Excavations Resume at Cave of the Speckled Horses, Fiskavaig

Posted by steven on 23/10/2008 at 09:35 AM

With excavations now completed at the High Pasture Cave site for the 2008 fieldwork season, we have now moved our focus to completing our excavations for the year at the rock shelter at Fiskavaig, Uamh an Eich Bhric or Cave of the Speckled Horses, which was named after a geo feature in the cliffs just to the north called Geodh’ an Eich Bhric.

After completing our excavations in Trench 1 during April 2008 we had built-up quite a collection of animal bone, bulk samples and several stone tools, which had been safely stored at the back of the rock shelter. Therefore, knowing that it would be difficult to carry these out over the land route by which we approach the site on a daily basis, we talked about hiring a boat to do the job in one go. My good friend Shaun Puckering, who runs climbing, caving and general outdoor shops in Hope and Bamford in the Peak District, was making his annual trip north to Skye in May and he was bringing his new Pioner boat with him. So, this seemed a great opportunity to undertake this task.

Shaun at the tiller approaching Rubha nan Clach

We picked a calm morning and set off early from Broadford to Struan, where we launched the boat at the nearby jetty. The first part of the journey across Loch Bracadale passing Adtreck Point, with an unusual view of Dun Ardtreck from the sea, was flat calm. However, as we approached the massive headland and cliffs of Rubha nan Clach, we had already started to pick up a small Atlantic swell.

Approaching the huge cliffs at Rubha nan Clach. Note the massive pile of debris from cliff failure and erosion, which also runs down the slope underwater

As soon as we rounded Rubha nan Clach, we lost all of the protection that we had in Loch Bracadale and were open to any sea that was running. The swell was well-spaced and their were no white crests, so we moved along nicely passing Geodh’ na Eich Bhric. However, by this stage, we could already see the swell breaking on the reef complexies and shoreline in front of the rock shelter.

Geodh’ na Eich Bhric at left with the rock shelter below the highest section of the cliff in this view - with shingle beach just visible

Shaun nosed the boat in between the reefs, which by this time were awash with th breaking swell and made it difficult to see any submerged rocks or other hidden dangers. We spent a good few minutes trying to pick a calmer moment to rush in between the rocks, but the longer we waited the more the swell appeared to pick up.

Looking in between the reef complexies and boulders to the shingle beach and rock shelter, at the base of the cliffs. The green talus to the right of the rock shelter is also clear in this image, while the eroded section revealing the midden is apparent where the talus has been undermined and washed away

Eventually, we decided that it would be a bad move to risk the boat and ourselves trying to get ashore and even if we had achieved this, then getting back out would prove much more difficult. Therefore, with our finds bags visible at the back of the shelter from the boat, so near and yet so far, we turned the boat around and set off back for Struan. Within a few minutes, the wind had started to pick-up and the swell increased in height and by the time we had rounded Rubha nan Clach, the wave crest were starting to foam and break. The last part of our journey, cutting across the entrance to Loch Harport between Ardtreck Point and Rubha na h-Uamha, was quite rough and wet. The journey by boat was an interesting exercise and one we shall repeat again. It also indicated how difficult the site is to approach by boat. We were using an outboard engine and we wondered what it would be like to try and reach the site using sail or oars!

Excavations in Trench 2 and Trench 1 - October 2008

Excavations are now underway at Fiskavaig to complete our proposed fieldwork for the 2008 season, especially the removal of archaeological deposits at risk from storm surges and wind deflation. As usual with this site, preliminary work prior to excavation included the removal of the sterile overburden of wind-blown sediments and rockfall from the shelter roof, which reach up to 1.2 metres in depth in the trenches opened up on site so far.

The image above shows a view of the rock shelter in late September 2008 with Trench 2 under excavation in the foreground (removing the overburden) and Trench 1 beyond

This image shows Martin Wildgoose and John Seal removing the overburden in Trench 2 using pick and shovel - no mechanical excavators here!

During a visit to remove the overburden in Trench 2 and to show some of the High Pasture Cave volunteers the Fiskavaig site, we removed several objects that had been eroded from the exposed sections through wind deflation. These included iron concretions (including what appears to be a pin), two cobble tools (grinders), pottery, lots of animal bone, copper-alloy deposits and a clay mould fragment. The clay mould fragment and copper-alloy deposits were recovered from the south baulk of Trench 1, from an area where we had found similar deposits during the excavation of this trench back in April.

Gemma, Duncan and Carol, searching through archaeological deposits that have collapsed from the trench sections due to wind deflation

Stephanie bagging animal bone and small finds from the visit

We used this opportune visit to the site to carry out a significant amount of animal bone excavated from Trench 1 in April, something that had been planned by boat, along with the new small finds. The discovery of the metalworking residues prompted us to make a small extension to Trench 1, to be excavated at the same time as Trench 2; although any small extension here requires the removal of considerable quantities of overburden!

In October, we returned to the site to start the excavations in Trench 2 and Trench 1. The weather had turned quite unsettled by this time and we decided to take days out at site when conditions were more favourable, especially considering the long walk in and out each day, and the approach along the foreshore over difficult rockfall subject to the whims of the tide.

A general view of the site from the north with Trench 1 and it’s extension beyond the tripod and Trench 2 in the foreground

Stephanie, a regular volunteer at the High Pasture Cave and Fiskavaig rock shelter sites, removing the last of the overburden in Trench 2 to reveal the upper midden deposits. Note the possible stone structure near to Steph, which we have now revealed (see images of hearth below)

We soon removed the overburden in Trench 2 to reveal a midden deposits rich in shellfish remains and animal bone. Interspersed with this material were numerous sherds of pottery (mainly plain wares, but well-fired) and fire-cracked pebbles. Stone overlying the midden is the result of roof failure at the rock shelter, some of which is quite extensive. As we cleaned back in the trench, possible structural elements also started to appear, associated with ash and charcoal-rich deposits. Eventually, a fine slab-built hearth was uncovered in the trench relating to the last phases of use at the site, which was partially kerbed with rounded beach pebbles and slabs of the local basalt.

Martin excavating the archaeological deposits surrounding the hearth. Note the depth of overburden removed to get down to the archaeological layers

Another view of Trench 2 from the south with the hearth beyond and a rib from a small whale at top left

Another view of the hearth and midden after cleaning of the layer (scales = 1m and 0.5m)

A closer view of the hearth showing the quite complex construction, which is quite different to the types of hearth we have uncovered at High Pasture Cave where they comprise simple slab-built structures. The hearth shown in this image would not be out of place within an Atlantic roundhouse

The image above shows the hearth from the west, with the midden in section below

We then proceeded to remove the midden deposits of the first context surrounding the hearth in 1 metre grid squares, to retain some control on the recovered artefacts and animal bone. During the removal of the grid squares adjacent to the eroded west face of the trench, a second slab-built hearth was uncovered. Although this was not as elaborate as the first, it shows that during repeat visits to the site new hearth settings were established.

A view of Trench 2 from the south showing the location of the two hearth settings and associated deposits including a dump of material rich in ash and burnt bone (the white area between the two hearths - scale = 0.5m)

A closer view of the two hearths from above, taken from the east (scale = 0.5m). A part of the second hearth appears to have been robbed-out, possibly used in the construction of the more complete hearth, while a small portion has been lost to the sea through erosion

Work has also progressed in the extension to Trench 1, where the metalworking residues and clay mould fragment had previously been found. The dark, upper context relating to the last phase of use at the site included animal bone and a little shellfish remains, while more metalworking residues were found including a deformed and vitrified clay crucible fragment, another possible mould fragment, deposits of copper-alloy and what appears to be vitrified hearth lining. Mixed through these deposits was significant amounts of wood charcoal and fragments of tree bark - possibly birch, rowan or alder (a silver type of bark). Could the bark be associated in some way with the metalworking processes that are taking place on site?

A view of the Trench 1 extension from the north showing the exposed upper surface of the midden. The dark upper midden layer rises to the right and lies up against large boulders from the original talus. This may be the western edge of the midden at this level (scales = 1m and 0.5m)

A view of the same trench extension from above and from the east

After removal of this upper deposit more fire-cracked pebbles and animal bone midden were uncovered and the trench turned into one of two distinct halves - that to the west overlies boulders from the talus with some voids between and the archaeological deposits include significant amounts of burnt bone, charcoal and some copper-alloy deposits. We also recovered some thick, black burnt residues from this area that require further analysis. To the east in the trench we uncovered a compacted surface that almost resembled peat, with more tree bark deposits and small fragments of wood. This layer was quite thick and comprised thin lenses of deposits possibly associated with several visits to the site. Immediately below the compacted layer was a dense layer of animal bone, burnt bone and charcoal, with more small rock fragments from the roof of the shelter, which directly overlies a thick white wood ash deposit. This will be investigated on future visits to the site.

Visit the website again soon to get all of the latest news from Cave of the Speckled Horses.....

The basalt cliffs towering over the rock shelter site, with the rock and grass talus slopes at their base

Next entry: Late finish to the excavation season at the Fiskavaig Rock Shelter site....

Previous entry: Laser Scanning at High Pasture Cave

Posted by on 10/11/2008 at 07:58 PM

Hey! The excavation at Fiskavaig looks great! I really miss Scotland again, hope to be in the country again soon. Best of luck!


Posted by on 05/11/2008 at 05:00 PM

Well done to you all.  Great photos and information.  If it carries on into 2009 I’d like to be a part of it again.  I’m starting to write the final report about the Home Farm (now Kiltaraglen) site.  Radiocarbon dates due soon. 

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