The impact of development-led investigation on the understanding of early medieval rural settlement in the Lothians

By Cathy MacIver, AOC Archaeology

Research into the early medieval period in East Lothian, like elsewhere, has often focussed on the high-status sites such as forts, power centres and ecclesiastical centres. Sites such as Castle Park, Dunbar, (Perry 2000; Holdsworth 1993), Dun Eidyn (Driscoll and Yeoman 1997), Cramond (Cook, Lawson et al forthcoming), Auldhame (Crone and Hindmarch 2016) and Aberlday (Murray et al, 2016) fall into this category and have received attention from sustained research projects as well as rescue excavation. Particularly in the lowland agricultural zones early medieval settlements are challenging to identify and distinguish from their prehistoric or medieval counterparts. However, recent development-led excavations accompanied by extensive radiocarbon dating has led to the unexpected identification of several low lying and potentially relatively low status agricultural settlements. Sites such as Ratho Quarry (Smith 1995), Maybury Park (Moloney and Lawson 2006) Newbridge (Dunbar and Engl 2016) and Gogar (Will and James 2017; Will 2018) have all identified rural settlement sites dating to the early medieval period. 

A recent example includes excavation of a settlement site by Dalmeny, the site of 12th century St Cuthbert’s Church (Canmore ID: 50567), dedicated to the 7th century AD saint. Here a two phased settlement was recorded, with activity spanning the 7th-9th centuries AD (Marot forthcoming). The first phase comprised a series of curvilinear enclosures, probably associated with trench or post built structures that were truncated by later activity. Overlying these with no discernible pause in activity noted in the radiocarbon dates were more substantial buildings (Marot). These comprised sub-rectangular stone footings more akin to those seen at higher status sites such as The Fey Field at Whithorn (McComish & Petts 2008, 48), Castle Park Dunbar and at Auldhame. Tools and metalworking evidence suggest the presence of a workshop and a glass vessel fragment, similar to an inkwell fragment identified at Auldhame, could indicate close links with a more high-status Anglian site (Campbell in Marot forthcoming).

Digital drawn plan of an oval archaeological feature in black and grey, with a storm drain grid in light blue.
Site plan © AOC Archaeology

The earlier phase of curvilinear ditches and enclosure at Dalmeny has similarities to features identified during excavations at Burdiehouse between 2014-2016. Here a series of intercutting curvilinear ditches, pits and postholes formed truncated remains of a rural agricultural settlement representing continued use from the mid 7th century to the late 10th century (MacIver and Paton 2023). Set within these ditched enclosures adjacent to a substantial U-shaped enclosure was a small post-defined building with internal stone-built hearth. It would have measured a minimum of c. 2.5m by 5m internally and was truncated by agricultural activity. Radiocarbon dates from the postholes and hearths indicated the structure dated to some point between the mid 7th century to mid 9th centuries AD.  In addition to several postholes and pits a small stone platform was also identified within the settlement.  Additional radiocarbon dates from the ditches, several pits and the platform produced corresponding dates to the small building. A corn drying kiln was also noted adjacent to the early site, which dated to the 10th-12th centuries AD, indicating a continuation of settlement in the vicinity. 

A full colour reconstruction drawing of a large fenced enclosure, with a smaller sub-oval enclosure inside and a rectangular shelter with smoke coming from the roof. Farm animals are seen within the enclosures.
Reconstruction of the early phases of the settlement at Burdiehouse © AOC Archaeology

The lack of artefactual evidence from the site meant that at the time of excavation the chronology of the site remained unclear. It was noted that the relatively unassuming features were entirely in keeping with sites confirmed or assumed to be medieval or post-medieval in date (MacIver and Paton 2023). It was only with the undertaking of a relatively thorough radiocarbon dating programme, made possible by the developer funding that the site was revealed to date to the early medieval period. Burdiehouse was therefore a valuable addition to the small but growing archaeological dataset of low-lying agricultural settlements dating from the Anglian period in the Lothians. Mundane agricultural settlements in lowland agricultural settings are often hard to define, truncated and poorly dated, with a high potential to be overlooked. However, as they are beginning to be recognised and emerge through development-led work it is likely that many more will be identified as urban centres expand. This will provide a broader picture of settlement patterns than research with a bias towards high status or elite sites ahs enabled. It is likely that through understanding well preserved examples of mundane settlement it will be possible to ascertain more data on the social dynamics of the region, particularly important as the understanding of the exact nature and extent of Anglian control over the Lothians is still poorly understood (Fraser 2009; Blackwell 2018).

Excavation image showing the grey-brown soil with a sub-oval structure visible as large sotnes and postholes defining the shape. Inside this feature is a clearly burnt area, representing the hearth.
General view of the hearth within early medieval post-defined building © AOC Archaeology


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