Archaeologists discover skeletons of cows and pony, domestic oven and industrial complex in medieval Scottish town

By Ben Miller | 18 April 2016

From wells to a pony, a huge dig next to the 19th century Town House in the Scottish town of Irvine has produced some amazing archaeological finds dating back to the 13th century. Claire Williamson, who is leading the project for Rathmell Archaeology, takes a look around the site

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"This is a view of the Irvine Town House site before the archaeological work begins, but after the demolition of the structures that used to stand here.

This ground, destined for development, lies in the core of the medieval burgh of Irvine. As such, it offered an unrivalled opportunity for archaeologists to explore the origins of the town and the people who lived, worked and built our community over the centuries."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"One of the more surprising groups of features excavated on the site was a series of three animal burials that lay together at the back of one of the burgage plots. In each instance the whole articulated skeleton - two cows and a pony - was buried in an individual grave, with no apparent attempt to butcher or otherwise use the body – a practice that would have been common in medieval Scotland.

Faunal analysis of the bones should gather information on the age, sex, size and wellbeing of the animals. The archaeologists will probably date some of the bones so that we understand when these unusual burials occurred."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"The first stage of the excavation saw the archaeologists bring a 13-ton tracked excavator on to the site. This began to carefully dig down through the debris left by the 19th and 20th century use of the area.

The aim was to skim off modern material to expose earlier, buried, layers and structures that may have been formed during the medieval occupation of Irvine. Here, a boundary wall emerges under the watchful eye of an archaeologist."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"A view of the first large area to be opened up and cleaned back. The site team quite literally flagged up the identifiable archaeological features and finds which then needed to be more fully investigated by hand excavation.

They can be seen by the darker, more topsoil-like fills in these pits and ditches as they cut through the natural sand subsoil. At this stage the archaeologists began to realise the sheer scale of the surviving archaeology from medieval Irvine."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"This is a close-up view of a pit half-sectioned, showing the preserved wood-lining within the pit. This wood lining was most likely placed there to help make the pit watertight, with the timbers potentially coming from barrels that are being reused for this purpose.

The survival of timber on the Town House site was a great surprise, suggesting that ground water levels have historically been higher in this area, helping to preserve the wood in waterlogged conditions. The timbers were sampled, hopefully allowing the archaeologists to date them using dendrochronology – tree-ring analysis."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"Throughout the excavations the archaeologists steadily recovered a large assemblage of pottery dating from the 13th to the 21st century. This image shows a close-up of a fragment of medieval pottery before its removal from one of the pit features on site.

The analysis of this material should be able to illustrate the changing patterns of wealth, domestic habits and international contacts of the burgh. Medieval pottery sherds have already been identified coming from across Europe, ranging from modern-day Germany to Valencia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"This image shows a feature that has been half-sectioned – the archaeologists have carefully dug away half the feature to show the pit into which the layers were deposited. The reddening of the layers suggests intense heat - this may be the remains of a medieval oven, possibly built for domestic use, which would have lain to the rear of any house facing onto the High Street.

You can also see the chalk board and north arrow that the archaeologists use in photographs to record what is in the image, and the one-metre scale pole to record the size of the feature."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"In the foreground of this image is a half-sectioned feature that was one of several pits and short ditches which divided up the burgage plots in the town. The term ‘burgage plot’ refers to the narrow strip of land which lay behind medieval townhouses that fronted onto the High Street and which were used for a mixture of domestic, horticultural and industrial purposes.

A later wall can be seen on the same alignment in the rear of shot, illustrating that while land boundaries remain very static over time the nature of the boundary can change."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"A close-up view of a half sectioned pit shows how we can recognise the different layers that fill this feature – the stratigraphy – by the changes in the appearance of the layers. The upper fill here is much blacker than the more brownish lower fill, indicating a different process of filling and of the source material used.

At the base of this pit is the suggestion of a stone structure. It has been so badly robbed out that the function is uncertain...but it clear that this was once stone-lined."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"As we can see, the pits and ditches across the site were partially excavated at first, enabling the archaeologists to note and record the build-up of soil fills and identify finds within these fills.

After this, the remaining halves of the features were excavated more rapidly. This ensured that the archaeologists both recovered any other artefacts from within the feature and revealed their full shape."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"As well as excavating features to recover samples and artefacts, the archaeologists must ensure that they record an accurate record of the archaeological features they have investigated. The first and last stage of recording any archaeological feature on site involves photography.

Taking an accurate, scaled image of the features will ensure that other records generated can be checked. Often a good image picks up details missed by the human eye."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"Remains of horticultural furrows came to light during the excavation in the rear of one of the burgage plots – the separate land parcels within the burgh, each of which had a narrow street frontage onto the High Street. These furrows were probably deepened planting slots, evidence for allotments at one stage in the use of this land where the plot’s owner grew their fruit and vegetables on a significant scale.

Note the sloped edge behind the archaeologists: this ensured a safer working environment, removing the potential for excavation edges to collapse."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"Written observations also formed a large part of the recording of the archaeology on site. The archaeologist needs to describe the form, size and construction of features and sediments as well as theorising as to their function or use.

This working interpretation will also drive the sampling, artefact recovery and illustration regime for a feature."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"On the eastern side of the site the archaeologists uncovered a complex set of features – these appear to be matching pairs of large lined or tanked pits and small wells.

This is a mid-excavation view of the complex showing the connected wells (one on the left of shot) and the large lined pits equipped with a set of stone steps (one in the foreground and one back right) which descended into the pit or chamber."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"As the excavator continued its work, the archaeologists began to clean back the exposed surfaces with hand tools.

This is normally undertaken with hoes and krafses (a particularly well-suited Norwegian hoe). As they cleaned, they were on the constant lookout for finds and features that could be significant."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"This view of the early stages of the excavation already shows significant progress being made with evidence of medieval occupation revealed.

While the archaeologists were on site they established a compound to the rear of the Town House in an area they had previously tested to make sure there wasn’t significant archaeology there."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"This is a close-up view of one of the apparently matched pairs of a well and a lined pit. The well, on the left, is a stone lined short shaft which suggests the water table was higher during the medieval period than it is now (fortunately for the archaeologists).

The stone-lined pit on the right has steps in the foreground leading down into this chamber that is at a similar depth to the well. The archaeologists consider it likely that water drawn from the well was used in a craft industry within the lined pit – given the likely medieval date of these features, the provisional hypothesis is that they are linked to tanning or similar treatment of animal by-products."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"While the walls of this chamber or pit were built with stone, the archaeologists discovered a series of timbers lying across the base of the pit. Given that this is one of the lined pits that is matched to a well, this may suggest the pit had a timber floor forming a sunken tank that had a semi-permeable base.

"Again this reinforces the archaeologist hypothesis that these pits are linked to tanning – where hides would be soaked for long periods."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"Soil samples were taken from a number of features across the site excavated by the archaeologists. The samples will often contain charred plant remains such as grains from wheat or weed species that have been gathered up by accident, so these bulk soil samples have the potential to reveal important environmental information, which allow the archaeologists to work out what these features were used for and the nature of the environment during the medieval period.

Some of those charred plant remains could also be used during the analysis stage of the project as dating samples, being submitted for radiocarbon dating."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"Due to the destructive nature of archaeology, detailed vertical elevations or section drawings of features were also completed. These drawings can be used to show stone or wooden structures as well as the build-up of soils and debris within pits or ditches.

They are normally drawn relative from a fixed string line which is levelled to be horizontal. The archaeologist is measuring down from the string line in this image."

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig on brown mud at Irvine Townhouse in Ayr
© Rathmell Archaeology / North Ayrshire Council
"Archaeology is a destructive discipline – though that destruction is very careful and systematic in its nature. But the process of excavation at the Town House site has destroyed the features it examined – so the mechanical excavator was brought back to reinstate the area ready for development works to commence.

This is not an end to the archaeologists' work, though. They now have the considerable task of researching and analysing all the material they have taken from the site and present their findings. Only then will we fully discover the secrets they have unearthed."


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Three museums to discover the archaeology of Scotland in

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
The current Celts exhibition tells the story of the different peoples who have used or been given the name ‘Celts’ through the stunning art objects that they made, including intricately decorated jewellery, highly stylised objects of religious devotion, and the decorative arts of the late 19th century which were inspired by the past. Until October 25 2016.

The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
The permanent gallery, The Antonine Wall: Rome's Final Frontier, showcases the collection of spectacular monumental sculpture and other Roman artefacts recovered from the Wall, including richly sculptured distance slabs, unique to the frontiers of the Roman Empire.

Museum of Edinburgh
Roman and Dark Age Cramond is a celebration of 60 years of archaeological research at Cramond. The Roman occupation and Dark Age bodies from the Bathhouse are explored, and the forensic science behind archaeological investigation such as Isotopic, DNA, forensic analysis and reconstructions are explained.
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