Nybster: Summary of Season 1
The first block of fieldwork carried out at the Nybster broch settlement has been a great success, and has added to our knowledge of the development of the site considerably. Below is a summary of our initial findings.
One of the main aims of the first season of excavation at Nybster in 2011 was to establish the date of the enclosing rampart structure as well as explore the details of its construction. Although detailed survey in 2004 had established a broad chronological sequence for the buildings on the promontory, relationships between certain areas of the site could only be established by excavation.
In April and May 2011 we excavated a trench over the northern half of the enclosing outwork on the promontory. One of the questions we were aiming to tackle was whether the rampart represented a single construction, or a multiphase, composite structure as suggested by our careful inspection of the exposed wall faces. The results confirmed our suspicions, showing that the rampart had undergone several phases of modification and enhancement throughout the occupation of Nybster.
Excavation of the rampart in progress.
The earliest detectable activity on the promontory is agricultural, evidenced by ard scores in the glacial till, beneath the soils onto which the broch and rampart were built. It is not easy to date these features, but given that it took place before all other construction on the site it seems likely that this ploughing happened in the Bronze Age, or earlier.
Next, some form of structure incorporating large orthostats (earthfast slabs, set on edge) was built near where the entrance to the Nybster rampart was later placed. It is impossible to be clear on the form of this structure, since the later rampart destroyed it, and no datable finds were associated with it, but again it is improbable that this building is any younger than late Bronze Age in date.
The second phase of construction appears to have been a comparatively slight rampart, around 2.5m thick, which had been constructed on a steep outcrop of rock, which may have been enhanced by quarrying to create a deep outer ditch. Excavation through the rubble deposits lying against the rampart showed that the outer face of the wall had collapsed into this ditch, sealing occupation debris and midden material.
The second phase cell in the rampart during excavation.
In a later phase of activity, the rampart was enhanced considerably, by revetting rubble against the inner wall, more than doubling its thickness. At this stage, the original entrance through the rampart was dismantled and rebuilt to incorporate a cell within the wall, creating a structure that may have been similar to the blockhouses of Shetland. The cell had a paved floor, and was accessed by climbing a short flight of steps on the inner wall of the rampart, before stepping down into the interior.
The cell after excavation, showing the earlier structure beneath.
During the later phases of use of the site, perhaps during the late Iron Age, an orthostatic or slab built division was added to the interior of the rampart forming a doorway, with a wooden door through which the steps to the rampart wall head were accessed.
The final phase of activity recorded in the April/May trench was the insertion of stone boxes, very possibly cists, into the remains of the rampart. These possible burials must have occurred after both phases of use of the rampart were over, since they were cut through rubble deriving from the collapse of the wall. As at other broch sites in Caithness, it is possible that these cists are late Pictish or Viking burials, dug into the ruinous remains of the broch settlement.
One of the cists dug into the rubble of the rampart.
Finds from the excavation included pottery, moulds for making bronze pins, crucible fragments relating to metalworking, as well as cannel coal (often used for making jewellery) and a small stone pendant. Our analysis of these artefacts and the soil samples collected during the excavations will help us to date these phases of construction more accurately, and provide a more detailed picture of activity at Nybster at each of these stages.
Doorway pivot stone in situ.
These excavations have demonstrated just how complex stone structures in Caithness can be, and how sites like Nybster repeatedly went through phases of reconstruction and change throughout the Iron Age and Early Historic centuries. This excavation is the first to investigate rampart structures around a broch in Caithness, and will help to further our understanding of how, when and why these enigmatic structures were built.
Keep up to date with the results of our analyses on these pages over the coming months.
Public and Community Involvement
Aside from the clear archaeological successes of the first phase of the Nybster Broch Project, the level of public and community involvement has been impressive. In all, we have engaged with around 300 people of all ages through the course of our first two weeks of excavations, combined with school visits to the site, and free talks and guided tours.
Our volunteers included people who had never picked up a trowel before, mature/part-time archaeology students and members of archaeological societies; the average number of volunteers on site each day was ten. In all, well over 600 man hours were volunteered by more than 30 people of all ages over twelve days. We are extremely grateful for the hard work, enthusiasm and commitment displayed by everyone that took part. The project would not exist but for this crucial community input.
Local primary schools were invited to visit the site prior to the project’s commencement, and five took up the offer: North, Keiss, Castletown, Canisbay and Thrumster Primary Schools. These groups amounted to a total of around 130 children and around 35 accompanying adults. Archaeologist Dr Andy Heald of AOC Archaeology Group taught the children about brochs and archaeology through fun activities at the Caithness Broch Centre (while they were dressed as broch people!). They also visited the excavations, watching the volunteers at work, seeing and talking about finds discovered during excavation, and digging their own test pits under the supervision of archaeologist Charlotte Douglas of AOC. Finds included pottery, a small flint and modern iron objects. They were very enthusiastic and interested, and asked lots of relevant questions.
Keiss Primary School pupils enjoy a visit to the site with AOC archaeologist Charlotte.
The project was accompanied by a series of talks and tours. More than 20 people took advantage of the free guided tours of the Caithness Broch Centre and brochs of the area. Similarly, throughout the course of excavations, numerous visitors to Nybster broch were given free tours of the site. We were kept busy with anything up to ten visitors a day, ranging from locals to tourists from as far afield as New Zealand, Holland, Canada and Australia, as well as numerous British tourists.
Dr Andy Heald of AOC gives a free site tour.
Finally, talks by Dr Andy Heald and Dr Graeme Cavers of AOC Archaeology Group were well attended; the introductory talks at Auckengill Village Hall on the 25th of April were attended by 20 people, and 30 people enjoyed talks on antiquarian excavations of Caithness Brochs at Keiss Primary School on the 30th of April.
We have been hugely encouraged by the sheer number of volunteers coming to take part, as well as the interest in the talks and tours during this first phase of excavations; we feel confident that the August phase of works will be just as, if not more, successful and we look forward to returning to Nybster with great enthusiasm.
We’d like to offer a huge thanks to all of the volunteers, particularly those who stuck it out to the end to help with the arduous backfilling. Big thanks also to everyone involved in numerous other ways, and also our funders: LEADER, Heritage Lottery Fund and Highland Council.
See you in August!
Caithness Archaeological Trust & AOC Archaeology Group