Font Size

100% 150% 200%

Background Colour

Default Contrast
Close Reset


Date 3 July 2006 - 10 August 2006

Event ID 551603

Category Recording

Type Excavation


NB 5355 6501 This was the second of three seasons of excavation for the Dùn Èistean Archaeology Project (DEAP; see DES 2005, 144). The project includes an archaeological survey of the N of Ness (the Ness Archaeological Landscape Survey, NALS) as well as the excavations and post-excavation work at Dùn Èistean. The first season of excavation on Dùn Èistean was completed at the end of August 2005. Both the survey and excavation use local and student volunteers, and as much post-excavation processing and other back-up, such as leaflet production and web-site maintenance, is undertaken locally in Ness at the Comunn Eachdraidh.

Between 3 July and 10 August 2006 three large excavation areas were opened to investigate the two groups of cellular buildings, Structures B and D, built against the perimeter wall on the S side of the stack, and the tower structure partially excavated in 2005, Structure G at the NE, seaward side of the site. Structures D and G had been assessed in small 1m-wide trial excavation trenches opened during previous work in 2001 (DES 2001, 99-100).

The earliest deposits encountered in Trench B were the remains of old ground surfaces and topsoils, and hearth and occupation deposits. This earlier phase of occupation had been largely destroyed by the building of later structures B4, B5 and B1, built from conjoining walls with earth cores and stone faces of unmortared stone. Structures B4 and B5 had sunken floors, and no hearths or other interior features, although an occupation deposit filled the sunken floor of B5, and Structure B6 was larger, sub-rectangular and had slightly bowed sides, but no interior features evident. To the N and separated from these buildings by a gap of around am, was the largest of the structures within the trench ' Structure B1, with a sunken floor, and a central hearth. Adjacent to it, at a gap in the perimeter wall, Structure H, lay an old entrance on to the stack at the corner of a triangular enclosure bounded by Structures B, A and H. Finds of cragan sherds, pieces of slag and iron, flint and bone fragments from the ash and occupation levels from the earlier occupation below the structures, are evidence of domestic occupation and possible domestic metalworking. Finds from the occupation and construction of the buildings themselves comprised mostly coarse ceramic sherds, with occasional finds of worked quartz, iron objects, gun flints and worked flint. The finds all reflect a broadly domestic use for the buildings, although the consistent finds of gunflints and pistol shot suggest episodes of conflict. Above the structures lay several layers of collapse and abandonment, from which artefacts broadly datable to the late 16th/early 17th to 19th centuries were recovered, the earlier range being represented by an Elizabethan silver sixpence, dating to 1570 or 1580, pistol shot and glazed ceramics.

Trench D was only partially excavated in 2006 and most of the excavation involved the removal of layers of turf slump collapse from a series of small turf- and stone-built structures, Structures D4, D8, D13 and D14, much like shieling huts. These buildings were investigated thoroughly with the excavation of all internal features and partial investigation of walls by sondage, and several phases of occupation and re-use were evidenced. Two of the buildings (Structures D7 and D8) had central hearths, suggesting that they may have been used for occupation, although the larger (unexcavated) hearth noted in Structure D7 suggests a possible industrial use than the simple sub-rectangular one seen in Structure D8. Structures D13 and D14 had no hearths and may have been used for storage. Structure D4 lay mostly outside the excavated area and as a result no internal features were identified. Below the later buildings to the N of D10 was found a rectangular building, with a doorway in the N wall and evidence internally of occupation in the form of a large central hearth and a pottery-rich occupation layer. The corner of a second building on the same alignment was also uncovered but not excavated. Comparisons can be made with Structure A, a rectangular structure with turf core walls and stone facings excavated in the 2005 DEAP season, and with Structure B1 excavated in 2006. Locally-made, hand-built coarse Cragan-ware pottery, peat-ash, stone robbed from earlier structures, and charcoal were all found within the slump and cores of the turf walls of the later shieling-type structures, indicating that they had been cleared out and repaired several times, possibly as a result of occupation and re-use on a seasonal basis. The mixed assemblage of finds from the these turf structures in Trench D is largely domestic in nature, and includes a possible pot hook, burnt animal bone, sherds of coarse pottery, corroded iron objects, a lump of slag, and a crucible fragment. A gun flint is the only find that is not domestic in nature. A large assemblage of sherds of coarse pottery, including decorated sherds, were recovered from deposits associated with the earlier rectangular buildings, retrieved mainly from midden and occupation layers. Burnt bone was a frequent find, reflecting cooking activity on the site, particularly in the hearths excavated. Other finds recovered are of the same range as those found in the collapse layers above - worked and flaked flint, a gun flint, sherds of post-medieval glass, fire-cracked stone, iron objects, worked quartz and slag.

Excavations in Trench G continued from 2005, when the first indication of an interior face for the ruined tower was uncovered, giving a possible overall thickness of up to 2m for the base of the tower wall. The wall incorporated around 1m of core material, and was clearly built to carry a considerable load and therefore height of masonry. In 2006 the excavation focused on the interior of the tower, and on clearing one corner of the exterior collapse so as to assess the condition of the structure for possible future conservation or consolidation work. A trench dug by antiquarian Rev M MacPhail in 1866 into the interior of the tower was emptied, and had been excavated down to the natural subsoil and bedrock within the tower. Excavation of the collapse at the SW corner of the tower revealed that remains of the original ground surface survive, and also patches of clay dropped during the original construction of the tower. Finds of a musket ball, gun flint and flakes from the collapse around the tower indicate conflict on the site, although sherds of coarse pottery and bone are evidence of periodic, short-lived shelter in the structure between the 16th and 18th centuries AD.

The excavations in 2006 have provided firm evidence for the first time for occupation there in the medieval as well as post-medieval centuries. Both Trenches B and D have provided evidence of several phases of occupation, with varying building forms dating to different phases, and mixed uses for each group or type of building. For the first time evidence for small-scale domestic metalworking (as suggested by small pieces of non-iron slag, J Atkinson pers comm, and a crucible fragment, E Campbell pers comm) from Trenches B and D adds a new dimension to the site. The dating provided by the 1570/1580 Elizabethan silver sixpence found in wall slump in Trench B, and by the different types of pottery recovered from Trench D (which include earlier medieval forms, as well as post-medieval; E Campbell, pers comm.) all adds to a late medieval focus for the site, with final use in the 17th century, and then re-use (including on Structure G) in the later centuries. The impressive, well built, thick walls of the tower, Structure G, and the finds of imported pottery, coin and pistol shot and gun flints from all the trenches provide evidence for a site in the thick of political life in Lewis and further afield in the medieval and early post-medieval periods, well placed in the Minch to overlook one of the main trading routes between the Baltic States, Britain and mainland Europe

Archive lodged with NMRS and SMR (intended); Museum nan Eilean (intended).

Sponsors: Heritage Lottery Fund; Historic Scotland; Comhairle nan Eilean Siar; Comunn Eachdraidh Nis; Comunn na Gàidhlig; Clan Morrison Society; Glasgow University.

C S Barrowman 2006

People and Organisations