Formalised Entrance to Bone Passage uncovered

Posted by steven on 03/10/2005 at 01:21 PM

The entrance to a stone-built passage leading into High Pasture Cave has been uncovered during excavations at the site. Read on for more details of this important find and news of the Open Days that will be running between the 5th and 12th October, in conjunction with the Highland Archaeology Fortnight.

The excavation of the Iron Age inhumation has now been completed at the High Pasture’s site and the human remains have now been delivered to the University of Edinburgh Medical School for analysis. After drawing in-situ, each bone was assigned a unique number and was then placed in a finds bag, enabling a reconstruction of the burial to be made.

The skeletal material will be analysed by Laura Sinfield, who has considerable experience in Funerary Archaeology and is a Consultant Forensic Archaeologist and Forensic Anthropologist. Laura will investigate the sex and age of the individual and the possible cause of death, along with other details such as trauma and any diseases the person suffered during life. Post-depositional data relating to the bone will also be investigated, such as gnawing by animals and damage to the skeleton, to see if we may be correct in our initial interpretations that the burial was left open for some time after deposition. After a full anatomical study has been made of the human remains, Laura will take sample materials including small fragments of bone, teeth and dentine, which will be sent on to Dr. Janet Montgomery at the University of Bradford. Janet will carry out isotope analysis on this material to investigate where the individual was raised and if there was movement between different areas of Scotland during life. Dietary analysis will also be conducted to see if the person was living on a primarily marine or terrestrial diet.

The images above and below show the skeletal material during excavation. The image above shows the damage caused to the cranial elements through the impact of the large pointed rock, which had been removed by this stage. The image below shows the area around the pelvis and upper limbs, with one femur still in it’s socket and the second just out of joint (scale=cm)

After removal of the human remains from the grave setting, we continued to excavate small loose stone and sediment fill from between the larger boulders on which the body had been deposited.  The fill was 100% wet sieved and more fragments of human bone were recovered, along with fragments of charcoal, land snails, animal bone and small sherds of prehistoric pottery. Of interest here was the fact that the grave setting contained more pottery sherds than the context outside the setting.

The image above shows the grave setting from above after removal of the human remains and some of the stones and sediment fill. Little care had been taken with the burial, the body placed on an uneven pile of large boulders. However, a small setting of small stones had been arranged around the area of the head (scales=1m and 0.25m)

As we continued to excavate the interior of the grave setting to ensure we had recovered all of the bone that still survivied, more courses of drystone walling was uncovered to each side. Considering we had found no capping stones covering the burial, or no ‘level’ bottom to the grave, we started to question the setting of stones around the burial. Was it possible that the body had been placed in some form of structure, a practice that appears to have been utilised for burial in other areas of Scotland during the Iron Age (for example see Current Archaeology magazine No.199, for evidence of such burial practices at Mine Howe and Knowe of Skea in Orkney).

Removing more of the fill we uncovered more courses of walling, then we found our first step! We stood back a while looking at the structure and the surrounding stratigraphy. Several things became apparent. First of all, we noticed that the walls at either side of the setting were of a single skin construction and were revetted into a fill of brown soil and large boulders - similar to the fill we had been excavating in Trench 3, which was located immediately to the side of the burial. Then we saw that the top courses of stonework seemed to step inwards, forming a corbelled passage that had been destroyed or had collapsed.

Looking into the structure from the southeast (the human remains had been deposited in the structure with the head facing to the SE), showing the side walls and damaged corbelling at the rear

Considering the width of the gap between the drystone walls to either side of the structure (around 0.75m wide), our thinking turned to the rather typical dimensions for the width of souterrains found in Skye and the Northwest Highlands, which average between 0.7 and 1.2m in width. Had we found our lost passage to the cave below? Everything now started to fit together. Here we had uncovered the top of a souterrain-like passage complete with steps leading underground, which by its location was on course to connect with the collpased end of Bone Passage below. And, although further excavation, analysis and dates are required, we can speculate on the possible scenario surrounding the deposition of the body in the entrance passage.

Martin Wildgoose excavating in the entrance where the human inhumation was uncovered and George Kozikowski, working on an area outside the entrance

After a considerable period of use, the cave was backfilled using cultural debris, midden material and granite boulders deriving from glacial deposits at the surface. A large feast was held at the site including the cooking of at least 26 pigs, possibly to celebrate a Celtic festival such as Samain or Imbolc - or the death and burial of the person found in the entrance passage. The entrance passage was also filled with large boulders and sediment fill, after which the inhumation was laid to rest on top of the rubble fill. Contemporary with the backfilling of the entrance passage and deposition of the human remains, was the offering of three fragments of rotary quern stone just to one side (see previous news report). It is possible that the grave was left open for a period of time, the human remains subject to animal scavenging and exposure to the elements. The corbelled roof was then destroyed, or suffered some form of collapse, and the stone deposited on the now bare skeletal material caused severe trauma to the cranial and chest areas.

The image above shows George Kozikowski excavating (sectioning) the area immediately in front of the entrance passage, where he has uncovered a series of stone-built steps

The granite slab steps shown in the image above provided access from possible areas of activity identified in the lower contexts of Trench 2, including the multiple superimposed hearth settings that were uncovered earlier in the year. The area around the hearths produced significant quantities of artefacts including bone and antler work and coarse pebble tools. The items showed no evidence of burning and must have been deposited in the ash lenses surrounding the granite-slab hearths. Many questions still remain regarding the complex sequence of deposits uncovered in this area of the trench and how they relate to the newly-discovered entrance to the cave. Excavations in 2006 and 2007 will be critical in answering these questions, and should allow us to make more informed interpretations regarding this remarkable site.

The image above shows the current state of the excavations around the entrance passage including the partially uncovered steps, that provide access. The image below provides a closer view of the steps (scales = 1m and 0.25m)

Elsewhere on site, limited excavations have been taking place in Trench 5, which is investigating the monumental U-shaped structure within the core of the site. Previous news reports indicated that we had found a broken half of a rotary quern within a small circular structure here, resting on a bed of substantial paving (granite slabs - see image below, taken from the SW - scale=1m).  The quern stone has already been removed from the structure in this image.

We have now partially sectioned the paving in this trench and have found a second layer immediately below. However, during the past two weeks we have experienced some incredibly wet and windy weather, this quite continuous at times. Excavation has thus been at a standstill, while we have struggled to prepare the site in time for the Open Days, which are due to start on Wednesday 5th October.

The image above shows the sink entrance to the cave overflowing with rainwater run-off, taking with it our wet sieving equipment and tarpualin cover! The picture below shows a deep pool formed above the present entrance to the cave. Of interest, is the fact that the two serious flooding events that have occurred on site during the past two years have taken place almost to the day on two consecutive years - the 14th September

Fortunately, the site sheds are at a safe elevation now to avoid such tempests, while inspection of the excavations in Bone Passage confirmed that no floodwater had entered Bone Passage. By the weekend of the 24th/25th September, the waters had subsided and the installation of the electrical systems to the site sheds and Bone Passage was completed successfully by Ivan Young and Pete Ireson of the Grampian Speleological Group. The work also included installation of two CCTV cameras in the passage, so that live images can be seen on a colour monitor in the site hut. We are most grateful to Ivan and Pete for completing a wonderful installation, one that will certainly enhance the visitor experience to the High Pasture Cave site. Our thanks are also due to Highland Council and Skye & Lochalsh Leader+ for funding this aspect of the project. Pictures of the new installation will be put on the news page next week.

Finally, on Saturday 1st October we were visited by children (and their parents) from the local Skyelark Club, accommpanied by the Highland Council Ranger - John Phillips. We were however, quite overwhelmed by the numbers that turned up for this afternoon event at the site, which provided an introduction to the site, the archaeology and allowed the children to help with wet-sieving and take a look at our on-site displays. Over 40 children and adults arrived in blustery and showery conditions, but there appeared to be plenty of smiling faces when everybody departed later in the day.

The event provided a lead-in to our week of Open Days on site, which run in conjunction with the Highland Archaeology Fortnight between the 5th and 12th October. The final phases of excavation will be taking place on site during the week and people will be invited to take part. There will also be the chance to try your hand at wet-sieving of archaeological deposits and on-site displays and events will be running through the week. John and Sarah, our Highland Council Rangers, will also be hosting guided walks and other activities on site. The walks will take in some of the wonderful archaeological landscapes surrounding the High Pasture’s site. Therefore, we hope to see you soon!

Children and adults testing the new decking in front of the site sheds (above), while Martin Wildgoose is swamped by people wanting to have a go at wet sieving!(below)

Next entry: High Pasture Cave Open Days - 5th to the 12th October 2005

Previous entry: Rare Iron Age burial uncovered at the High Pasture Cave site

Posted by on 14/10/2005 at 03:04 PM

Thank you for a memorable visit to a marvellous site, and lovely venison and mushroom cookery by George! 

Look forward to the next visit,


Posted by MIKE BERMAN on 11/10/2005 at 01:37 PM






Posted by on 07/10/2005 at 01:06 PM

I wish I could have been there for the open days.  What an amazing site and find.  I hope to be able to come over during the forthcoming year!  Well done on a wonderfully informative and interesting website. 


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