Islands.

The site is currently being protected by sandbags.

Picts or Norse?

The cemetery was used for about 1,000 years, and numerous burials from the ninth to the 15th century were Norsemen or Vikings who had seized the Orkney Islands from the Picts. Now, storm waves are destroying the low cliff where the ancient site is located, Peter Higgins from the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology (ORCA), said.

“Every time we have a storm with a bit of a south-easterly [wind], it really gets in there and actively erodes what is just soft sandstone,” Higgins explained.

Approximately 250 skeletons were taken out of the cemetery about 50 years ago, but researchers do not know how far the site extends from the beach. They believe that hundreds of Pictish and Norse bodies are still buried there.

“The local residents and the landowner have been quite concerned about what’s left of the cemetery being eroded by the sea,” Higgins said.

Uncovered bones are usually either coated with clay to protect them or removed from the site after their positions are thoroughly labeled, so it is rather unusual for bones to end up on the beach, he explained.

Researchers do not know yet of the exposed bones belong to Picts or Vikings, as no burial objects or funeral clothes were spotted, and the bodies were buried four of five layers under the surface.

Cultural Transition

Historians claim that the first Norse immigrants to the Orkney Islands established there in the late eighth century, leaving a rising new monarchy in Norway. They used the Orkney Islands to begin their own voyages and Viking raids, and ultimately, all the islands were ruled by the Norse, according to The Scotsman.

The relationship between the Picts and the Norse on the Orkney Islands is highly argued by scholars. They cannot know for sure whether the Norse took over by force, or were settlers who traded and entered marriage with the Picts. However, now, the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay may help researchers answer their questions.

“The Orkney Islands were Pictish, and then they became Norse,” Higgins said. “We’re not really clear how that transition happened, whether it was an invasion, or people lived together. This is one of the few opportunities we’ve got to investigate that.”

A part of the scientific work on the remains would require testing genetic material from the ancient bones, which might demonstrate that some people living on the Orkney Islands today are successors of people who lived there more than 1,000 years ago.

The scientific study of bones from the ancient cemetery at Newark Bay could reveal clues to the cultural transition from Pictish to Norse domination of the Orkney Islands.

“We’re fairly confident that we’re going to find that some local residents are related to people in the cemetery,” Higgins said.

Traces of 18th-Century Glass Factory Uncovered in Scotland

Traces of 18th-Century Glass Factory Uncovered in Scotland

Interesting traces of Leith’s glass-making past are being uncovered as preparatory works to construct a new residential development gather steam.

The City of Edinburgh Council lodged proposals by Barratt Homes to develop 212 new apartments plus commercial units on a former industrial land stretch near Leith Docks at Salamander Lane. two years ago and are currently at the consultation stage.

Work is already underway to prepare the site ahead of full planning approval, with a number of buildings that were once home to Garland and Roger Ltd timber yard and a six-metre-high boundary wall cleared at the start of the year.

Workers and archaeologists are now starting to uncover traces of an almost extinct Leith industry which has flourished for centuries and was even responsible for the naming of the road on which it was situated.

There was evidence of the once enormous glasswork in Salamander Lane, which can trace its origins from more than two and a half centuries to 1747.

Remnants of the Edinburgh and Leith Glass Works, which can trace its roots back to the 1740s, have been uncovered.

Aerial photographs show the re-emergence of what’s left of one of the glassworks’ six huge furnace cones as well as a number of other buildings, including workshop and warehouse remains.

The furnace cones measured between 80 and 100 feet in height with a diameter of around 40 feet at the base. The brick-built sixsome towered above the Leith skyline at the time and could be easily spotted from the slopes of Calton Hill more than two miles away.

Archaeologists are currently on-site examining the glassworks buildings and deep layers of ancient beach sand deposits that have been exposed as a result of the excavation.  John Lawson, the City of Edinburgh Council’s Archaeologist, said his team is hopeful of uncovering important artefacts during the dig.

Remains of one of the glassworks’ six furnace cones (right-hand side of image) are now visible from above.

He said: “Archaeological investigations have just started on the site which once housed the nationally significant Edinburgh and Leith Glass Works and formed an iconic element of Leith’s industrial skyline.

“It is hoped that the excavations will reveal important evidence as to its development since it moved to this site in the mid 18th Century.”

This image taken by Thomas Begbie in the 1850s captures two of the glassworks’ furnace cones.

From the 14th century onwards, Leith boasted trading links with Europe and the world, importing and exporting a wide range of shipments. Alcohol was among the most sought after produce being brought in and the harbour was regularly flooded with casks and barrels of fine French wine, sweet Spanish sherry and Portuguese port.

Leith’s growing whisky industry and Edinburgh being a burgeoning centre for medicine meant an increasing demand for glass products, further underlining the need for a dedicated glassware and bottling works. As chance would have it, the old port was the perfect home for such an industry as the district boasted substantial quantities of sand and kelp – both of which were essential in glass manufacturing during the Georgian era.

Following the opening of earlier works elsewhere at Leith Citadel and in Edinburgh, the first furnace at what would become the Edinburgh and Leith Glass Works on Salamander Street was fired up in 1747. The works opened on the border of what was then Leith Sands, which, for more than 200 years, was home to Scotland’s main horse racing event, the infamous Leith Races.

A total of six giant, brick-built cones had risen from the site by 1783 and would continue to belch out fire and smoke for the best part of the next century. The amphibian-sounding Salamander Street appeared on maps in the early 19th century and was even coined, it is thought, as an allusion to the glass-making industry – the salamander being supposedly fire-proof, according to medieval legend.

At its height, the glassworks had a lot of bottles, producing in excess of one million glass vessels per week – but it wouldn’t last forever. Editions of The Scotsman dating from 1874 record that the dissolution of the Edinburgh and Leith Glass Works Company occurred in December of that year.

The site was put up for lease and the entire plant, stock and materials of the glassworks, which included a 6-horse power horizontal steam engine; a grinding mill; a “first-class nearly new” turning lathe; and all manner of pot-boards; tank rings and “bottle moulds of ever variety from flasks to carboys”, were listed for auction.

Local Blue Badge tourist guide and historian Fraser Parkinson says he hopes chiefs of the ongoing residential development are respectful of the history being uncovered.

He said: “The glass making industry had a strong footing in Leith until the second half of the 19th century, so it is really exciting to be able to view the footprint of the old glass making buildings and especially the foundations of the old cones which could be seen from Calton Hill.

“It’s a brief but appreciated glimpse back in time. Let’s hope that the developers make good recordings of what is unearthed before moving onto Leith’s future buildings.”

The last of the glass works’ furnace cones was demolished in 1912. The timber yard of Garland & Rogers Ltd filled the space in the decades that followed, as one by one Leith’s traditional industries slowly began to disappear.