The first week: Picts, princes and people

Our first week on site has been brilliant. The excavations are taking place as the Caithness Archaeological Trust and the Auckengill Heritage Trust have a strong desire to encourage interest in the archaeology in and around Auckengill and Keiss. Their immediate concern is with Nybster broch.

Nybster is one of the most important Iron Age broch sites on mainland Scotland and work began again on Monday following the previous work in April/May.

The project is a community project with both Trusts eager to encourage all ages to take part. The volunteer numbers have exceeded expectations with over 30 individuals taking part in the first week. Roughly half of the volunteers have been from the county; the other half have included people from other parts of Scotland, Ireland, France, Switzerland and even America. Indeed, some international volunteers have organised their holidays around taking part in the excavations.

Visitor numbers have also been high. Of course, the highlight of the week was the visit of HRH Duke of Rothesay on Tuesday. His enthusiasm for the county and her heritage was very clear and his visit was a huge boost to the project. The Tweets and Dig Diary have been successful in keeping people updated with progress.

So what have the community found so far?

As we have discussed in other diary entries we have been focussing on two main areas: the rampart and ditch, and outbuildings.

Colin, Neil, Mark and Gordon have done an exceptional job in the first week. Their huge effort has demonstrated that the site was enclosed by a monumental rampart wall and ditch. Given the amount of rubble and dressed stone recovered from the ditch fill the rampart wall must have been metres high. The ditch was cut into bedrock with the ditch technically acting as a quarry for the building stone.

On a site like this it is too easy to be overawed with the broch. But the rampart and ditch was a monumental construction. An intimidating presence in the Caithness landscape over 2000 years ago. One would have approached the site with trepidation and awe, pausing to wonder what lurked behind the walls.

The massively-built rampart - note how the bedrock has been quarried.

The other volunteers have been excavating three outbuildings of which at least one is similar to ‘cellular’ buildings found in other areas of Atlantic Scotland. It is probable that all of these buildings date to the post-broch period, probably the Pictish period.

Yesterday we reached the levels where Tress Barry and his team reached and stopped. The next week will focus on picking apart the sequence and excavating untouched areas.

A good number and range of finds have been found during the first week. The usual animal remains and stone tools have been recovered. A number of pottery sherds, including rim and bases sherds, have been found which will aid the development of a Caithness pottery sequence. The bone needle and glass melon bead fragment were welcome finds.

The combined excavations at Nybster have uncovered the full suite of artefacts you would associate with a high status site: Roman pottery, jewellery and non-ferrous metalworking. Taken alongside the monumental architecture, the location, and longevity of the site there can be little doubt that Nybster was one of, if not the, most important Iron Age site on the northern mainland. Over the next week we will continue to unlock her secrets.

But the final comment in this Sunday review must go to the community. The interest and enthusiasm has been exceptional. There have been many highlights.

One highlight has been watching the way that many locals (for example Rhona, Gordon, Meg and Colin) have grown in confidence over the months and years we have known them. They have been teaching people throughout the excavations, teaching new people techniques and helping them identify structures and small finds. The heritage of Caithness is in safe hands.

Another highlight has been the high number of volunteers and visitors. This shows that slowly but surely people are realising that the understudied and under promoted heritage of Caithness is well worth a visit and worthy of a few more night stays in the county. Sincere thanks to everyone who has visited so far.

Who knows what next week will bring.

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