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Archaeological Investigations

In 1983 The Trust and Historic Scotland agreed on a programme of archaeological investigation on St Kilda. The aim was to establish how space on the islands was used over time, and how individual buildings fitted into this pattern.

The Village
An Lag and Ruaival
Mullach Sgar
Environmental Survey
Prehistoric Stone Quarries
The Gap

The Village

From 1986 to 1990 Durham University undertook survey work and excavation on Hirta. Investigation in the 19th century village included non-destructive survey, excavation and environmental sampling and analysis.




Map: Chris Smith

Of the 1860s houses, House 6 was investigated prior to its reconstruction by National Trust for Scotland work parties, and details of timber internal partitions and wooden floorboards were recorded. House 8 and its surroundings were excavated, and the existence of an earlier blackhouse, identified in the RCAHMS survey, was confirmed.

Blackhouse W, once thought to be a Norse or medieval dwelling had been identified in the RCAHMS survey as a possible kiln barn. Excavations revealed a kiln, with threshing and winnowing barn attached, probably dating to the 19th century.


The kiln and barn
Photograph: Glasgow Museums

Finds from these excavations of steatite (soapstone) vessels confirmed Norse activity on the islands. Other finds confirmed the wide range of goods imported by the islanders in the late 19th and 20th centuries, including glassware, cheap pottery, iron bedsteads and paraffin lamps. They signify a change from a self-sufficient community to one much more dependent on the outside world.

 

An Lag and Ruaival

In 1992 the archaeological research programme was transferred to Glasgow University. A plane table survey on An Lag Bho'n Tuath, a corrie behind the Village dominated by four large drystone enclosures, showed that the enclosures overlay earlier features – ridges and banks running under and inside the enclosures. On investigation, these were found to be cultivation beds, and pollen analysis confirmed a concentration of cereal grain pollen, barley and oats.

The later enclosures, originally thought to be for stock management, are more likely to have been constructed to protect growing crops from animals. Soil from the surrounding areas had been collected and moved to within the enclosures, leaving virtually no topsoil round about, but a depth of up to 80 cm within the walls. It confirms the St Kildans' efforts to create artificial cultivation areas in localities with little natural topsoil.



click for enlargement

Locations of investigations on An Lag B'hon Tuath and Ruaival
Illustration: GUARD

In this area there are also remains of 'boat-shaped' features and cairn-like structures. Investigation of these was inconclusive. They may be the remains of funerary monuments, possibly dating to the Bronze Age, but could also be the remains of robbed-out cleits. Further work is required to unravel this mystery.


Excavation of stone settings on An Lag Bho'n Tuath
Photograph: Alex. Morrison

On Ruaival geophysical and topographic survey revealed traces of terrace platforms, field enclosures and possible earlier buildings.


Platforms on Ruaival
Photograph: Alex Morrison

Excavation of cell-like stone structures was inconclusive as to their function and they produced no dating or cultural finds.


Excavation of cell-like stone structures on Ruaival
Photograph: Alex Morrison

 

Mullach Sgar

Archaeological excavations on Mullach Sgar continued in 2000 and 2002 and revealed exciting new results. The main discovery was an excellently preserved small structure measuring 5 by 3 metres, partially dug into the scree. Retrieved from the floor of this building were numerous sherds of pottery and stone tools. The dry-stone built walls were revealed and survive to a height of over 1 metre. To the west of this structure the remains of a number of other buildings, although not as well preserved, were also encountered.

When this work started in 1997 this area was chosen as it was hoped to reveal the lost site of the chapel of St Columba. However, what has been discovered is in many ways much more exciting. The work is still ongoing, but the end result of the project will provide vital information of life on St Kilda from the Iron Age. The pottery retrieved during the excavation at the site represents the first ever substantial prehistoric assemblage from St Kilda.


Iron Age Pottery Sherd
Photograph: Susan Bain



Close Up of Rubbing Stones
Photograph: Susan Bain

Cell structure on Mullach Sgar
Photograph: Susan Bain


2003 Excavations
Photograph: Susan Bain

 

Environmental survey by Durham University (1986-90)

This environmental survey by Durham University has identified barley and oat pollen on sites in Village Bay. Grass and heather pollen have been discovered on An Lag Bho'n tuath, and pollen from barley, oats and arable weeds. This work helps us understand how the St Kildans used the landscape, and how its use changed through time. Cultivation of oats decreased and that of barley increased. There are signs that, in some areas, cultivation was not continuous. Also identified in large quantity was pollen of Chelidonium majus (greater celandine), a member of the poppy family used as a remedy for eye disorders and ulcers.

Further information

References:

Emery, N., 1996 Excavations on Hirta 1986-90 NTS/HMSO, Edinburgh.

Emery, N., and Morrison,A., 'The Archaeology of St Kilda'

Buchanan, M. (ed) 1995 St Kilda: The Continuing Story of the Islands HMSO,Edinburgh

Johnson, P.G. and Pollard, A. 1998 Archaeological Fieldwork on Hirta, St Kilda: The 1998 Season GUARD Report 517

Pollard, A. and Will, B. 2000 Archaeological Fieldwork on Hirta, St Kilda: The 1999 Season GUARD Report 702

Huntley, J.P. 1999 Life at the Edge of the World: evidence for crop and medicinal plants from St Kilda, Outer Hebrides Published electronically by World Archaeological Congress
J.P.Huntley@durham.ac.uk

Johnson, P. 1999 Hovels, Hidey-Holes or Houses for the Dead: The Scree Structures of Mullach Sgar, Hirta, St Kilda Published electronically by World Archaeological Congress

Morrison, A. 1999 An Introduction to the Later Settlement history of St Kilda Published electronically by World Archaeological Congress

Pollard, A. 1999 New Horizons: St Kilda and the Colonisation of Scottish Islands Published electronically by World Archaeological Congress

GUARD

Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division manages fieldwork and consultancy projects for government agencies and industry. GUARD undertakes desk studies, field surveys and excavations.

GUARD
Department of Archeaology
Gregory Building
Lilybank Gardens
Glasgow, G12 8QQ
United Kindom
Tel: (0141) 330 5541
Fax: (0141) 330 3863

 

Prehistoric Stone Quarries

Professor Andrew Fleming (University of Wales Lampeter) and Dr Mark Edmonds (University of Sheffield) have just published an account of their discoveries and researches in Scotland's national archaeological journal, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland*. They have sent us this account of their work:
Ever since the 1870s it has been known that flaked stone tools are present on Hirta. Our work has shown that the stone for these tools came from quarries on the western side of Village Bay. Above the dolerite screes around Clash na Bearnaich ('The Chimney') one can see traces of the tops of rather cave-like quarries. The screes themselves are mostly natural, but they also contain broken tools, the debris from their manufacture, small beach pebbles used as hammer-stones for making the tools, and occasional large beach boulders which were used as mauls in the quarries.

 


Hoe-blade quarries at Clash na Bearnaich; the long notch in the dolerite bedrock is clearly visible
Photograph: Andrew Fleming

A little further north on the same hillside at Gearraidh Ard are the 'humps and bumps' which indicate the presence of further grassed-over quarries. Further north still, we have reason to believe (evidence from a 1957 air photo) that the military quarry at Creagan Breac destroyed a sizeable ancient quarry. Much of the dolerite outcrop was exploited, then, at some time in the past.


Quarries on the hillside of Gearraidh Ard, picked out in low sunlight
Photograph: Andrew Fleming

When was this? There has never been enough woodland on Hirta for these stone tools to have been used as axeheads, and it is likely that most of them were used as the blades of hoes or mattocks, a use which is suggested by the scratches and wear traces on them. Very similar stone tools have been found in Orkney and Shetland, where they are fairly well dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, around 3000 BC to use a round figure. We haven't yet proved that the St Kilda tools date from this period, but we know that they date from at least the Iron Age, around 300 BC, since they have been found in the subterranean 'earth-house' or souterrain and on a recently excavated site at Mullach Sgar. But it's unlikely that stone hoe-blades, which have been made by expert stone-knappers, were suddenly invented on St Kilda as late as the Iron Age, when they had been present in the Northern Isles a couple of thousand years earlier. In the sea-cliff on Hirta we have found a couple of sherds of decorated pottery typical of the Hebridean Neolithic, the first to be found here. We also note that Professor Mike Walker, who produced the St Kilda pollen diagram in the early 80s, was strongly inclined to interpret the first appearance of Plantago lanceolata (ribwort plantain) at about 3000 BC as evidence for the arrival of humans (which is how the same phenomenon has been interpreted in Shetland).


Two broken stone mauls (hammerstones) from the screes below the quarries of Clash na Bearnaich
Photograph: Andrew Fleming

Broken hoe blades are quite frequently found in the walls of standing structures in Village Bay, where they were sometimes used as wedges in the cleitean (corbelled stone-built store-houses with turf roofs) of the 19th century. The most likely explanation for the presence of these hoe blades in the cleitean is that they were uncovered and then re-used in the 19th century, during partial clearance of the massive, old-looking walls which formed part of an old field system, to the north of the Street. Some of this old field system survived this clearance episode and features on the Royal Commission's plan of the Village. Whether this field system is Iron Age or even earlier is an interesting question. There is certainly a case for the idea that it was contemporary with the use of the hoe-blades; we searched the 1830 head dyke for implements, and only found them in stretches which coincided with the presence of old field walls (the main field system around Tobar Childa, and the smaller one in the area where St Columba's church is supposed to have stood).


Wall of ancient field system during excavation
Photograph: Andrew Fleming

A superbly flaked dolerite hoe-blade
Photograph: Andrew Fleming
These discoveries suggest that in the Neolithic/Bronze Age there was a viable community on St Kilda, whose way of life included agriculture; the extent of the quarrying suggests that this was not a short-lived or casual occupation. There is a little rather ambiguous evidence to suggest that the people of Hirta might sometimes have used stone tools in more recent times, perhaps when metal was in short supply. But most of the quarries look too old to have been worked in the last few centuries.

An implement (made in dark dolerite) wedged in a cleit (made of granophyr - the light-coloured bedrock of the eastern side of Village Bay)
Photograph: Andrew Fleming
The people of Hirta would have needed wooden hafts for their hoes, so we have various questions about their relationship with the outside world. Were they supplied with wood from the Western Isles, and if so, wouldn't they have offered flaked dolerite in return? Unfortunately, no hoe blades of St Kilda dolerite have yet been spotted in the Western Isles, although we must remember that many of the land surfaces of the Neolithic and Bronze Age cannot be easily investigated - they are underneath blanket peat, or under the sand of the machair, or under the sea. So absence of evidence might not be evidence of absence, as archaeologists are fond of saying. Our findings seem to agree with what is known about the occupation of other small islands around the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, which also seem to have been settled at some stage during the Neolithic. These people must have been skilled and confident sailors, who knew about boats and the sea, not to mention fishing and fowling - settlers who laid the foundations for Hirta's long history.

Further information

Fleming, A. 1995 'St Kilda: stone tools, dolerite quarries and long-term survival.' Antiquity 69, 25-35

Fleming, A and Edmonds, M. 2000  'St Kilda: quarries, fields and prehistoric agriculture'  Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 129(1), 119-160

Stell, G. and Harman, M.1988. The Buildings of St Kilda Edinburgh

Walker, M. J. C. 1984 'A pollen diagram from St Kilda, Outer Hebrides' New Phytologis 97, 99-113.
 

Andrew Fleming
Department of Archaeology
University of Wales
Lampeter, Ceredigion
SA48 7ED
United Kingdom.

Tel: (+44) 01570 422351
Fax: (+44) 01570 423669
Email: andrew.fleming@lampeter.ac.uk
          Andrew.fleming@lamp.ac.uk
http://archaeology.lamp.ac.uk/fleming/stkilda.html

 

 

The Gap – Rescue Excavation

In 1995 The National Trust for Scotland excavated a 'boat-shaped setting' dramatically situated at 'The Gap' on Hirta. The dig took place at the edge of a sheer 650 ft sea cliff, retrieving valuable information before the site falls into the sea through erosion. Although the structure proved to be extremely well preserved, clear dating evidence was lacking, and it was assumed that this was probably a prehistoric site dating from the Bronze Age (about 2000 BC). It is likely that such sites had a religious or ritual function, although the alternative explanation that they are cleit foundations cannot be discounted.


Excavation of the site
Photograph: Robin Turner

© The National Trust for Scotland