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Thrumster dig uncovers broch era village


By David G Scott


LONG before the John O'Groats Trail or North Coast 500 route existed there was another path within the county that has just been uncovered after lying centuries under the turf.

It may be very small but the well-laid-out stone path, or passageway, exists within structures that are over 2000 years old and lies on moorland at Swartigill on the Thrumster Estate. The structures being uncovered seem to date from the same era as the Iron Age brochs for which the county is famous and suggest that a village of some complexity existed there for a number of centuries.

The flagstone surface appears like a pathway around the inner structures.
The flagstone surface appears like a pathway around the inner structures.

A team from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (Orca) worked along with the Yarrows Heritage Trust (YHT) to help uncover one of the most "significant finds in the county since the Victorian era", according to estate owner Islay MacLeod.

Previous seasons of excavation at the site have uncovered a complex of ancient structures which are providing an important window into Iron Age society away from the monumental architecture of the brochs.

Speaking before the dig ended for the season on Sunday, project officer Rick Barton from Orca said: "We have had a lot of help from some fantastic volunteers throughout the dig so far, and the team has been getting bigger every day. The alluvial layers shrouding the archaeology on the site are gradually being removed to reveal some interesting structural features and deposits."

Rick Barton from Orca, the project leader on the dig. Pictures: DGS
Rick Barton from Orca, the project leader on the dig. Pictures: DGS

The flagstone path that Rick and his team have been uncovering skirts around a large structure and could have been an underground passageway or souterrain. Souterrains are underground galleries and, in their early stages, were always associated with a settlement. The galleries were dug out and then lined with stone slabs or wood before being reburied.

In cases where they were cut into rock this was not always necessary. They do not appear to have been used for burial or ritual purposes and it has been suggested that they were food stores or hiding places during times of strife, although some of them would have had very obvious entrances.

Some clearly defined shapes can be seen from this aerial shot of the dig at Swartigill.
Some clearly defined shapes can be seen from this aerial shot of the dig at Swartigill.

"It's constructed with some very large boulders around the west side of the larger structure we're working on. This type of surface is not uncommon in the spaces between structures in a village as grass can get very muddy when walked on every day. Flagstones put down to make a formalised surface are easier to walk on."

The site is proving to be very complex and seems to contain multiple structures from different eras. In fact, the present area uncovered may be just a small part of a much larger settlement that predates the broch-building era which started in Caithness around 100 BC.

Iona Cargill is studying archaeology at Oxford University and volunteered her services for the Swartigill dig.
Iona Cargill is studying archaeology at Oxford University and volunteered her services for the Swartigill dig.

Iona Cargill had travelled from Oxford to volunteer her services. "I've just finished my first year and still had four weeks of fieldwork to do so I looked online and found this," she said. "I study anthropology too and I think these ancient people were much more sophisticated than many of us realise."

Kenneth McElroy from the Caithness Broch Project was also working at the site as a student volunteer, recording structural elements and finds uncovered with a "planning frame".

Kenneth McElroy from the Caithness Broch Project got involved in the dig as part of his archaeology degree.
Kenneth McElroy from the Caithness Broch Project got involved in the dig as part of his archaeology degree.

"I'm now studying archaeology at Glasgow University. It's great to be back here and see that there are some exciting things happening in the county," he said. "Yarrows Heritage Trust is doing a great job to promote the archaeology of Caithness."

Islay MacLeod says she is delighted with the results of the seasonal dig on her estate grounds. "We had children from schools at Thrumster, Dunbeath, Watten and Lybster helping out at a community dig last week and it's been a very eventful season," she said.

"Stone tools have been found and high magnetism in the soil seems to indicate the presence of iron so it may have been a manufacturing site."

Project leader Rick Barton holds a whetstone found at the site showing that toold were sharpened there. Picture: Rick Barton
Project leader Rick Barton holds a whetstone found at the site showing that toold were sharpened there. Picture: Rick Barton

Mrs MacLeod said that a geophysical survey suggests the site is much bigger than originally thought and may stretch across the nearby Swartigill burn. She hopes to hold an archaeology festival at the site next year if funding is forthcoming.



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