The Work

Regional Archaeological Context

Posted by steven on 14/02/2005 at 04:15 PM

Although the numerous rock shelters and open cave entrances found so far in Scotland have revealed evidence for human occupation extending back to the Early Mesolithic (Bonsall et al, 1991, 1992, 1994; Hardy & Wickham-Jones, 2000), archaeological deposits identified within active limestone caves are rare.  Faunal remains have been discovered by cavers in the limestone caves of Assynt and Durness (Coventry & Kitchener, pers comm.), especially within the Bone Caves of the Allt nan Uamh basin (Lawson et al, 1988; Wickham-Jones, 1990; Smith, 1992; & Lawson, 1999), but anthropogenic indicators seem to have been absent or limited in nature. This situation is in marked contrast to discoveries within the remainder of the United Kingdom, where numerous finds have been made in limestone caves of both faunal remains and human occupation/burials.  Recent discoveries include those in Carsington Pasture Cave, near the village of Brassington in Derbyshire (Chamberlain, 1999), where cavers digging in choked passages for new extensions found human and faunal remains. 

Figure 5.The main stream passage downstream of the entrance to the fossil passage (Scale=1 metre).

In the Skye and Lochalsh area of the west coast of Scotland, work by the Scotland’s First Settlers Project centred on the Inner Sound has recovered widespread evidence for the use of rock shelters and cave entrances by man (Finlayson et al, 1999; Hardy & Wickham-Jones, 2000, 2001 & 2002), several sites extending back to the Mesolithic (C14 dates from the Sand Rock Shelter have provided the earliest dates so far for the northern regions of Scotland at 8470+/- 90 BP).

Figure 6.The entrance to the high-level fossil passage (Scale = 1 metre).

However, during the Scotland’s First Settlers Project work, it was found that many of the cave and rockshelter sites had been utilised in some form throughout the later prehistoric and historical periods.  Within the context of sites on the island of Skye, Rudh an Dunain Cave (Scott, 1934b) and Leitir Fura Cave (Wildgoose pers comm.) have provided evidence for the use of this type of site during the Iron Age, a period for which the island has numerous examples of monumental architecture within the landscape. The cave at Leitir Fura contained a deep and complex midden dominated by marine shells including limpet, periwinkle and mussel. Excavated during April and May 1996, archaeological deposits attaining a total depth of 1.25m was removed from the cave. Most of the 11 contexts identified in the cave fill contained single or multiple hearth settings, the primary deposit comprising a small iron-smelting hearth. Finds recovered from the cave include a well-preserved animal bone assemblage, numerous fish bones and scales, stone and bone tools, and many fragments of plain, coarse pottery. The midden was interspersed with layers of charcoal, peat ash, fire-cracked pebbles, iron slag and charred hazelnut shell, some of these materials associated with hearths and areas of paving within the cave.

The initial occupation of the cave at Leitir Fura would appear to have been connected with the smelting of iron around 2080 BP, and this episode of use seems to have been followed by a series of seasonal occupations indicated by thin layers of fine, wind-blown soils separating the midden deposits. A very similar hearth setting was recorded by Sir Lindsay Scott at Rudh an Dunain Cave in Skye, during excavations at the site in 1932 (Scott, 1934b). Sherds of plain Iron Age pottery were recovered by Scott at the cave, although no C14 dates are available for these excavations.

Therefore, High Pasture Cave constitutes a site type for which we have available, although limited, evidence from the island of Skye and other surrounding areas.  However, further archaeological research is required before we can identify the role that caves and rockshelters played in the wider settlement history of the region during the later prehistoric period.

Figure 7.The stalagmite and flowstone deposits in the passage that have survived the disturbance from the digging activities of the cavers.  Animal bones remain in-situ encased within the calcite and within open voids beyond (Scale = 1 metre).

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