6.3.4 Other Settlement Evidence

Other evidence for settlement consists of pits, often with charcoal, food waste and/or pottery (Table 6.3 with more details available on Datasheet 6.8). Most of the sites with this data are from recent excavations where radiocarbon dating has been undertaken. This tradition of placing domestic material in pits carries on from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age; it also links to funerary practices (Chapter 6.6.1). The function and role of pits in the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age is still poorly understood (Fraser 2014, 61–4).

SiteAreaDatesCommentsReference
SkaillCChalcolithic and EBA MHG62040; Cavers et al 2016
LairgSEBA, MBATwo excavatedMcCullagh and Tipping 1998, 115
Allt A’ Choire Mhoir (Craggie Burn)SLBASampled in pre-afforestation evaluationMHG9965; Lowe 1990
BeechwoodIEBAWooden troughMHG35961; Cressey and Strachan 2003
Torvean, InvernessILBAProbable slab-lined troughMary Peteranna pers comm
Allt Thurnaig  WREBA Derek Alexander pers comm
Uamh MhórWRAwaiting datesPartially excavated. Late Neolithic date below burnt mound materialPiper et al 2019
StronechrubieNWSMBA MHG13052; Cavers et al 2013
Table 6.4 Highland burnt mounds with Chalcolithic and Bronze Age dating evidence
All dates cal BC to at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Burnt mounds have a long history in Scotland but the majority, when dated, appear to be Bronze Age. There have been relatively few dated examples in the Highlands (Table 6.4 above), however, those that have been dated span the entire Chalcolithic and Bronze Age. Archaeologists have long known that there are concentrations of burnt mounds in Caithness and Sutherland (Map 6.8; Datasheet 6.8 ScARF Bronze Age section 3.3; Cressey and Strachan 2003).

Map 6.8 Distribution of Burnt Mounds in the Highlands (updated interactive map coming soon!)

Recent excavations in other areas of the Highlands, particularly around Inverness, have revealed other examples, including some with wooden troughs for example the oak troughs from Beechwood (MHG35961; Cressey and Strachan 2003). Similar examples were likely to have been missed in earlier investigations.

Rectangular pit with remains of oak in situ.
The oak-lined trough from Beechwood. ©Cressey & Strachan 2003; 195

The purpose behind these structures remains a matter of debate. Suggestions include cooking pits, saunas or ritual sites, but regardless of their purpose, their presence is likely to indicate that settlements were not very far away (ScARF Bronze Age section 3.3; Cressey and Strachan 2003). The pit at the Middle Bronze Age burnt mound at Stronechrubie in northwest Sutherland was exceptionally large, suggesting that a ritual, rather than cooking, function might apply there. Experimental archaeology undertaken during the project indicated that local stone shattered within one cycle of being boiled in water (Cavers et al 2013).

The burnt mound at Stonechrumbie after removal of the turf. ©AOC Archaeology
Excavation of rectangular pit filled with stones and charcoal-rich soil.
The pit in the middle of the burnt mound at Stonechrumbie mid-excavation, facing north-west. ©AOC Archaeology

The limited recovery of artefacts from burnt mounds has generally impeded interpretation of their function. Trial excavation of the burnt mound at Uamh Mhór, Wester Ross, yielded a quartz-dominated lithic assemblage. It also included worked Rum bloodstone, which attests to connections with the Small Isles for the supply of this raw material. Minute pottery fragments were also identified, which is highly unusual (Piper et al 2019). Similarly, the recovery of a small quartz assemblage from the burnt mound at Arisiag, Lochaber, was described as a ‘slight oddity’ (Suddaby 2009, 15). Further investigation into presence of artefacts in the burnt mounds from this region has the potential to contribute significantly to the understanding of these monument types beyond simply ‘a new date and a new spot on the distribution map’ (Barber and Russell-White 1990, 59).

Elsewhere in Scotland burnt mounds are shown to continue into the Iron Age (ScARF Bronze Age section 3.3), but there is limited evidence from the Highlands (Chapter 7.3). The Bronze Age burnt mound material at High Pasture Cave would not have been easily recognised prior to excavation (Case Study High Pasture Cave). Similarly, one site at Lairg (ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project) , investigated during the trial trenching phase in 1989, lacked any surface detail and was found to be just a spread of burnt stone and charcoal along the bank of a stream (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). Nearby, a 1m diameter pit containing fire-cracked stone was found, which then led the excavators to suggest that the spread and the pit were linked. Anecdotally, the Highlands may contain many such pits, though these have not been systematically surveyed (late Robert Gourlay pers comm to Rod McCullagh).

The evidence from the Highlands shows that burnt mounds were reused to construct later roundhouses. At Skaill in Caithness a mound was used as a source of raw material for rubble and earth core to make a wall of a roundhouse in the Middle Bronze Age, so the re-use appears to have been pragmatic (MHG62040; Cavers et al 2016). In the case of Stronechrubie, the reuse of the burnt mound took place in the early medieval period (Cavers et al 2013).

Further studies of burnt mounds would allow for comparison both within the Highland area and also with the better studied examples found across the Northern Isles. However, it is worth noting that there is no reason to presume that the hot stone technology used in creating a burnt mound remained the same through the lifespan of that burnt mound or was the same in neighbouring burnt mounds.

 

Case Study: High Pasture Cave

 

Case Study: The Lairg Project

 

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