Digging the Largest Pictish Fort in Scotland.



My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent

The original fort occupied over 7acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.
However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

IMG_0313         Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’ Photo Anji Hancock

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy McIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy’s sharp eyes and years of experience spotted 2 special finds in amongst the midden debris of bones, shells and clag- a simple bronze finger ring and a bone pin with a head decorated with cross-hatching.

30706153_10160134400775648_3327102922721853440_n-2       The bone pin found by Cathy. Photo Northern Picts

Later, another volunteer found a second bone pin whilst sieving Cathy’s spoil.


                      The second bone pin. Photo Northern Picts

The second excavation into the rampart wall was on the upper level overlooking the sea. The grassy bank is all that is visible of the previously 8m thick wall. Now the shoreline is directly below this and it’s amazing to think how much the coastline has changed since the time of occupation.
We had barely been aware of the two diggers who seemed to keep themselves isolated in their lofty, upper level until they announced they’d found a dog skeleton. Intrigued we clambered up to take a look.

Sticking out from the trench wall was the front of the dog’s head with all its teeth bared. A bit grisly looking, our bone expert was very confident it was a recent addition to the headland. For a novice digger like me it was interesting to identify the cut of the pit in the section which someone had dug in order to bury poor, deceased ‘Fido’.



Trench wall with dog skull in situ. Photo-Anji Hancock

This trench became more interesting as it went down. Stonework and burnt timber was uncovered. Excitement grew that an undamaged section of the inner wall might be found. In order to safely deepen the
trench it also needed to be
widened. Enter team Hancock.

We were to be ‘promoted’ to the upper level! I might have felt more privileged if there hadn’t been a strong wind blowing from the west which was resulting in sandstorm-type conditions I was a bit more familiar with in my previous life in Saudi Arabia. In true Middle East style I wrapped my head up in a scarf and begun to attack the tumble of stones and rubble. The layer of sand that was building up on the tarpaulin for our spoil made sense of the layers of sandy soil we had dug through in the trenches on the lower level. Looking across the bay to Findhorn we were reminded of the 2 previous villages which had to be abandoned because of severe sandstorms which had buried them. Had the previous occupants of the fort also had to suffer the unpleasantness and inconvenience of sandstorms? I always find when digging I begin not just to try to make sense of what I see before me but to wonder about exactly what the landscape was like and how this would impact on the inhabitants of the time.



By now I was so sandy it wasn’t bothering me anymore. As we dug down we created our own sheltered space out of the wind and we begun to find bones- lots of them. They appeared this time to be more in keeping with the occupation and as far as we could tell they were cattle. Although, the important focus of this trench was to find the inner wall of the rampart I got far more excited by my bone discoveries! Clearly, I haven’t quite moved on from an amateur ‘it’s all about the finds’ mentality!

 A bag of cattle bones. Photo Anji Hancock

By the end of the day the ‘real’ archaeologists were rewarded with uncovering the intact inner wall face.

I will not attempt to explain it but instead include the link to this fantastic 3D graphic by James of Aberdeen University.






(Taken from Northern Picts Facebook Page)
This is the remarkably intact upper citadel rampart with burnt horizontal wall timber preserved in situ in the wallface of the Pictish fort.

So, after my 3 days of ‘scratching below the surface’ of Burghead I was certainly right in thinking there was more to Burghead than fishing and a good harbour. As the site of the largest known Pictish Fort in Scotland it must have once been a place of great importance.



Canmore, Burghead:



3D model of wall excavation:

Northern Picts Facebook Page:

What did you find today?

I haven’t been on many archaeology digs but I suppose it’s to be expected when you tell someone what you’re doing they invariably ask- What did you find? or Did you find anything? Rarely, have I unearthed anything of great importance but often I’ve been given a tray to put in assorted finds which might include charcoal, bone or pottery depending on the era of the excavation. But what happens to these trays after they are handed in at the end of the day? Since I couldn’t join the trowellers in the trenches, due to a hand operation a few weeks ago, I had opted to help with the finds so I was going to find out.

This week at Tarradale the focus is shell middens from the Mesolithic. Being the Mesolithic there is an expectation to find lithics i.e. pieces of flint or quartz that have been worked in order to be used as tools. Lithics can be very small so easily missed by the troweller in the trench so all their excess trowel material needs to be sieved and in order to make it easier to spot -wet sieved! Sounds fun eh? Donning my waterproof everything I headed to the wet sieving station situated away from the driveway amongst some shrubs and trees.


I am beginning to realise that archaeologists and their volunteers are nothing if not resourceful and my sieving machine proved this once again. Holes had been drilled in a discarded fish box which had then been mounted on a wooden stand. Inside a piece of fine mesh netting held in place with 6 large clips did the job of allowing the water and soil to pass through but to trap the bigger pieces, hopefully including lithics. I emptied half a bag of trowelled material from Mary’s area and set to work with my high powered hose. Although, a few shiny things caught my eye and I stopped the hose to investigate further they were only fragments of shell with jagged edges. Oyster shells, cockle shells, mussels and winkles filled the bottom of the sieve but no lithics or any other proof of Mesolithic people having created the abundance of shell material being investigated on site. I tipped the washed material onto a tray lined with old newspaper and wrote the information about which trench it was from on a white garden label. On to the next batch, and then the next and the next – still nothing exciting. However, just like trowelling there is always the thought that a find will turn up in the next section. From time to time I wandered up to the polytent for more trays to put the washed material in and to have a chat with Linda, who was painstakingly going through some dry shell material looking for lithics and charcoal.


Lunch came and we all gathered under the gazebo in the garden to catch up with what we’d all been dong and to ask- have you found anything? This lunchtime also included a wee talk from Steve mainly about how antlers and bone were used to make a variety of tools. This was extremely interesting and fascinating as Steve had created a few of the tools he was showing us using the type of flint tools that have been found from Mesolithic times. Jonie’s husband Richard had made a wooden replica of the impressive antler mattock uncovered last week. Seeing this and hearing Steve describe how it may have been made certainly helped give it life and a small glimpse into the skills of Mesolithic people.


Lunch over it was back to washing my shell midden material. Still nothing to report. Before long Anne came to get me to work in the gatehouse and record the finds some people had been lucky enough to find. Now I was to find out what happens to that mixed back of finds I have handed in at the end of the day. Each tray was gone through, sorting the contents by material and discarding any that, like my shiny shell, had tricked the troweller into thinking it was something more important. A bag for each material is labelled with the information about it, entered on a card in the dig folder and a smaller duplicate card put inside the bag. Now the bag is ready to be sent for the relevant analysis.


My day working on the finds came to an end. I’ve certainly learned a lot and am I dispondant at not finding anything sieving? – not at all. I’m back there tomorrow and who knows what’s waiting in those unopened bags.

Learning a new skill.

Plane Tabling? What on earth is that? That was my response to my husband’s query whether we should sign ourselves up for some of the latest NOSAS (North of Scotland Archaeology Society) activities.

Needless to say I googled it! I still wasn’t sure if it was really my thing as I’m not exactly very precise when it comes to measuring and accurate scale drawings which is what it sounded like it entailed. However, what could be the harm in giving it a go and it meant a day out in the fresh air in a part of the country I didn’t know much about. So we signed ourselves up to ‘plane table’ Ormond Castle by Avoch on The Black Isle.


Not a lot remains of this little understood Medieval enclosure castle which is situated on top of the hill. It is traditionally associated with William the Lionheart who built 2 castles on The Black Isle in 1179. This is believed to be the remains of one of them. After being in the hands of the de Moray family it passed to Royal control in 1455 and in 1481 James III granted it to his son, the Marquis of Ormond where it gets its present name from. It was destroyed during Cromwell’s invasion in 1650, with the stones being removed to build his Citadel in Inverness.

The local Avoch archaeology group wanted to record the remaining features of the castle and look into the possibility of a dig sometime in the future. Nowadays, a lot of the recording processes are done with modern instruments like GPS and laser measuring devices but traditionally the process known as ‘plane tabling’ has been used.



After a wee introduction we were assigned to groups and given a section of the site to record. Breathing a sigh of relief, I was told my leader knew all about the process. We only had to record the outlines of features e.g walls that we could ‘see’. However, as everything was overgrown with grass including old tree stumps this wasn’t straightforward and led to a few discussions about where the edges actually were! Measurements were taken and it was all plotted on the paper, before joining up the dots and drawing shapes which hopefully matched what we could see on the ground.

Although the day was a little dull, it stayed dry with only a gentle breeze so our coffee and lunch breaks sitting on top of the hill were very enjoyable. The views down to the small village of Avoch, the snowy hills to the west and across the firth to the Inverness airport area were beautiful. Truly, a great site for a castle.

Our task was purely to record the castle and absolutely not to dig or excavate in any way. However, animals had been digging around so one of the leaders had a wee look at the burrows in case anything had come to the surface. She was rewarded with a piece of medieval pottery which she has now passed on to the concerned authorities.


It doesn’t look very exciting but in real life you could see the typically green glaze that was common at this time. It also reminded me of the pieces that were excavated at Cromarty – not so very far away- last summer.

Well, despite my reservations I really enjoyed the new experience and think my measuring and recording was reasonably accurate! There are 3 more plane tabling days planned to record other sites and I definitely want to go to at least one of them to practise what I’ve learnt and hopefully improve on it- I just hope I’m assigned to as knowledgable and patient a leader as I was this time.



Beginning to appreciate the Picts.

I’ve always been interested in history – the older the better as far as I’m concerned but for some reason the Picts never really ‘grabbed’ my attention much. Possibly, because there’s not a lot known about them. But with the enthusiasm of Dr. Gordon Noble, and others on the case, a better understanding of these people will hopefully be developed.

Dr. Gordon Noble at the Rhynie Dig 2015. Evidence that this was once the site of a Pictish fort was found.

Dr. Gordon Noble at the Rhynie Dig 2015. Evidence that this was once the site of a Pictish fort was found.

One thing the Picts are known for are their marvellous symbol stones. The significance of these stones and their Pictish symbols are still not fully understood. Once the Picts became introduced to Christianity, this influence can be seen on stones.

The Nigg stone is carved with a cross on one side and Pictish artwork on the other

The Nigg stone is carved with a cross on one side and Pictish artwork on the other. The carving on the top triangle area is regarded as the earliest depiction of the Eucharist.

Having recently joined NOSAS (North of Scotland Archaeology Society) I was keen to extend my knowledge of these stones on a wee tour of 3 stones near Balintore.

Being on an organised tour has it's advantages - we had the key to get inside the protective glass box for a closer look.

Being on an organised tour has it’s advantages – we had the key to get inside the protective glass box for a closer look at the Shandwick stone.

Beautiful sculpted panel.

Beautiful sculpted panel on the Shandwick stone.

The Shandwick stone inside its glass box which was recycled from the Glasgow Garden Festival a few years ago.

The Shandwick stone inside its glass box which was recycled from the Glasgow Garden Festival a few years ago.

The original is in Edinburgh museum. This is a copy carved by a local sculptor.

The original Hilton of Cadboll stone in Edinburgh museum. This is a copy carved by a local sculptor.

I thoroughly enjoyed my excursion. I think I can say that my indifference towards the Picts has gone and I have started reading any theories and evidence I can find about them. Also, there are more stones closer to home which I will have to investigate.

4 Days in the trenches!

I’ve long been interested in Archaeology, but despite Saudi Arabia being an area with so much potential in this field very little has been done to uncover it’s past. I was lucky enough to be at home on holiday a couple of years ago when a local dig was being held and so managed to get my first ever experience ‘in the trenches’. Despite only finding a couple of cows’ teeth – one of the archaeologists did console me with the thought that it was probably from an Iron Age cow- but I think he was probably just trying to keep me interested, I loved it!.

Last winter we heard there was to be a third year of a dig at Cromarty, on The Black Isle, north of Inverness. I had no doubt that  I’d somehow manage a few days up there digging. As time got nearer I was pleasantly surprised by my husband when he said he wanted to volunteer as well- so we ‘bit the bullet’ and officially committed ourselves to 3 days at the site.

Me with the official sign.

Me with the official sign.

The dig is investigating an area of the Royal Burgh of Cromarty that was occupied from 1266AD – 1880AD.

This was the 3rd year of the dig so some areas were well into the Medieval layer.

A large part of the dig.

A large part of the dig.

Being situated close to the sea it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that some of the areas being dug had thick layers of seashells. Mixed through were fish bones and other animal bones. They are assumed to be the remains of middens and possibly the shellfish were more used as bait rather than a source of food.

My husband was lucky to find a spindle whorl and a broken stone which was probably a weight from a loom.

Paul found a spindle whorl.

Paul found a loom weight.

As well as digging there were other activities to get involved with. One morning I helped with washing and sorting some of the finds. Pottery, glass and bone are scrubbed with a damp toothbrush, whereas metal objects are brushed with a dry toothbrush.


Trays of finds.

Another day we had a chance to reconstruct some of the pottery finds from the 2013 dig.

Archaeology jigsaws!

Archaeology jigsaws!

I ended up working on large white porcelain pieces – definitely not medieval but I still had a great sense of achievement at finding how they fitted together and discovering that it had probably been a soup tureen!

My partially reconstructed soup tureen!

My partially reconstructed soup tureen!

Another day we had a talk from the local potter about how the medieval pottery would have been constructed. Really interesting, as although I did some ceramics at college I hadn’t realised there were different ways to make a handle.

Demonstrating how to 'pull' a handle.

Demonstrating how to ‘pull’ a handle.

One of the ‘mysteries’ of the dig is the prolific number of quernstones that have been found. Some are complete but many broken. It could be that the local landowner had them destroyed in order that the people would have to use his mill or……..? One thing that becomes quickly apparent in archaeology- until there’s absolute proof there is always a plethora of theories!

A broken quernstone.

A broken quernstone.

We certainly had a very enjoyable and educational time. So much so that we stayed an extra day. We are also hoping that enough money will be found to continue the dig next summer as we’re both truly hooked on digging around in the trenches!

For more background and info on the project go to http://www.medievalcromarty.org