The Whithorn Trust’s shortlisted entry for the 2016 British Archaeological Awards was based on excavations carried out by AOC Archaeology in 2015, and again in June 2016, which unearthed a unique discovery in Galloway that promises to revolutionise our understanding of the Iron Age in south-west Scotland.
Last year, archaeologists began excavating one of numerous roundhouses sited on a boggy island at this unique Iron Age loch village near Whithorn, uncovering a massive hearth mound, which had been built and rebuilt, and flooring which still preserved leaf litter and woven panels of hazel wattle, all preserved thanks to the waterlogged conditions.
One of the most intriguing artefacts we recovered during the 2015 excavations at Black Loch was a small ceramic vessel, termed a ‘thumbpot’ due to its very small size.
This was a surprising find in many ways: firstly, the shape and size of the object is very unusual, and is quite different to the large storage pots sometimes found on Iron Age settlements in other parts of the UK.
Secondly, the fact that the object was found at all is puzzling, since pottery is virtually never found on Iron Age sites in Wigtownshire, despite being common in both earlier and later periods. It seems that Iron Age communities in the area simply did not use pottery, perhaps preferring wooden, textile or bark containers instead which leave no archaeological trace.
This makes the Black Loch thumbpot intriguing, since it shows a familiarity with pottery and it manufacture. A large number of explanations are possible: perhaps the pot had a very specific function, such as in crushing pigments for dyes. Alternatively, it could be attributed to a child experimenting with the clay which is found in deep deposits around the site and which was used to line the massive stone hearths within the roundhouses. Close analysis of the pot and the uses to which it might have been put will be undertaken in the coming months. We will report back!
Such was the importance of the site that archaeologists returned in 2016, with the aim of uncovering the doorway to the house, and investigating outdoor areas. They were rewarded by the unprecedented discovery of massive oaks surviving as sills for the door, which were flanked by imposing vertical oak slabs. Outside, a walkway between two of the roundhouses and leading across the marsh was uncovered, as well as a specialised cooking area with a clay oven-like structure. Archaeologists will now use dendrochronology to give an accurate felling date for the oaks.
To share the discoveries, the Whithorn Trust ran community activities during its Iron Age summer. Primary schools planted and harvested early crops, there were foraging and crannog cookery sessions, ancient craft days and dry stone dyking workshops to build an ancient kitchen garden. The activities were filmed by young people trained by Urbancroft Films, who created the DigTV online channel broadcasting nightly interviews with archaeologists about daily finds, and updates on community activities.
The Whithorn Trust are currently reconstructing a full-scale roundhouse, based on the carpentry details of joints, slots and toolmarks still visible on the original oaks. Volunteers are welcome to join craftsmen and should contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Graeme Cavers, AOC Archaeology
Watch our British Archaeological Awards 2016 finalist project video.