Category Archives: SCOTLAND

Remains of ‘lost medieval village’ found next to the Scottish motorway

Remains of ‘lost medieval village’ found next to the Scottish motorway

The Scotsman reports that traces of four buildings dating from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries were uncovered during roadwork in southern Scotland at Netherton Cross near Bothwell, North Lanarkshire, next to the hard shoulder of the M74.

Possible Ancient Dagger Found in 17th-Century House in Scotland
An artist’s reconstruction of how the settlement at Netherton Cross would have looked. It disappeared in the 18th Century as the Duke of Hamilton embarked on turning part of his estate into a vast parkland.

Pottery – including sherds of cooking pots and bowls, a clay tobacco pipe, gaming pieces and evidence of metalworking were found on the site in a series of “remarkable” discoveries.

Under one building, an intriguing collection of artefacts was found in the foundations. Among the items were a spindle whorl for weaving, a whetstone for sharpening tools, two 17th Century coins – and an iron dagger.

Archaeologists at the site of the “remarkable” discovery of a lost village right next to the hard shoulder of the M74

It is thought the dagger, which could date from the Iron Age, may have been left as part of a ritual to protect the building and its inhabitants from ‘magical’ harm.

Dr Natasha Ferguson, of GUARD Archaeology, one of the co-authors of the report, said: “The special or talismanic qualities of this dagger as a protective object may have enhanced the ritual act to protect the household from worldly and magical harm.

“The deposition of these objects under the foundation level of one of the houses may have been intended to affirm this space as a place of safety for them and generations to come.”

Map showing the excavation site at Netherton Cross.

The practice of leaving special objects in medieval and post-medieval buildings is well documented and it was believed such a ritual would safeguard the building and its inhabitants.

The report found a “deliberate selection” of objects had been placed at the property.

It is believed the spindle whorl, gaming piece and the whetstone may have represented a personal connection to an individual, activity, or place that would make them special to the occupants.

The report added: “The dagger’s potential antiquity as a prehistoric object perhaps lent it a quality of otherness. Reuse of prehistoric objects as depositions in medieval settings has been recorded in excavations of medieval churches in England, and flint arrowheads were traditionally identified as ‘elf-bolts’ and long recognised for their malevolent magical properties.”

Dr Gemma Cruickshanks, of National Museums Scotland, said it appeared the dagger was covered in a sheath at the time it was buried.

She added: “It was probably intact and still useable at that time. The form of this dagger is indistinguishable from Iron Age examples, indicating this simple dagger form had a very long history.”

Evidence of iron smelting, bloom refining and probable blacksmithing was also recovered, along with a selection of nails.

The settlement was close to the 10th Century Netherton Cross, which now stands in Hamilton Old Parish Church. Netherton Cross is around 1km away from Bothwell Bridge, the scene of the 1679 battle which ended the Covenanter rebellion in Scotland.

“It is very possible the community was affected by the conflict, either suffering damage to property or as a witness to the route of the Covenanter forces,” the report said.

Netherton vanished in the 18th Century given improvements to the estate by the Duke of Hamilton, with a well-ordered and symmetrical parkland built in its place.

The motorway then subsumed most of the village with the four stone structures the last traces of the settlement.

1 billion-year-old fossil ‘balls’ may be Earth’s earliest known multicellular life

1 billion-year-old fossil ‘balls’ may be Earth’s earliest known multicellular life

Scientists have discovered a rare evolutionary “missing link” dating to the earliest chapter of life on Earth. It’s a microscopic, ball-shaped fossil that bridges the gap between the very first living creatures — single-celled organisms — and more complex multicellular life.

1 billion-year-old fossil 'balls' may be Earth's earliest known multicellular life
Bicellum brasieri holotype specimen.

The spherical fossil contains two different types of cells: round, tightly packed cells with very thin cell walls at the centre of the ball, and a surrounding outer layer of sausage-shaped cells with thicker walls. Estimated to be 1 billion years old, this is the oldest known fossil of a multicellular organism, researchers reported in a new study. 

Life on Earth is widely accepted as having evolved from single-celled forms that emerged in the primordial oceans. However, this fossil was found in sediments from the bottom of what was once a lake in the northwest Scottish Highlands. The discovery offers a new perspective on the evolutionary pathways that shaped multicellular life, the scientists said in the study. 

“The origins of complex multicellularity and the origin of animals are considered two of the most important events in the history of life on Earth,” said lead study author Charles Wellman, a professor in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

“Our discovery sheds new light on both of these,” Sheffield said in a statement.

Today, little evidence remains of Earth’s earliest organisms. Microscopic fossils estimated to be 3.5 billion years old are credited with being the oldest fossils of life on Earth, though some experts have questioned whether chemical clues in the so-called fossils were truly biological in origin. 

Other types of fossils associated with ancient microbes are even older: Sediment ripples in Greenland date to 3.7 billion years ago, and hematite tubes in Canada date between 3.77 billion and 4.29 billion years ago. Fossils of the oldest known algae, ancestor to all of Earth’s plants, are about 1 billion years old, and the oldest sign of animal life — chemical traces linked to ancient sponges — are at least 635 million and possible as much as 660 million years old, Live Science previously reported.

The tiny fossilized cell clumps, which the scientists named Bicellum brasieri, were exceptionally well-preserved in 3D, locked in nodules of phosphate minerals that were “like little black lenses in rock strata, about one centimetre [0.4 inches] in thickness,” said lead study author Paul Strother, a research professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Boston College’s Weston Observatory. 

“We take those and slice them with a diamond saw and make thin sections out of them,” grinding the slices thin enough for light to shine through — so that the 3D fossils could then be studied under a microscope, Strother told Live Science.

Surface view of a B. brasieri specimen, showing the tiled pattern of sets of elongated cells.

The researchers found not just one B. brasieri cell clump embedded in phosphate, but multiple examples of spherical clumps that showed the same dual cell structure and organization at different stages of development. This enabled the scientists to confirm that their find was once a living organism, Strother said.

“Bicellum” means “two-celled,” and “brasieri” honours the late palaeontologist and study co-author, Martin Brasier. Prior to his death in 2014 in a car accident, Brasier was a professor of paleobiology at the University of Oxford in the U.K., Strother said.

Multicellular and mysterious

In the B. brasieri fossils, which measured about 0.001 inches (0.03 millimeters) in diameter, the scientists saw something they had never seen before: evidence from the fossil record marking the transition from single-celled life to multicellular organisms. The two types of cells in B. brasieri differed from each other not only in their shape, but in how and where they were organized in the organism’s “body.” 

“That’s something that doesn’t exist in normal unicellular organisms,” Strother told Live Science. “That amount of structural complexity is something that we normally associate with complex multicellularity,” such as in animals, he said.

According to the study it’s unknown what type of multicellular lineage B. brasieri represents, but its round cells lacked rigid walls, so it probably wasn’t a type of algae. In fact, the shape and organization of its cells “are more consistent with a holozoan origin,” the authors wrote. (Holozoa is a group that includes multicellular animals and single-celled organisms that are animals’ closest relatives). 

The Scottish Highlands site — formerly an ancient lake — where the scientists found B. brasieri presented another intriguing puzzle piece about early evolution.

Earth’s oldest forms of life are typically thought to have emerged from the ocean because most ancient fossils were preserved in marine sediments, Strother explained. “There aren’t that many lake deposits of this antiquity, so there’s a bias in the rock record toward a marine fossil record rather than a freshwater record,” he added.

B. brasieri is therefore an important clue that ancient lake ecosystems could have been as important as the oceans for the early evolution of life.

Oceans provide organisms with a relatively stable environment, while freshwater ecosystems are more prone to extreme changes in temperature and alkalinity — such variations could have spurred an evolution in freshwater lakes when more complex life on Earth was in its infancy, Strother said.

These Mysterious Artificial Islands Are Older Than Stonehenge, Claim Scientists

These Mysterious Artificial Islands Are Older Than Stonehenge, Claim Scientists

Ancient humans did not always live on dry land in the northern British Isles in the distant past. The roots of thousands of ancient artificial islands remain to this day across Scotland, Ireland, and Wales: known as crannogs, these unusual systems were constructed long ago by prehistoric hands in the chilly waters of rivers, lakes, and sea inlets.

Exactly how long ago these things were shaped is something that’s never been fully understood. Traditionally, archaeologists estimated Scottish crannogs emerged no earlier than the Iron Age, being first constructed around 800 BCE.

But in more recent years, evidence has come to light that these engineered structures could be much more ancient, and a new study confirms the formations are actually thousands of years older than we realized.

Using radiocarbon dating of four sites located in the Outer Hebrides (the Western Isles of Scotland), researchers have discovered ancient crannogs dating back to 3640–3360 BCE, meaning early humans were building these giant artificial islands roughly 5,500 years ago, pre-dating even the construction of Stonehenge.

“These crannogs represent a monumental effort made thousands of years ago to build mini-islands by piling up many tonnes of rocks on the loch bed,” says archaeologist Fraser Sturt from the University of Southampton.

It’s not the first time archaeologists have wondered whether crannogs could have Neolithic origins. Excavations in the 1980s at the crannog Eilean Dòmhnuill suggested it could date back thousands of years, but for decades no other comparably ancient specimens were located.

Things changed in 2012, when former Royal Navy diver Chris Murray, who was a resident of the Scottish Isle of Lewis, became intrigued by a crannog in the waters of Loch Arnish.

Diving beside the remnants of the weathered platform, Murray made a totally unexpected discovery: hidden beneath the lake’s surface around the engineered island, he found a scattered collection of remarkably well-preserved Early/Middle Neolithic pots lying on the loch bed.

These Mysterious Artificial Islands Are Older Than Stonehenge, Claim Scientists
Neolithic pottery recovered from Loch Arnish in 2012.

Working with Sturt and other researchers, the team investigated Loch Arnish and several other crannogs – some of which had not previously been identified in archaeological records and were located using Google Earth.

In total, the researchers discovered over 200 Neolithic ceramic vessels discarded from five crannogs – evidence of an extensive and arcane cultural practice we never knew about until now.

“Survey and excavation of these sites have demonstrated – for the first time –that crannogs were a widespread feature of the Neolithic and that they may have been special locations, as evidenced by the deposition of material culture into the surrounding water,” the researchers report in a new paper.

“These findings challenge current conceptualisations of Neolithic settlement, monumentality, and depositional practice while suggesting that other ‘undated’ crannogs across Scotland and Ireland could potentially have Neolithic origins.”

The site investigations, which encompassed a mixture of underwater and aerial surveying, plus excavations and radiocarbon analysis, revealed clear evidence the crannogs were human-made. The ancient builders created the structures by piling up boulders to make artificial islets.

At one of the sites, Loch Bhorgastail, ancient timbers were also observed around the edges of the crannog, thought to have been placed to increase the stability of the rock structure.

Six crannogs that have produced Neolithic material.

Sometimes, a stone causeway leads out to the island; at other sites, no causeway seems to exist, suggesting the crannog might have been accessed by boat, or perhaps a wooden bridge. While no other timber evidence remains at any of the sites, it’s thought the crannogs may have borne wooden structures and dwellings built on top of them, from which ancient pottery was once hurled – and not, it seems, by accident.

“The quantities of material now identified around several sites, and the position of these vessels in relation to the islets, suggests that pots were intentionally deposited into the water,” the researchers write.

“Many vessels had substantial sooting on their external surfaces, and some had internal charred residues; they had clearly been used before deposition.”

As for what these ancient disposals into the loch signified, and the other purposes of the crannogs may have had, we don’t know.

But given the amount of work that must have gone into creating these giant structures – engineered with stones weighing up to 250 kilograms (550 lbs) a piece – it’s clear they must have had some unique importance to the prehistoric community who once inhabited these mysterious spaces.

Perhaps the crannogs were reserved for important celebratory feasts, or used in mortuary rituals, with the watery backdrop of the loch somehow framing the otherness of these long-ago gatherings.

“They would have required a huge investment of labour to build and probably remained significant places for a long time,” the researchers explain.

“These islets could also have been perceived as special places, their watery surroundings creating separation from everyday life. The process of crossing over to the islets may have emphasized this separation; the practices that took place on them do appear to have been very different from those of ‘normal life.”

Viking ‘Drinking Hall’ Uncovered in Scotland

Viking ‘Drinking Hall’ Uncovered in Scotland

There was likely no shortage of ale and good cheer at a recently unearthed Viking drinking hall, discovered by archaeologists on the island of Rousay, Orkney, in northern Scotland. 

Viking 'Drinking Hall' Uncovered in Scotland
The site was explored for a number of years before the discovery

The hall wasn’t a short-lived establishment, either. Its doors seem to have been open from the 10th to the 12th centuries, likely serving high-status Vikings, the archaeologists said. 

Now, all that’s left of this once bustling alehouse are stones, a handful of artefacts — including a fragmented Norse bone comb, pottery and a bone spindle whorl — and very old trash heaps, known as middens. 

The Norse bone comb fragment from the excavation site

Archaeologists discovered the beer hall this summer, after learning that walls extending from below a known settlement were actually part of a large, 43-foot-long (13 m) Norse building.

These walls were about 3 feet (1 meter) wide and 18 feet (5.5 m) apart. Stone benches sat on the sides of the building, they noted. 

Stone walls and stone benches were found during the excavation

The drinking hall was found at an archaeological hotspot at Skaill Farmstead, a place that has likely been inhabited by people for more than 1,000 years.

That’s why a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands archaeology institute, Rousay locals and students have been digging there for years; they are often sifting through the middens to learn about old farming and fishing practices, as well as what sorts of foods were eaten by the people who lived there. 

“We have recovered millennia of middens, which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions, farming and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century,” project co-director Ingrid Mainland, an archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said in a statement. 

Excavations at the drinking hall are ongoing, but it’s already showing similarities to other Norse halls found in Orkney, as well as other parts of Scotland.

Moreover, the farmstead is part of the Westness on Rousay, a coastal stretch on the island. Westness is mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a mighty chieftain, the archaeologists said.

Perhaps, Sigurd frequented the drinking hall, the archaeologists added.

“You never know, but perhaps Earl Sigurd himself sat on one of the stone benches inside the hall and drank a flagon of ale!” project co-director Dan Lee, an archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said in the statement.

Well-Preserved Burial Cist Discovered on Scottish Island

Well-Preserved Burial Cist Discovered on Scottish Island

The Scotsman reports that a well-preserved skeleton has been discovered in a tightly constructed stone burial cist about a half-mile from the Neolithic site of Skara Brae on the island of Orkney

This researcher, a member of the archaeological team, is digging here in an effort to discover more about the skeleton, which is lying in a crouched position on its right-hand side, with the cist some three-metres wide and covered with a heavy stone slab.

It is too early to determine whether the bones are those of a man or a woman or if anything else was buried with them. But the robustness of the cist has left the skeleton virtually intact, with small bones – such as toes – surviving thousands of years.

Well-Preserved Burial Cist Discovered on Scottish Island
The skeleton was discovered on a farm close to the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on Orkney but it is not clear if there is a link between the two, with the remains possibly from the later Bronze Age.

Martin Cook, director of AOC Archaeology, said: “The size and scale of the cist would suggest it is a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age burial.

“We think the skeleton is buried by itself and not part of a cemetery. It is obviously very close to Skara Brae.”

Mr Cook said it was too soon to say whether the burial was linked to Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement that was occupied from around 3180 BC to 2500 BC.

“This could be a later grave,” Mr Cook added.

Evidence of other unexcavated settlements has recently been found on the coast at the Bay of Skaill.

Mr Cook added: “We are currently removing the skeleton and what we are looking for is material goods, things like pottery or animal bones or whether a joint of meat were buried with it.

“The skeleton was laid down in a crouched position and we can see the leg bones, the arms and the toes. Sometimes animals like voles will get in and take the smaller bones but this cist was really well, tightly built. It looks like all the bone is there and well.”

The find was reported to archaeologists after it was discovered during work on the Davidson cattle farm at Skaill. The excavation was carried out by AOC Archaeology on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland.

A spokesperson for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said “We were approached by the local authority archaeologist in Orkney for assistance after the discovery of a cist burial in the buffer zone of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. AOC Archaeology, current holders of our excavation call-off contract, is attending the site and will be carrying out an archaeological excavation.”

The find comes shortly after evidence of a possible Neolithic or Bronze Age settlement in the Bay of Skaill area was discovered around half a mile from Skara Brae.

The finds of a badly damaged wall, which had been exposed due to the pounding tides on this stretch of coast, along with deer antlers, a boar tooth, a cattle jawbone and a large decorated stone have led archaeologists to consider whether “another Skara Brae” is waiting to be discovered.

Eroding wall running out from an eroding section on to the beach. The dark material in the foreground is a layer of peat. Sigurd Towrie from the University of the Highlands and Islands discovered a badly damaged wall that had been exposed by pounding tides and pouring rain
Deer antlers, a boar tooth (pictured), a cattle jawbone and a large decorated stone have also been discovered at the site – said to date back nearly 5,000 years

Sigurd Towrie, the spokesman for the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands, said earlier this month that the finds “suggest there is another settlement at the Bay of Skaill – one that, from previous environmental sampling, is likely to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old”.

Erosion Reveals Possible Neolithic Village Site in Scotland

Erosion Reveals Possible Neolithic Village Site in Scotland

The Scotsman reports that erosion on the island of Orkney at the northern end of the Bay of Skaill has exposed deer antlers, a boar tooth, a cattle jawbone, and a large stone marked with incised triangles and a series of rectangular bands.

The artifacts were found about a half-mile away from the site of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, which is located at the bay’s southern end.

Skara Brae is considered the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe with people first making their home there around 3,100BC.

It was discovered in 1850 when a storm exposed part of the coastal site. Now, almost 170 years later, coastal erosion may have uncovered its neighbour.

A section of badly damaged wall has been exposed by the work of the pounding tides at the north end of the Bay of Skaill. Deer antlers, a boar tooth, a cattle jawbone, and a large decorated stone have also been discovered.

A boar tusk found at the north end of the Bay of Skaill.

Sigurd Towrie, the spokesman for the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands, said the finds “suggest there is another settlement at the Bay of Skaill – one that, from previous environmental sampling, is likely to be 4,000 to 5,000 years old”.

He said: “If this is the case, and based on the scale of the eroded section, we may well be looking at a Neolithic/Bronze Age site on a par with Skara Brae – albeit one that is now disappearing at an alarming rate.”

The large decorated stone found on the beach, which is similar to those found at Skara Brae.

The large decorated stone was discovered in the Bay of Skaill by Mr. Towrie after he noticed animal remains falling from an eroding section of shoreline.

Closer inspection found the stone marked with a pair of incised triangles and a series of rectangular bands running across the surface.

Dr. Antonia Thomas, the Archaeology Institute’s rock art specialist, confirmed the find was potentially a carved stone – one with designs similar to those recorded at Skara Brae.

The Bay of Skaill, where evidence of another potential Neolithic settlement has emerged.

It has long been thought that more Neolithic settlements may have dotted the bay surrounding Skara Brae. During building work in the 1930s, a wall was discovered to the north of the bay along with midden material, animal bone, and four burials, which were later moved.

The new finds have refreshed interest in who may have lived around the bay during the New Stone Age.

The discovery of deer remains is an unusual find for a Neolithic site on Orkney, with the animal perhaps used for rituals rather than food, it is understood.

The Bay of Skaill is now under close observation from the archaeology institute, although an excavation is unlikely in the near future given restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

A section of wall which has been exposed at the Bay of Skaill which may have been part of an undiscovered Neolithic settlement.
The cow mandible recovered from the eroding shoreline section. Towrie discovered the stone while visiting the Bay of Bay Skaill after she noticed animal remains falling from an eroding section of shoreline

Mr. Towrie said: “UHI Archaeology Institute will continue to carefully monitor the extent of the coastal erosion and act as an when necessary.”

Skara Brae is considered the best-preserved prehistoric settlement of any period in the British Isles. Its preservation in the sand has left a vivid impression of life in a prehistoric village.

An ‘exceptional’ collection of artifacts recovered from the site tell a story of farming and fishing among its inhabitants, as well as jewellery making and crafts.

One of the houses at Skara Brae contains a hearth and stone beds. One bed, which is decorated, lies directly over the burial site of two mature women laid to rest in a crouched position.

Discovery of massive island ritual site where people gathered 5,500 years ago

Discovery of massive island ritual site where people gathered 5,500 years ago

The discovery of a cursus monument site at Tormore on the Isle of Arran, which is more than a kilometer long, is helping to reshape Neolithic history in Scotland with such landmarks usually associated with the east coast.

The previously unknown large Neolithic ritual site has been found on the Isle of Arran.

Cursus monuments were often defined by long lines of timber posts, forming a long rectangle, and were amongst the most spectacular features in the Neolithic landscape.

The posts may have served as a procession route, perhaps to honour the dead. Some were burned to the ground in an almighty display which is believed to have been part of the ceremonies associated with these huge monuments.

Dave Cowley, Rapid Archaeological Mapping Programme Manager at Historic Environment Scotland, who discovered the site following a laser scan of Arran, described the cursus monument as a “cathedral of the day”.

He said: “I think if you asked the survey team what they thought they were most likely to find on Arran, I would bet you no one would say a Neolithic cursus monument

“There is no other on Arran, it’s unique on the island, there is one more in Kilmartin Glen and that is pretty much it for the western seaboard.

“What this example at Tormore tells is there are probably actually many more on them but because they were built from timber, you are not likely to see them in the unimproved peat landscape of the west coast.

The site of the cursus monument was discovered after these two parallel lines, marked here by red arrows, were picked up by a laser scan of Arran landscape.

“Arran has got some cracking Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology but we are still surprised that this monument is here.

“It adds a whole additional dimension to what the archaeology of the Neolithic on Arran can tell us. It is like finding a whole new layer in a box of chocolates of new things.”

Mr. Cowley detected the site after picking up two lines of mounds, which lie roughly parallel and stand 30 to 40 centimeters high, and which run for around a kilometer.

He said: “When you look at the topography, it very slightly runs to the crest of a ridge. They have been very careful about how they have positioned this monument. There probably was a superstructure here but we won’t know for sure without excavation.

“It would have had an impact. There is an element of design to it, a form of landscape architecture.

“It does seem likely that there were timber elements built into it. Whether or not it was set on fire we just don’t know at the moment. “

Mr Cowley said the monuments probably brought together “quite dispersed populations together in a communal activity” and that different community built different parts of the monument.

The site was discovered following an aerial laser scan of the site using Light Detection and Ranging (Lidar) technology, which uses laser pulses to measure objects.

Images can then be reworked by filtering out vegetation or by changing the way it is lit which can then reveal previously unknown characteristics in the land. More than 1,000 unknown archaeological sites have been found on Arran using the technology.

A 5,000-year-old relic from the Great Pyramid discovered in a cigar box in Scotland

A 5,000-year-old relic from the Great Pyramid discovered in a cigar box in Scotland

A ‘chance discovery’ at the University of Aberdeen could shed new light on the Great Pyramid with museum staff uncovering a ‘lost’ artifact – one of only three objects ever recovered from inside the Wonder of the Ancient World.

In 1872 the engineer Waynman Dixon discovered a trio of items inside the pyramid’s Queen’s Chamber, which became known as the ‘Dixon relics’.

Two of them – a ball and hook – are now housed in the British Museum however the third, a fragment of wood, has been missing for more than 70 years.

The box was found among the Asia archives at the University of Aberdeen
The box was found among the Asia archives at the University of Aberdeen

The lost piece of cedar has generated many theories about its purpose and date and holds particular significance because of the potential for radiocarbon dating. Some have speculated that it was part of a measuring rule which could reveal clues regarding the pyramid’s construction.

In 2001 a record was identified which indicated the wood fragment may have been donated to the University of Aberdeen’s museum collections as a result of a connection between Dixon and James Grant, who was born in Methlick in 1840.

Grant studied medicine at the university and in the mid-1860s went to Egypt to help with an outbreak of cholera where he befriended Dixon and went on to assist him with the exploration of the Great Pyramid, where together they discovered the relics.

A 5,000-year-old relic from the Great Pyramid discovered in a cigar box in Scotland
The cigar box with wooden fragments had been added to the museum’s Asia collection, but actually housed the Egyptian relics.

The finding was widely reported at the time, with a British newspaper, ‘The Graphic’, carrying a story on the important discovery in December 1872 which stated: ‘Although they possess a remarkable interest, not alone on account of their vast antiquity, from the evidence they are likely to afford as to the correctness of the many theories formed by Sir Isaac Newton and others as to the weights and measures in use by the builders of the pyramids. The position in which they have left shows that they must have been left there whilst the work was going on, and at an early period of its construction’.

Following Grant’s death in 1895, his collections were bequeathed to the University, while the ‘five-inch piece of cedar’ was donated by his daughter in 1946. However, it was never classified and despite an extensive search, could not be located.

Then at the end of last year, curatorial assistant Abeer Eladany was conducting a review of items housed in the University’s Asia collection.

Abeer Eladany with the cigar box and pieces of wood.

Abeer, who is originally from Egypt and spent 10 years working in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, was immediately intrigued and, noting that the item had the country’s former flag on the top and did not seem to belong in the Asian collection, cross-referenced it with other records. It was then that she realized just what she was holding.

It may be just a small fragment of wood, which is now in several pieces, but it is hugely significant given that it is one of only three items ever to be recovered from inside the Great Pyramid”

Abeer Eladany

“Once I looked into the numbers in our Egypt records, I instantly knew what it was and that it had effectively been hidden in plain sight in the wrong collection,” she said. “I’m an archaeologist and have worked on digs in Egypt but I never imagined it would be here in north-east Scotland that I’d find something so important to the heritage of my own country.

“It may be just a small fragment of wood, which is now in several pieces, but it is hugely significant given that it is one of only three items ever to be recovered from inside the Great Pyramid.

“The University’s collections are vast – running to hundreds of thousands of items – so looking for it has been like finding a needle in a haystack. I couldn’t believe it when I realized what was inside this innocuous-looking cigar tin.”

Covid restrictions delayed the dating of the ‘lost’ cedar fragment which originally belonged to a much larger piece of wood, which was most recently seen in a 1993 exploration of the interior of the pyramid by a robotic camera is hidden and now unreachable voids.

Results have recently been returned and show that the wood can be dated to somewhere in the period 3341-3094BC – some 500 years earlier than historical records which date the Great Pyramid to the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu in 2580-2560BC.

This supports the idea that – whatever their use – the Dixon Relics were original to the construction of the Great Pyramid and not later artifacts left behind by those exploring the chambers.

Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen, said: “Finding the missing Dixon Relic was a surprise but the carbon dating has also been quite a revelation.

“It is even older than we had imagined. This may be because the date relates to the age of the wood, maybe from the center of a long-lived tree. Alternatively, it could be because of the rarity of trees in ancient Egypt, which meant that wood was scarce, treasured, and recycled or cared for over many years.

“It will now be for scholars to debate its use and whether it was deliberately deposited, as happened later during the New Kingdom when pharaohs tried to emphasize continuity with the past by having antiquities buried with them.

“This discovery will certainly reignite interest in the Dixon Relics and how they can shed light on the Great Pyramid.”