Font Size

100% 150% 200%

Background Colour

Default Contrast
Close Reset


Date 1 June 2018 - 31 July 2018

Event ID 1106195

Category Recording

Type Excavation


NH 756 608 (centred on) The Rosemarkie Caves Project has been investigating the archaeology of 19 caves on the SE side of the Black Isle, since 2006. The project is run by a team of voluntary professional and amateur archaeologists, and is linked to the North of Scotland Archaeology Society.

Between 2011 and 2015 a programme of survey and test pitting provided baseline data of the sites’ archaeological potential. The project team conducted test pitting in eight of the caves, four of which were located in the Learnie group (1B, 2B, 3B and 3C). Stratified samples of animal bone and charcoal from archaeological layers in the test pits established 7th – 9th-century AD occupation in the Learnie cave group, with 2nd – 4th-century AD and 11th – 12th-century AD dates also derived from material in Learnie 3C. Significant evidence for 19th – 20th-century traveller occupation was found across the caves, particularly in the Learnie group and Ivy Cave, with frequent evidence for leather shoe making or repair, and the recycling of other types of materials. Learnie 2B was highlighted as a particularly intriguing cave, given >1m depth of archaeological material and the presence of two buried mortared and stone-built entrance walls.

In 2016, open area excavations within Learnie 2B aimed to clarify the function and dates of occupation of the cave, and its importance in interpreting early medieval and post-medieval culture in the area. The most recent activity in the cave produced substantial evidence for late 19th- to early 20th-century occupation, including cobbled floors, a hearth and midden deposits containing a wide range of artefacts.

The early medieval occupation of the cave included good evidence for metalworking (smithing) and the division of the internal space using wooden screens, which was pre-dated by the deposition of human remains within a side alcove of the cave. The individual (Rosemarkie Man) had been brutally killed and was accompanied by feasting deposits comprising the bones from at least eight cattle (primarily from meat-bearing joints) and two bones from a horse. The nature of the killing of the individual including evidence for ‘overkill’ and placement in the cave with the residues from feasting, may indicate a sacrificial or punishment-style killing.

The 1 June – 31 July 2018 saw a strong team carry out a third consecutive season of excavation in a group of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. The fieldwork took place in two of the Learnie Caves, continuing the excavations to investigate cave function in Learnie 1A and Learnie 1B caves. The caves are located in the same headland below Learnie Farm, which also houses Learnie 2C and Learnie 2B; the latter where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made in 2016.

As in previous excavations, some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th to early 20th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, sherds of window glass and worked bone/horn. The excellent preservation found in many of these caves also produced other organic remains including worked wood in Learnie 1B. Some of the more recognisable wood elements comprised fragments of roundwood around 6 – 8mm in diameter, some of which had trimmed ends. Further analysis of these finds is required, but it is possible that some of this material derives from the manufacture of baskets or fish traps. Other artefact associated with this period of use included ceramics, bottle glass, a metal spoon, knife blades and handles, the remains of a small penknife including a part of the finely decorated bone handle, iron fittings, bone and mother of pearl buttons, several potential stone tools, and the ubiquitous clay pipe fragments. Several objects manufactured from copper alloy were also recovered including studs, pins, three low-denomination coins and fragments from an oil or paraffin lamp. In the upper levels of Learnie 1A, we recovered a large number of old shotgun cartridges, which may have been used to shoot rabbits and birds (the recent analysis of the animal bones from previous years’ excavations has indicated high numbers of rabbit bones in the faunal assemblage from this period).

Both caves have produced good economic evidence relating to their use during the post-medieval period. One particularly interesting discovery this season was in Learnie 1B, where we uncovered a substantial deposit of fairly large fish scales. The big question surrounding the fish scale deposit is where are the bones from the fish? Although we have recovered some fish bones from the midden layers, especially from the more extensive shell midden excavated in Learnie 1A, their numbers appear to relate to the consumption of a small number of fish by the inhabitants. The deposit of fish scales appears to relate to a larger-scale activity, perhaps associated with de-scaling fish prior to smoking or brining.

The previous excavations in Learnie 1B and Learnie 2B had produced a significant number of hearths and spot-fires relating to their use during the post-medieval period, ephemeral stone dividing walls, cobbled surfaces and possible sleeping areas – the latter indicated by layers of decayed bracken and small branch wood. This year, we recovered additional evidence of structures within both caves. In Learnie 1B, the removal of a domed pile of small stone shatter located against the S wall revealed an underlying dry-stone built structure. Comprising two walls running at right angles to the cave wall (extending c2m into the cave), up to three courses high and c1m wide. The height of the low walls became less as they extended into the cave and, from our excavations, it would appear that it formed a structure that provided some division of space, possible deflecting the wind and creating a small sheltered area within an otherwise open space. A second and slightly earlier dividing wall was uncovered just 0.5m farther in to the cave, also abutting the S wall. This comprised a single skin feature, up to four courses high adjacent to the cave wall.

However, a much more impressive suite of walls was uncovered in Learnie 1A, also relating to the latest phase of activity during the post-medieval period. Within this cave, which is roughly aligned E/W another pile of small stone shatter was found extending from the N wall. Removal of this revealed a well-constructed double-skin wall with rubble core, up to three courses high, which extended S into the cave for c1.6m, turned at an angle to the SE for 1.8m, then turned back to the NE for another 1.1m where it terminated. The wall guided access into the inner cave and chamber, blocked off the light entering the chamber, and deflected the wind. A second, smaller linear wall c1.5m long blocked off a small recess in the W wall of the inner cave chamber. The wall, up to three courses high, was also hidden by a pile of small stone shatter and it appears likely that both of the walls in Learnie 1A revetted and supported the stone piles, creating a dark chamber within. At least two hearths, comprising roughly circular mounds of wood ash, were identified within the inner chamber.

Below the post-medieval deposits in these two caves, the sequence was found to be quite different. In Learnie 1A, it would seem that intermittent occupation was fairly continuous, extending back through the medieval and early medieval periods. Much of the evidence for the medieval activity comprises dumps of midden, which general takes place around the periphery of the cave walls and is demarcated by ephemeral rubble walls, and a series of well-laminated lenses through the centre of the cave indicating trampling and access by the passage of feet. This had resulted in quite compacted deposits running roughly through the centre of the cave into the inner chamber, with midden deposited to each side; that lying against the N wall in particular comprising loose marine shells and containing animal and fish bone. The lower part of the shell midden also produced several sherds of medieval ceramic including green-glazed redware (13 – 15th centuries AD) and more importantly, Scottish white gritty ware (potentially 11 – 12th centuries AD). Several hearths were associated with these periods of use, creating a complex sequence of ash lenses.

At the base of the sequence in Learnie 1A, a substantial circular pile of wood ash and charcoal appears to represent a hearth relating to the early medieval use of the cave, along with associated shell midden deposits. These deposits overlay the natural sand in the base of the cave, outcrops of bedrock and some larger stone clasts, while large slabs of rock above derive from a major failure of the cave roof just inside the entrance. Our final major discovery was associated with the earliest use of the cave, most likely during the early medieval period. Within a hollow formed by bedrock and large stone clasts, a black, charcoal-rich, oval-shaped deposit was revealed and a closer inspection revealed small fragments of hammer-scale. We decided to run a section through the deposit and these soon revealed vitrified fragments of a smithing hearth and further hammer-scale. Careful excavation revealed a heavily burnt stone slab, to which was attached a well-preserved section of a smithing hearth, complete with vitrified ceramic wall and underlying hearth base. Damage noticed on one of the larger stones, or bedrock outcrops flanking the hearth, suggests is may have been used as an anvil. Such well-preserved smithing hearths from the early medieval period are incredibly rare and will add to a growing corpus of information relating to metalworking in caves.

The sequence of deposits in Learnie 1B was quite different. Here, the layers representing the post-medieval activity lay directly on top of a deep spread of stone comprising shattered fragments from the cave walls and roof, and beach cobbles of differing size. During the 2017 excavations, this deposit of stone (which contains many air-filled voids and little sediment matrix) produced the largest assemblage of faunal remains from the cave sequence. This included some larger bone elements and an articulated fragment from the lower spine/tail of a fairly large ungulate. The excavations this year produced yet more well-preserved animal bone including articulated vertebrae, scapula, mandibles and mandible fragments. However, the most impressive remains included the complete skull of a horse, complete with articulated vertebral column. No ribs or limbs were attached to these elements, although we did recover individual ribs and limb bones that may have derived from it. Upon lifting the skull of the horse, the cause of death soon became apparent; a circular hole around 20 – 25mm diameter was noted in the top of the skull, just back from the eye sockets. The horse had been poleaxed.

Removal of the stones forming the base of this deposit revealed the early medieval occupation horizon, although it is possible that the upper part of this complex, a shallow sequence of layers, may relate to medieval activity. The floor deposits consisted of lenses of wood ash, charcoal-rich deposits, midden, deposits with high organic content (potential bedding), and slabs of stone burnt a vivid red. The deposits forming this kaleidoscope of differing colours and textures derived from a sequence of hearths and fire-spots within the cave, some of which were domestic cooking hearths (as evidenced by the recovery of burnt and heavily calcined animal bone and some fire-cracked stone) and hearths with a potentially more industrious function. And, while no in situ smithing hearth was revealed, we did recover all of the components that would support this activity, including slag, fragments of vitrified hearth wall, hearth base fragments and hammer-scale.

The main area of the cave consisted of quite level, trampled deposits, although low overhangs and areas with alcoves and rock projections formed the main focus of midden deposition – especially shellfish – which is also paralleled in Learnie 1A. Some fish bone and animal bone was also recovered from these deposits, although on a small scale when compared to the extensive stone deposits mentioned above. Artefacts, as with most of the Rosemarkie Caves holding early medieval deposits, are indeed rare finds! With the exception of a knife sharpening stone, two possible coarse cobble tools (hammers/pounders) and a couple of iron objects, the only other small find was a small, conical-shaped piece of antler which may be a small stopper or gaming piece.

Removal of the early medieval occupation deposits in Learnie 1B revealed some wonderfully-preserved evidence for the division and use of space. A roughly circular hearth towards the back of the cave produced burnt animal bone and most likely formed a domestic cooking area. A sequence of post and stakeholes, and post-settings, formed a roughly rectangular area – the long sides roughly mirroring the undulating cave walls; while the connecting back screen also appears to block off the rear, darker area of the cave. It is possible that a similar arrangement of posts also formed a screen closing off the front of the structure and the outside world, although this could not be confirmed due to the deep overburden forming a talus at the cave entrance. It is possible that the interior of this structure formed a major activity area in the cave, while the alcoves formed between the cave walls and the structure could have been utilised for other activities including sleeping and metalworking. A trampled walkway overlying the natural sand leads from the back of the screen structure at an angle into the back of the cave, where further evidence of burning was recovered. It is indeed remarkable to find such division of space within natural caves, although we did recover similar evidence in Learnie 2B in 2016.

Results from the excavations in Learnie 2B, 1B and 1A have indicated that the caves contain a wealth of material from the post-medieval periods of activity. The activity represented by these periods of use has, in particular, provided an interesting glimpse into the 19th- and early 20th-century lives of the occupants of the Learnie caves. The artefacts and ecofacts represent everyday activities and debris left behind by potentially itinerant inhabitants – who may have been using the caves on an almost permanent basis. This period seems to be associated with small scale industry represented by the shoe and leather finds, worked horn, iron scraps, other small finds such as the knives and cobble and bone tools; and of course, the large dumps of fish scales representing the processing of fish. Further specialist analysis will assist in building this storey. Further documentary research may also enhance our storey for this period of use, as revealed by some initial results on archival material which has found references from a man living at a cave at Learnie regarding the burial of his wife (R Jones pers comm 2017).

The evidence we have recovered for the earlier periods of activity, in particular the medieval period, are more difficult to define. A lack of artefacts suggests that people either carried the tools and other equipment away with them from the caves for use elsewhere, or that cave function was based around very basic subsistence activities, storage, or as fugitive hideaways! Whilst the lack of artefactual material continues into the early medieval period, we have at least found good evidence for metalworking on a small scale in three of the four caves investigated at Learnie; and although we still await radiocarbon dates to confirm the date of metalworking activity in Learnie 1B and Learnie 1A, the metalworking was the first major activity to take place in the caves, after which intermittent occupation continued – although it is difficult to tie-down function to anything other than general subsistence.

Archive: Rosemarkie Caves Project (currently) and NRHE (intended)

Funder: Highland Council, Cromarty Estate, CARD Fund, Hunter Archaeological and Historical Trust, and Cromarty Firth Port Authority

Steven Birch, Mary Peteranna and Simon Gunn – Rosemarkie Caves Project

(Source: DES Volume 19)

People and Organisations