Massive Archaeology Projects Announced For Caithness, Scotland

By Caroline Lewis | 23 June 2006
photo of a small island in a lake with trees growning on it which are reflected in the water

A crannog. Courtesy Caithness Archaeological Trust

There won’t be a dull moment in Caithness this summer, if you’re an archaeologist.

The most northerly county on the British mainland will undergo more excavations and underwater explorations than any other region in the country over the next few months, with projects looking at Neolithic and Bronze Age cairns, Iron Age brochs and crannogs, medieval castles and shipwrecks. One team will reverse the trend and rebuild some stone structures in 3000BC style.

“At last,” said Emma Sanderson, Archaeological Development Officer for the Caithness Archaeological Trust, “the academic world is beginning to realise what unspoilt world class archaeology Caithness has to offer.”

Indeed, because the remote, sparsely populated region has undergone less development than the Central Belt of Scotland, it possesses a wealth of well-preserved archaeological remains – with many treasures yet to be discovered.

An initial excavation of the Iron Age broch at Keiss will be led by John Barber of AOC Archaeology Group. A broch is a round stone tower, unique to Iron Age Scotland. John described the Keiss broch as a magnificent site with a village surrounding it.

“The excavations this year are only the start,” he said, “to enable more extensive excavations next year and for four years thereafter.”

photo of a man working on a construction with stone walls

Reconstructing a chambered cairn. Courtesy Caithness Archaeological Trust

John will also be leading the innovative Early Architecture Research Programme (EARP) in its reconstructions of brochs and Neolithic chambered cairns.

“Over the past two years the project has built and demolished a series of early structures,” explained John, “in controlled experiments designed to help us understand the architecture and engineering of these complex monuments.” The EARP project will provide lessons in interpretation and conservation of drystone archaeological monuments for archaeologists across Britain.

At Battle Moss, a team from Glasgow University will be looking an original Bronze Age cairn and associated stone rows. Earlier investigations in 2003 and 2005 focussed on a set of multiple stone rows and a multiphase cairn that they appear to align on. It was discovered that the cairn underwent at least three phases of use during the early and middle Bronze Ages (c2500-1700BC).

Work will also continue at Sinclair Girnigoe Castle, one of the many throughout Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands that was held by the ancient ‘lordly line of high St. Clair’, in particular the Sinclair Earls of Caithness. This work will involve the York based Field Archaeology Specialists and the Caithness Archaeological Trust.

Off land, two new exciting underwater archaeology projects will begin.

Pioneering surveys of now submerged crannogs (artificial island settlements) in Caithness will be carried out by AOC Archaeology Group and archaeologists from the University of Nottingham.

“We intend to take samples from these crannogs for radiocarbon dating,” said team leader Graeme Cavers. “The survey of the crannogs in the Loch of Yarrows, Loch Clader, Loch Watten and Loch Scarmclate will add a further dimension to our understanding of prehistoric settlement in Caithness.”

graphic computerised 3 d survey of a round structure

Survey plan of Keiss broch. Courtesy Caithness Archaeological Trust

The rough seas and treacherous coastline have also attracted the attention of archaeologists at Nottingham University Underwater Archaeology Research Centre. They will be attempting to find out more about the wrecks that lie strewn in the notorious ships’ graveyard around Caithness. The coastal waters have a long history of maritime accidents, yet remain one of the most under-researched areas in underwater archaeology.

“The region is steeped in maritime history - ” said project co-ordinator Simon Davidson, “evidence for which is still lying there on the seabed.”

Simon’s team are linking up with local scuba diving club the Caithness Dive Club, relying on their considerable experience of exploring the shipwrecks to help them locate and identify some of the more mysterious sites.

“We’re keen to finally solve the mystery of what happened to the V81, a German destroyer which sank in 1921 off Sinclair’s Bay whilst being towed from Scapa Flow,” said Simon.

“The wreck is badly broken up, and it has been hard to conclusively prove its identity from desk-based records alone, but Caithness Dive Club assure me it is the V81!” he said. “We’re going to do some diagnostic comparison with her sister ship, the V83 which is interred at Scapa, and then we’ll know for sure.”

Several of the projects also fall under the River of Stone programme, a scheme that promotes local community and economic development through archaeology.