Possible evidence for first Neolithic crannog on mainland Scotland

30 October 2023
Core work at Loch na Claise (Copyright Louisa Matthews)
Analysis of sediment material taken to investigate an Iron Age crannog in Assynt has revealed there was human activity in the same spot, more than 2,500 years earlier.

The evidence was discovered thanks to NERC-funded PhD research conducted at Newcastle University, that built on work by the Historic Assynt community group and AOC Archaeology.

Crannogs are dwellings built on artificial islands over water. They were often composed of brush, stone or timber mounds.

The sediment was gathered using a core sample - taken by driving a hollow cylinder into the soft sediments in the bottom of the loch and trapping a section of material - to understand the origins of the Iron Age community and the impact it made on the landscape. Evidence for an additional period of Neolithic activity was therefore a surprise.

Excavations at Loch na Claise (Copyright AOC Archaeology Group)

First mainland crannog?

By analysing plant pollen, chemicals in the sediment and stable isotopes, it was possible to establish that human activity in the area changed the loch ecosystem and landscape around 3200–3100 BCE, and again in the Iron Age from about 450-400 BCE onwards. Neolithic crannogs are known in the Hebrides, but the earliest dates in the Highlands for crannogs so far, come from the Iron Age and later. What researchers have found may be the first evidence for a Neolithic crannog on mainland Scotland.  

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These updates and many others from across the country are collated in the Celebrating Archaeology in Scotland 2023 magazine, which was launched at the Scottish Archaeological Forum conference in Aberdeen over the weekend. The free online publication shows how Scotland's Archaeology Strategy is being delivered, by bringing together articles and comments from people and organisations across the country for anyone to read.  

Other stories from this year’s magazine include the discovery of ‘intriguingly large animal bones’ on one of South Uist’s eroding beaches, and efforts to recover the remains of four post-medieval boats in Mulochy Bay in the Black Isle.  

Launched in 2015, Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy is a ten-year process of making archaeology central to Scottish life. The strategy continues to be an open conversation about archaeology’s contribution to society in Scotland and the importance of situating our heritage in a global context.  

New analysis

Dr Louisa Matthews, who conducted the research on the sediment core for her doctoral thesis at Newcastle University, said: ‘The work at Loch na Claise confirms that we now have a new means of investigating difficult-to-excavate sites such as crannogs and islet settlements that can be applied to sites across Scotland and beyond. Many sites on water and in wetland areas are vulnerable to loss or damage through changes in land-use or the climate. This type of analysis, using multiple lines of evidence from well-dated loch sediment cores, has the potential to detect early settlement at sites even when later activity has removed most of their traces.’

Dr Andy Heald FSAScot, Chair of the Scottish Strategic Archaeology Committee, said: ‘The discoveries at Loch na Claise and the many other fantastic projects showcased in Celebrating Archaeology in Scotland show how vibrant Scottish Archaeology is, and how much remains to be discovered. Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy continues to support and promote innovative work such as this, as well as the sharing of the results widely so that everyone can better understand Scotland’s past.’

To read the publication, visit the website.