Update on our fieldwork at Cave of the Speckled Horses, Fiskavaig, Skye

Posted by steven on 24/04/2008 at 10:07 AM

With the excavation work now completed in Trench 1 at the Fiskavaig rock shelter, follow the link below for an overview of our findings and how this relates to the occupation of the site.....

The excavations in Trench 1 at the Fiskavaig rock shelter are now complete and brings to a close this initial phase of fieldwork at the site before we start work at High Pasture Cave. We will be excavating Trench 2 at the Fiskavaig rock shelter in September/October later this year, so for now, we have decided to bring you up-to-date with our preliminary conclusions and interpretations relating to the work carried out so far.

After having studied the stratigraphy in Trench 1 and the associated features, the following sequence of events are suggested for the occupation and use of this sector of the rock shelter:

Phase 1

The initial occupation of the rock shelter included the levelling of the rubble floor, the construction of hearth settings F.04 and F.06, and the excavation and filling of pit feature F.07.

The earliest features in Trench 1 including pit feature F.07 (foreground), hearth F.06 (partially robbed in this image at centre) and hearth F.04 (at far end of trench partially covered by north baulk of the trench (Scales=1m and 0.5m)

Few small finds were recovered from this early phase at the site, the exception being a coarse pebble tool, but we did find deposits of heavily processed animal bone, some shellfish remains, the odd fish bone, and charcoal and ash deposits. After this phase of use, there appears to be a brief period of abandonment at the site represented by context C.027, a thin deposit of stone chips and small stone breakdown from the rock shelter roof and sterile wind-blown sediments.

Phase 2a

The site is reoccupied and hearth setting F.06 is partially robbed, possibly to construct another hearth setting outside Trench 1 (see image above for image of partially robbed hearth). An unbroken occupation sequence then accumulates starting with context C.03, an organic-rich deposit including ash, charcoal, animal bone, shellfish remains, fire-cracked stone and tree bark. The ash deposits accumulating at this time appear to be coming from an hearth setting beyond the limits of Trench 1. As in Phase 1 above, the archaeological deposits in Phase 2a produced little in the way of small finds.

Phase 2b

A slab-built hearth setting (feature F.03) is then constructed on top of the deposits comprising context C.03 and a small post or stake-hole is also built into these deposits to the east of the hearth (feature F.05). The post may have been one of a pair that provided some form of support for cooking apparatus over the hearth. If so, then the second post-hole had already been lost to erosion by the sea. Otherwise, it may have formed part of a screen around the hearth, although we did not find any additional features like this within the trench.

Hearth setting F.03 from the north, built on top of the dark organic deposits comprising context C.03 (Scales=0.5m and 1m)

Post or stake-hole F.05 from the north, built within context C.03 (Scale=0.5m)

A copper-alloy ring-headed pin, the tip of a polished bone needle and another fragment of worked bone, were recovered from this horizon.

Phase 2c

A large pile of fire-cracked pebbles (feature F.02) then accumulates to the south-east of the hearth feature F.03, during the deposition of context C.02. These pebbles most likely derive from activities associated with this hearth, along with ash and charcoal residues. Large quantities of processed animal bone, some shellfish remains and a little fish bone are also deposited on the surface at this time.

Looking down on the deposits of fire-cracked pebbles (F.02) from the south. The slabs just visible in the image laid edge-to-edge may be some form of revettment to retain the pile of pebbles (Scale=1m)

Phase 3

Another brief period of abandonment then follows, represented by stone and rock-fall from the roof of the rock shelter and wind-blown sediments. Some of the rocks that fell from the roof of the shelter at this stage were quite large and impacted on the archaeological deposits below, forming hollows in these deposits. The rock shelter is then reoccupied without removing these large boulders and a new slab-built hearth (feature F.01) is constructed.

Hearth setting F.01 from the north and associated deposits of fire-cracked pebbles and animal bone (Scales=1m and 0.5m)

Small finds associated with this phase include worked bone implements including a spatula, an hide scraper and another scraper partially finished, the remains of a amber bead and a stone pebble grinder. Deposits of iron and copper-alloy slag were also recovered from around the hearth, while two fragments of a vitrified ceramic crucible were found at the north end of the trench. Most of the pottery fragments were also recovered from context C.02, within this horizon.

Martin and George excavating in Trench 1. The image also shows some of the large stones and boulders that had fallen from the roof of the rock shelter during this phase

Also associated with this phase is the deposition of shell midden material to the north of hearth F.01. The midden contained small fragments of animal bone, but small finds included a polished bone needle and a whetstone. During this brief final occupation of the rock shelter, other items were deposited including a copper-alloy stud and what appears to be a part of an iron blade - both of these items were recovered from near to hearth setting F.01.

Phase 4

Finally, the rock shelter is abandoned and up to 1.5 metres of overburden accumulates over the upper archaeological deposits. The overburden generally
comprises wind-blown sediments, interspersed with narrow lenses of shattered stone and small boulders, fallen from the roof of the shelter.

Martin removing the sterile layers of overburden above the archaeological deposits; the dark layers showing in the eroding section

Radiocarbon Dating

Previously obtained radiocarbon dates, taken on samples recovered from column samples at the site, suggest 1905+/-35 years before present (before 1950 in this case), which at 1 sigma level give a date of between 50 - 170 AD for the start of occupation at the site. A date from the top of the upper midden provided a result of 1870+/-35 BP (at 1 sigma c.80 - 210 AD) for final abandonment. These two dates give a maximum range of circa. 160 years for the occupation of the rock shelter, but it is possible that the site was used for as little as 40 - 60 years. Further samples from this years excavations will be submitted for radiocarbon dating, especially on samples associated with ceramics and small finds, and the features uncovered in Trench 1. This should allow us to put together some tight dating sequences for these items and features, along with the overall occupation of the site during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.


The excavations carried out in Trench 1 at the Cave of the Speckled Horses, have resulted in the recovery of features, small finds and ecofacts, connected with the occupation and use of the site. At this stage in the fieldwork, it is still difficult to interpret the function of the site, which may have changed through the wider periods of use. Having worked at the rock shelter over several days, it soon became clear that access is difficult - both by land and sea. Of course, we cannot be certain at the moment how sea-level and erosion have modified access to the site at the base of the cliffs, and it is possible that at the time of use there may have been a route into the site at the base of the talus slope below the cliffs. However, even to get to this part of the approach to the site, a steep and vegetated slope has to be negotiated; one that would have been almost impossible to drive cattle (the main animal species represented on site in the bone midden) to the site.

Access by sea would also have posed certain challenges. First of all, any boat approaching the site would have to negotiate a way through isolated reef complexes, before landing on the shingle and pebble beach, which is only accessible during a low to mid-height tide. However, this exercise would have been all but impossible if any swell was breaking on the shore, leading quickly to the destruction of any boat. Also, after landing on the beach, there would have been no safe place to haul the boat above the high-water tide mark. It is of course possible that the people using the site chose a relatively calm day, ferried materials, produce and people into the site, before taking the boat back to a safe harbour.

Therefore, we are left with the question of how people accessed the site, including the importation of animals, or animal carcasses; fuel for the hearths (wood and possibly peat), and the larger stone tools including the rotary quern stone (manufactured from a material not local to the site). We can be fairly certain from our initial excavations at the site that whole animal carcasses were brought in, as we have recovered mandible fragments and horn-cores, and bones from the extremities of the carcass such as phalanges and metatarsals.

A complex of reef systems provide clear obstacles in approaching the rock shelter site, especially during periods of swell

We also have to question the function of the site and how this fits in to the wider settlement pattern utilised during the Atlantic Iron Age. The major radiocarbon dates for the occupation of nearby Dun Ardtreck, a so-called ‘semi-broch’ excavated by Euan MacKie (located around 4km away to the NE), fall within the dated period for the Fiskavaig rock shelter; while pottery recovered from both sites show some similarities - especially the so-called Vaul-Ware Vases, with their characteristic decoration and rim-form. As would be expected for this period, some of the small finds also indicate potential contacts, such as the amber beads found at both sites; worked bone (spatulas for example); the copper-alloy ring-headed pins recovered from both sites; and shape and size of the rotary quern stones (MacKie, 2000). The animal bone assemblages recovered from both sites also display similar species, with domesticated cattle providing the main animal utilised followed by red deer, pig and sheep/goat (although there is little evidence so far for red deer at the Fiskavaig rock shelter).

There is also additional evidence for the use of the wider landscape surrounding the site, with brochs and round houses 2.5km to the ENE around Fiskavaig; a broch at Sleadale, 4km to the SE near Talisker Bay; and a dun at Laimhrig na Moine on the south shore of Loch Eynort. It is therefore possible that the rock shelter at Fiskavaig was a site used in the wider landscape as a extension from one of the sites mentioned above. Did the inhabitants of Dun Ardtreck, or the nearby broch at Fiskavaig, use the rock shelter as a place for certain tasks, or industries - much in the way that shielings have been utilised as a part of a transhumance economy from the nearby permanent settlements during later periods of history?

With the excavation of Trench 2 in the autumn, and possible fieldwork at the site during 2009, we hope to address these questions, before the evidence is lost for good to erosion and storm surges. 

Next entry: The 2008 fieldwork season gets underway at High Pasture Cave

Previous entry: Trench 1 completed at the Cave of the Speckled Horses


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