Summary of 2011’s excavations at Nybster Broch

A classic broch tower is a cooling-tower-shaped drystone-built structure, unique to Scotland, and iconic of that nation’s Iron Age.  Over 200 of the roughly 700 brochs in Scotland are to be found in Caithness, which in consequence has the highest regional concentration of brochs. In the popular imagination, however, brochs remain most commonly associated with the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. The broch at Mousa, Shetland, is the tallest at 13m, and is certainly the most famous. Relatively few brochs in mainland Scotland have been excavated in recent years. In Caithness, however, community groups have begun to excavate examples of these impressive and complex sites. This will begin to redress the geographical bias and expand the information base, helping to shed light on the people who built, rebuilt, used and reused them.

Nybster Broch is located on a dramatic coastal promontory just north of Wick. The broch and its surrounding complex of structures were excavated in the late 19th century by local landowner Sir Francis Tress Barry. Few records remain beyond paintings by John Nicolson and photographs taken by Tress Barry, who was a pioneer in the use of photographic recording on archaeological sites. Tress Barry was interested in uncovering the layout of the buildings, which he achieved by exposing and trenching along the structures’ wallfaces. The excavation of sites previously dug by antiquarian enthusiasts is often unnerving, as one never really knows the full extent of those previous forays; at both Nybster and Thrumster (Broch, excavated in July 2011 by Yarrows Heritage Trust with AOC), however, untouched archaeological deposits were present in no short supply. An upside to the antiquarian interventions is that archaeological deposits are encountered virtually just beneath the modern turf.

Previous investigations at the broch at Nybster in the summer of 2005 had shown that the massively thick (8m) walls were solidly built, with no evidence of cells, galleries or stairs; in strict classification, this places it in the simple Atlantic roundhouse category according to Armit (1991) and MacKie (2007). The roundhouse is curious in its design, with such huge walls and a relatively small interior space (just 5m in diameter); the massive effort required to build such unusually thick walls seems incongruous with the volume of interior space achieved.  The implication is that the structure attained a considerable height and had multiple floors, but this is impossible to demonstrate conclusively from the surviving remains.

As previous work had focussed on the broch at Nybster, this season’s fieldwork investigated some of the surrounding structures. The community’s excavations began by exploring the large rampart enclosing the broch and outbuildings on the promontory. Work there has shown that the defences originated with the construction of a stone-faced wall across the neck of the promontory. This primary structure, just 2.5m wide, was incorporated within a more substantial defensive rampart about 5m thick, set behind a deep rock-cut ditch. During this phase, the original entrance through the rampart was dismantled and rebuilt to incorporate a cell within the thickness of the rampart. This feature is redolent of the Clickhimin blockhouse on Shetland or that at Head of Scatness, Shetland, previously excavated by AOC. The cell had a paved floor and was accessed from within the enclosed promontory by a short flight of stairs reaching the wallhead, from which one stepped down into the room. A saddle quernstone had been built into the wall of the cell, perhaps considered too worn for purpose and reused as building material. A narrow passage defined by vertically set slabs was formed behind the rampart, and if enclosed, would have sealed off the flight of steps, at the bottom of which a pivot stone was discovered.

The rampart’s extent, construction and collapse were explored further by the excavation of a second trench, this one near the southern edge of the promontory. This exposed a section of the rampart face, sitting on bedrock, and deposits of stone collapsed from higher in the rampart were clearly visible in section. Nowhere was the enormity of the rampart builders’ gruelling task more palpable than here, with quarried bedrock and massive stone blocks exposed for the first time since prehistory.

Following the rampart’s collapse, cists (stone-lined boxes) were dug into its remains. As at other Caithness sites, these cists may be late Pictish or Viking burials dug into the ruinous remains of the broch complex; had these cists contained bone, it is unlikely that it could have survived in the prevailing conditions. The cut of the deepest cist descended through the secondary rampart until it reached the wallhead of the primary rampart. At this point, digging moved eastwards, descending sharply so that the primary rampart formed the western side of the cist. An ovoid pendant made of serpentine was discovered in the fill associated with this phase of activity. It is easy to imagine it falling unnoticed from around someone’s neck as they concentrated on digging the cist.

A second phase of excavations focussed on the cellular buildings situated close to the easterly point of the promontory. Buildings of this type are often believed to be evidence of Pictish re-use of Iron Age broch sites. We wanted to learn more about one of the largest cellular buildings (OB4), and two smaller buildings to the north (OB2E) and northwest (OB2W). The inner wallfaces of OB4 were visible thanks to Tress Barry’s work in the 1890s, so de-turfing was sufficient to reveal the basic structure of the building. Work then continued to investigate the remaining floor surfaces, revealing various paved surfaces and a number of hearths.

Some of the hearths show evidence of numerous phases of use, and will hopefully provide good dating evidence. A hearth in the form of a stone slab surrounded by a circle of end-set ovoid beach pebbles was revealed in OB2W. It seems as though Barry discovered the latter hearth during his excavations but left it in situ, continuing to excavate around it. The largest of the hearths, three-sided and rectangular with two probable pot-rest stones, was recorded by Tress Barry while others were not, although some had much taller orthostats. That any of these hearths was not noted by Tress Barry emphasises the potential for gaps in the records left for posterity by antiquarians (where any records were left at all), and reinforces the need for the multiple forms of recording employed in today’s archaeological excavations.

OB4 has two cells, one at the north-east end and the other at the south-west end of the ovoid building. The paving in these cells, as well as some massive paving slabs in the southern end of the building, was lifted in the hope that we would find dateable material in the sealed deposits beneath. We were successful on both counts, with a worked whalebone object being discovered beneath the paving in the southern cell, and small sherds of bone beneath the massive slabs in the interior of the main building.

A stack of slabs, collapsed at an angle into OB2E, concealed a context rich in archaeological material. Multiple layers of burnt material and the presence of many animal and fish bones suggest that this context was a middening deposit. Finds included numerous stone tools and pot sherds, a strike-a-light, two pot lids and a fragment of a Roman glass melon bead. This context lay above a layer of heat-damaged slabs, and was partially contained by an arc of stones, beneath which were further layers of burnt material.


The unearthing of numerous hearths and a strike-a-light in the midden deposit at Nybster give a sense of life to the broch complex. These discoveries make it easier for us to imagine that these imposing, cold, grey, dry-stone structures were home to living, breathing families, people who made jewellery and decorated their pottery. We should not patronise the broch builders by being surprised by these aesthetically pleasing finds; rather we should relish the chance to depict a more colourful image of their lives.

Ancient sites excavated and altered by antiquarian enthusiasts have long been considered unworthy of re-excavation. Thrumster and Nybster Brochs have provided ample evidence to refute this view. We should view these relatively recent phases of activity as another chapter in an ancient monument’s story, one just as worthy of archaeologists’ attention.

There is a pleasing parallel in the communal effort that must have been employed in building, reusing and maintaining these impressive sites, and in the community’s excavation of them many centuries later. We have barely begun to investigate Caithness’ brochs. Over three thousand person hours have been volunteered to this end so far; perhaps with a few thousand more we may begin to understand these enigmatic sites and those who lived, worked and died there.

Nybster Broch Project generously funded by Highland LEADER+, Heritage Lottery Fund and Highland Council.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Summary of 2011’s excavations at Nybster Broch

Initial Results of Wet Sieving

AOC’s post-excavation specialist Jackaline Robertson has recently analysed the 34 bulk soil samples that were taken during 2011’s excavations at Nybster Broch. Both artefactual and environmental material were extracted from the soil. Among the more interesting finds were an intact stone bead, pottery, daub, bone, and charred macro remains including cereals and seaweed. The charred seaweed may have been used as a fuel or even a food source.

Stone bead recovered during flotation of soil sample.

The animal bone remains were varied and included cattle, sheep and pig, some of which displayed cut-marks suggestive of butchery. Remains of smaller animals included dog and cat. Rat, vole and mouse fragments were also recovered although there is some evidence to suggest that these remains are intrusive, and that these creatures probably inhabited the broch after its abandonment. There was also evidence of the exploitation of marine and bird resources in the form of fish, whale/seal and puffin.

All of this information helps us to form a clearer picture of the lifestyles of the people who lived at Nybster Broch.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Initial Results of Wet Sieving

Photos from the excavations

For anyone keen to see more photos of the excavations, you can view albums from all four weeks spent at Nybster at You can view these albums even if you don’t use Facebook by following the links below:

Nybster Broch Project Week One

Nybster Broch Project Week Two

Nybster Broch Project Week Three

Nybster Broch Project Week Four

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Photos from the excavations

Returfed and ready to go

We spent today minimising evidence of our excavations: backfilling and returfing our trenches. The last few hardy volunteers made a sterling effort and we are grateful for their unflagging enthusiasm. Special thanks go to two of today’s volunteers: Peter came to help today for the first time, knowing that we would be backfilling and not excavating; and Islay arrived at 3pm with her 4WD truck and navigated the precarious path to the promontory, which made the laborious task of loading the equipment into the van much quicker and easier.

We left the site looking (almost) as we found it – in a few weeks time the turfs will have re-established themselves.

We would like to offer our unbounded appreciation to the many volunteers who have taken part in the Nybster Broch Project; without their contribution, none of the four weeks of excavation would have been possible. More has been achieved than either AOC or Caithness Archaeological Trust could have dared to hope. Our volunteers have been a testament to public archaeology. Thank you.

Posted in Excavations | Comments Off on Returfed and ready to go

Let them eat cake!

Second last day on site was a mixture of finishing excavation, recording and continuing with backfilling. We welcomed back Roland and Jenny who drove all the way back up from Beauly. Unfortunately Roland was not rewarded with a Pictish grave! Jenny learnt a new skill involving measuring and lasers.

We finished excavating the putative floor levels in the buildings, taking samples that we hope will provide a datable sequence. In typical fashion, Pottery Queen Rhona found the last piece of pottery.

We are delighted with the results of the last two weeks. We will write a resume of what we have found in our next posting.

Volunteers Eric and Anne painstakingly draw one of the hearths to scale.

As always the volunteers were fabulous. Colin held back his tears whilst backfilling the ditch but has become obsessed with archaeology. And Gordon, Ronald and Jenny brought lots of cake which boosted morale as we backfilled.

Last day on Saturday. It had better not rain….

Posted in Excavations | Comments Off on Let them eat cake!

Disentangling Nybster


The Jelly Baby house

We have reached that point in the excavation where we need to resolve the important questions that our Pictish building is presenting us with. As usual, things are more complicated than they appeared at ground level, and now we need to select the key areas to excavate that will clarify the relationships between features. We now know that each of the buildings saw several phases of use and refurbishment, with new hearths built to coincide with new floors. Our strategy now is designed to show how each of these phases relate to one another, and to retrieve samples that we can date with radiocarbon dating.
Rhona continued to excavate deposits undisturbed by Tress-Barry’s digging, while Anne, Eric and Gordon clarified relationships between the features in the Jelly Baby house. Lots of recording and surveying to do too – another busy day in store tomorrow!

Posted in Excavations | 2 Comments

Pottery, puddles and paving

The weather made site pretty unpleasant again today, but our trusty trowellers pushed on until the site became unworkable. Good progress was made in both the Jelly Baby house and the building to the north west of it.

Local volunteer Rhona has been cuttling the venerable Dr Heald since the weekend, wanting to lift the large slabs beneath the middening deposit. Context 2011 has been rechristened two thousand and heaven thanks to the melon bead fragment and large amounts of burnt bone, shells and stone tools discovered during excavation. Rhona finally got her way and began lifting the underlying slabs after lunch. She discovered… more slabs. And some evidence of burning. We were secretly hoping for a chariot burial , but never mind. Investigation of this feature will continue tomorrow.

Volunteer Meg and AOC’s Charlotte worked on half sectioning a clay deposit to the west of the middening deposit, and revealed a paved surface. Work will continue here tomorrow.

Anne carried on excavating one of the central hearth features in the Jelly Baby house. It shows at least two phases of use. She also discovered a large pot sherd that is unlike any of those that we have found previously. Colin and Eric lifted the massive slabs in the south of the building, and discovered animal bone beneath them. These levels have not been previously excavated by Tress Barry, so the bone may be used for dating.
When work was called off mid-afternoon due to the persistent rain, some of the volunteers went to Castletown to learn about wet sieving ; context 2011 contains cereal grains including barley.

Volunteers Anne and Rhona learn how to process soil samples with AOC's Charlotte

Photographer Mark Johnston visited the site today. He has photographed many archaeological sites before, including Clava Cairns; we look forward to seeing the results anon. Examples of his work can be found at

Posted in Excavations | Comments Off on Pottery, puddles and paving

Picking apart the Picts

Another wet and windy day on site but we still had a core group of around ten volunteers. Visitor numbers were also very high with a good number coming down to site after visiting the Caithness Broch Centre.

Colin continued looking for the back of the ditch outside the rampart. In true Colin fashion he somehow managed to remove tons of soil and rock in a few hours. Our hope of finding the back of the ditch in this trench however seem to be dashed. If true this means that the ditch was more than 6 metres wide and at least 4 metres deep. Truly monumental. Just like the gentle giant who is excavating the feature.

The rest of the team continued excavating inside the cellular buildings. Anne did a great job picking apart the complexity and phasing of truncated floor layers and hearths and a coherent picture is now emerging. In the middle of the trench the hearth seems to have been re-used; we have secure samples so hopefully dates will be forthcoming. We ended the day puzzling over some slabs in the interior which we will lift tomorrow. Who knows what lurks beneath.

In the two cells of the Jelly Baby building, Gordon and Eric lifted the paving and found sealed deposits from which, again, we are hopeful we can get dateable material. Tomorrow we will continue to pick apart the building.

Paving in the cell at the southern end of Jelly Baby house

We also continued excavating the other building to the west. Rhona, Charlotte and Meg continued excavating the hearth / midden deposit. This sat on an area of burnt and heat-affected stones. Finds continued to emerge from this burnt deposit including a small metal ring, possibly of copper. Now we are finally down to structure we will finally lift the slabs tomorrow. Rhona will, therefore, have another sleepless night wondering what lies below. I shouldn’t joke: last time Rhona lifted some slabs on an archaeological site she found a rare Iron Age stepped well….fingers crossed!

Jack was in Castletown with Paul and Muriel wet sieving. They entertained four volunteers who were shown around the labs. Varied discussions were interrupted by the recovery of decorated pottery.

A final note to the guys who were with us last week. Thanks a lot to everyone who has kept in touch via email and text with their best wishes and thoughts on the site. Keep in touch. More tomorrow…

Posted in Excavations | Comments Off on Picking apart the Picts

Wet weather gear recommended…

We arrived on site this morning to blustery wind and rain, but had a good team on hand who persevered throughout the less than favourable conditions. We were all rather muddy by 5pm, but our determination was rewarded with a few exciting discoveries.

Volunteer Rhona and AOC’s Charlotte continued excavating a middening deposit discovered last week. It contains an area of burning that appears to be contained within a roughly laid stone enclosure. This area has yielded a high number of finds, including stone pot lids, part of a melon bead, worked bone and numerous stone tools including a strike-a-light. A strike-a-light is used to start a fire by striking a stone, usually with iron, to create a spark.

The strike-a-light: note the groove down the centre of the stone.

Volunteers Eric and Anne continued investigating the deposits in the interior of the Jelly Baby house at the eastern end of the promontory. Having removed a paving slab in the southern cell, Eric came across a worked whalebone object, which will provide valuable dating evidence.

We were joined today by Hilary and A-level archaeology student Eilis, who have travelled all the way from Newcastle to participate in the project. They began trowelling in the building in the northern end of the trench, and did a great job of removing a context containing lots of shell sand, which we suspect may be related to Tress Barry’s construction of Mervyn’s Tower at the end of the 19th century.

We welcomed one of, if not the leading broch expert to site today: Euan Mackie visited Nybster , and as always he gave good advice on the structures we are uncovering. We are looking forward to working with him when we write up the site.

Jack and her volunteers have finished processing the soil samples from July’s excavations at Thrumster Broch; luckily we are taking samples in earnest from Nybster now so they needn’t get too relaxed!

We hope for better weather tomorrow…

NB we are feeling somewhat bereft following the departure of a number of last week’s volunteers. We hope you have all returned happily to your usual lives and aren’t missing us as much as we miss you! Thank you all for your contribution.

Posted in Excavations | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The first week: Picts, princes and people