by David Connolly, Murray Cook and Hana Kdolska on behalf of Rampart Scotland
The prehistoric cropmark enclosure of Sheriffside was the second site investigated under the auspices of the Rampart Scotland: Hillforts of East Lothian Project (hereafter HELP). Examined in six seasons, between 2011 and 2017, the significantly plough-truncated cropmark site was selected to provide comparative material to that recovered from the upstanding enclosure of White Castle (Connolly, Cook and Kdolska 2021; see also White Castle case study), particularly regarding differential preservation and application of field methods, with the associated potential for information recovery. This was also to continue the aims of the HELP Project by increasing both the volume of research information and radiometric dates from the prehistoric enclosures in East Lothian. The study area focused on the northern fringes of the Lammermuirs.
The archaeological works, encompassing two types of geophysical survey, topographic survey and excavations, uncovered much greater complexity than was apparent from the initial interpretation of the site as bivallate, ditched enclosure, based on the original aerial transcript (RCAHMS 1981). The key findings included a series of at least five palisades and ditches, as well as a potential scooped settlement. A total of 10 radiocarbon samples were recovered from key stratigraphic contexts, providing an overall chronological framework for the site between 8th century BC and 4th century AD, with at least 4 main, broad, phases detected.
Sheriffside enclosure lies within a silage field, immediately to the north of Sheriffside Farm, near Gifford (Figure 1). It sits on the southeastern edge of a low elongated hill range, around 2 km east from the foothills of the Lammermuirs. Although the site is not in particularly conspicuous situation, it has a local prominence and commands wide ranging views to all principle side, only the recent mature forestry impeding views towards the northeast. Based on its location, the enclosure was categorised as Hillslope fort in the most recent assessment (Atlas of Hillforts: site record SC3852).
Given its condition, the Sheriffside enclosure was only identified in 1981 by the Royal Commission during one of their regular aerial sorties of East Lothian since 1970s (eg Cowley 2016, 62–63). The rectified aerial plot suggested a double ditched enclosure of sub-circular form, with two breaks through both circuits indicating possible entrances to the southwest and northeast respectively. At maximum identifiable extent, the enclosure measures approximately 110 m internally and 145 m externally.
The six seasons at Sheriffside consisted of a suite of investigative techniques (Figure 1 and 2) and the information presented here is based on the DSR reports for each season (Connolly et al 2011; Cook, Connolly and Druce 2012; Cook and Connolly 2015, 2016, 2017; Cook, Connolly and McCormick 2018; Connolly, Cook and Kdolska in prep). The non-invasive methods comprised aerial photographic rectification, topographic survey, and two types of geophysical survey (ground resistance and magnetometry). In contrast to the upstanding White Castle (see case study), where the extant visible remains predominately informed trench placement, the Sheriffside excavations relied on these non-invasive techniques, particularly geophysics, to target potential archaeology. In fact, the failure in the first (trial) season to locate the two ditches from the ‘erroneous’ aerial transcript led to the alteration of the methodology to deturfing larger areas with JCB and targeting exposed archaeology by key-hole sondages. The excavations targeted main stratigraphic features, with aim to recover taphonomically secure charcoal samples for C14 analysis. Apart from the topsoil stripping, all trenches were hand-excavated and all recording procedures followed CIfA standards (CIfA 2014).
The enhanced topographic survey of the entire site, while increasing understanding of the topographic setting of the two large ditches, failed to uncover any other features or add significant detail. The exception were slight traces of what turned out to be remains of a possible scooped settlement and two recent backfilled quarries to the southwest, which severely impacted the site. Two types of geophysical surveys (Figure 2) were undertaken to complement the results of the topographic survey, and to test the efficacy of each methodology. Both types were carried out by members of the Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society. The resistivity survey covered 2.15ha and confirmed the two possible entrances (to North East and South West) and the two large ditches identified by the 1981 aerial photography, although their precise route was different. This suggests that the original aerial rectification connected the incorrect sets of features. New features consisted of five potential palisades and three ditches. The subsequent magnetometer survey over the portion of the site (c 1.04ha), while being severely impacted by presence of a basanite bedrock ((highly magnetised rock) in central area, have added more detail to several of the palisades (circuits) and confirmed the disturbed ground to the southeast (ie the scooped settlement).
The excavations (Figure 1 and 2) comprised eight trenches, including two long and narrow soundings (c 22m long by 1m/0.5m wide) and four larger open areas (up to 20 m by 20–30 m). Despite using mechanical excavators to strip topsoil, the resulting excavations were of a minimal scale: with some 4% of site deturfed and 1% excavated. Despite the initial failure to locate the two ditches, the small-scale interventions and the significant plough-truncation of the interior of the enclosure, the excavations revealed pockets of deep archaeological deposits, particularly around the slopes. A complex series of enclosing elements were also exposed (Figure 2). While the different palisades and ditches uncovered in various trenches and seasons cannot be explicitly linked until a full analyses is complete (Connolly, Cook and Kdolska in prep), the preliminary assessment suggests at least 5 separate palisades and equal number of ditches potentially forming ten circuits. To these can be added a proxy evidence of collapsed banks composed of rounded to sub-rounded, tightly packed stony deposits, exposed in two of the ditches (DIT 4/6 and DIT 5). Of interest is the significant evidence of scorch marks or burnt soil associated with PAL 1 and PAL 2, suggesting they have been destroyed by fire.
Apart from the enclosing works, the excavations also uncovered remains of a potential scooped settlement located to the southeast of the site. This comprised a large terrace (STR 1), orientated northeast to southwest, cut into the hillside, and including remains of a platform with stony surface(s). A number of post-holes and possible beam slots or drainage gullies were associated with the surface/platform, which was overlain with several charcoal and organic rich deposits (possible midden material). The post-holes and beam slots, together with the stone platform, were interpreted as elements of former timber structure/roundhouse. Although detailed analyses of the finds has not been yet carried out, the fragment of a beehive quern (SF4) recovered from the stony surface associated with STR 1 suggest use in late centuries BC/early AD, based on other known examples in Southeast Scotland and East Lothian (eg Hunter, Lowther and MacSween 2009, 125–128; McLaren 2013, 311). Its incorporation into a surface/paving has parallels in the area, for instance at the relatively close excavated cropmark enclosure of Knowes, where remains of scooped settlement were also uncovered (Haselgrove, Fitts and Carne 2009, 96–128; Cowley 2009, 218). This adds important new evidence to the local corpus of known sites of this type and period.
While the 10 radiocarbon dates (Figure 3) can only be used to interpret individual events, they do indicate a significant time-depth of the site’s use over some 1200 years: from the 8th century BC to the late 4th century AD (c 791–486 BC to AD 211–384), though this is unlikely to represent a continuous occupational sequence. During its life-span, the site likely consisted of both open and enclosed settlement and the preliminary analysis of the combined evidence of re-cuts and radiocarbon dates recovered from the circuits clearly suggest that not all of the ditches and palisades were present or functioning at the same time, as noted on other sites in the area, notably Broxmouth (Armit & McKenzie 2013), this of similar longevity to Sheriffside, starting in c 640/570–490/430BC and ending c AD 420–540 (Armit and McKenzie 2013, 18–19; Hamilton et al 2013). Nonetheless, some of the circuits feasibly coexisted: for instance the large DIT 1 had a near basal fill dated to AD 211-384, while DIT 4, of similar alignment, scale and profile to DIT 1, had upper fills dated to cal AD 126-260 and cal AD 58-125, respectively. Correspondingly, while it is assumed that the scooped settlement, dated to 120 BC to AD 60 and AD 41–87, was unenclosed, it sat within the perimeter of DIT 1 and its dates suggest it could have been partially contemporary with it, and by proxy with DIT 2.
While the final analyses of the results of Sheriffside interventions is still underway, undoubtedly, these works have added important new evidence to the overall corpus of East Lothian enclosures (forts), as well as raising some key questions regarding methodologies of cropmark assessment and interpretations. The works have increased significantly the number of enclosing works, their complexity, as well as the longevity of the site, with the confirmed activity on site span some 1200 years from 8th century BC to 4th century AD. The bivallate ditched enclosure with two entrances from the original, inaccurate, aerial transcript has been transformed to multiple ditched and palisaded enclosures, and potentially unenclosed scooped settlement.
Sheriffside Canmore Record: https://canmore.org.uk/site/56099/sheriffside
Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland: Sheriffside Record SC3852 https://hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk/records/SC3852.html
Armit, I and McKenzie, J (eds) 2013 An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the South-East Scottish Iron Age. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
CIfA 2014 Standard and guidance for archaeological excavation. Published December 2014, updated 1 October 2020. Available at: https://www.archaeologists.net/sites/default/files/CIfAS%26GExcavation_2.pdf
Connolly D, Cook, M, Dinning, S, Druce, D and Rocks-Macqueen, D 2011 Rampart Scotland Project 003: Sheriffside, Gifford, East Lothian, Season 1. Unpublished Data Structure Report. Available at: http://www.rampartscotland.co.uk/index.php/publications/
Cook, M, Connolly, D and Druce, D 2012 Rampart Scotland Project 003: Sheriffside, Gifford, East Lothian, Season 2. Unpublished Data Structure Report. http://www.rampartscotland.co.uk/index.php/publications/
Cook, M and Connolly, D 2015 Rampart Scotland Project 003: Sheriffside, Gifford, East Lothian, Season 3. Unpublished Data Structure Report. Available at: http://www.rampartscotland.co.uk/index.php/publications/
Cook, M and Connolly, D 2016 Rampart Scotland Project 003: Sheriffside, Gifford, East Lothian, Season 4. Unpublished Data Structure Report. Available at: http://www.rampartscotland.co.uk/index.php/publications/
Cook, M and Connolly, D 2017 Rampart Scotland Project 003: Sheriffside, Gifford, East Lothian, Season 5. Unpublished Data Structure Report. Available at: http://www.rampartscotland.co.uk/index.php/publications/
Cook, M Connolly, D and McCormick, T 2018 Rampart Scotland Project 003: Sheriffside, Gifford, East Lothian, Season 6. Unpublished Data Structure Report. Available at: http://www.rampartscotland.co.uk/index.php/publications/
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