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Publication Account

Date 2007

Event ID 587425

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account



NF/7305 2203

A cluster of three late Bronze Age roundhouses, and an unusual early Iron Age 'figure-of-eight' stone-walled house nearby, are near Daliburgh on the west coast of South Uist. Work at the site begun in 1994 and was still continuing in 2002. This is a ground-breaking project by the University of Sheffield which has succeeded in finding a small settlement, not far from Dun Vulan broch (NF72 1), which dates to the very beginning of the twelve centuries or more of the late Bronze and Iron Ages of western Atlantic Scotland. Until these excavations, only Jarlshof and Clickhimin in Shetland (HU30 1 and HU44 1) and Howe, Pierowall and Bu in Orkney (HY21 6, HY44 8 and HY20 4), had structures from these early occupation levels.

1. The late Bronze Age roundhouses

These were located in 1996 while mapping the 600m long spread of midden with late Bronze Age and early Iron Age sherds. A hundred metres south-east of this there is an active sand quarry (Area A) in which a deep midden and structures are exposed. Within the centre of this quarry the upper walls of a large double-roomed roundhouse (House 401) were found. Its west room has a diameter of 12.1m whilst its east room is smaller and about 4m in diameter. The floor layers survive at a depth of 0.4m below the surface of the midden and the house itself is filled with a complex deposit of midden layers and sand lenses. As with House 112 there were no traces of internal piers; the wheelhouses in the Western Isles thus appear to have been a new development in the middle Iron Age.

To the north of the house, buried 0.2m below the midden's surface, are traces of plough marks running parallel, approximately east-west.

A second double roundhouse (no. 640) was excavated in 1998 together with another single roundhouse 7m in diameter (no. 401) which contained a deep sequence of deposits. Another roundhouse (no. 726) lay directly beneath House 401. The detailed sampling of three consecutive floor layers within House 401 linked the sequence of floors to a complex series of wall builds.

Finds continued to be copious and unusual, and included a copper-alloy disk, a fragment of a shale bracelet(extremely unusual in the Outer Isles), a stone loom weight, 14 scapula shovels, 18 antler picks, smashed pots and a disarticulated sheep burial, as well as many bone points, struck flints and pieces of worked pumice. A probable ram skull was found beneath the floor of the entrance.

The positioning of House 401 almost directly on top of House 726, and its subsequent continuous refurbishment, hints at a long and continuous occupation of this particular site. Within this sequence the change of the occupants' pottery from flat-topped to rounded rims suggests a time span straddling the late Bronze and early Iron Ages, perhaps lasting many generations. This practice of living on top of ancestral house foundations and floors may well be part of a significant change within the British Isles away from the middle Bronze Age practice of relocating new houses at a distance from the old ones. The deep build-up of floors, together with the continuous renewal of walls, indicates that deposition within the house was a continuous, long-term process and not an episode towards the end of the house's occupation as a dwelling.

The second significant discovery in 1998 was a multi-cellular house (no. 640) to the north-east of House 401. This was entirely excavated and consisted of an east entrance opening into a sub-circular east room which led into a sub-rectangular west room in the west wall of which were a large and a small niche. There was a single small hearth in the east room, the floor on the south side being littered with cooking stones and a broken pot. Although most of the stones in the walls had been extensively robbed, those of the large niche remained untouched. The niche was kept open after the rest of the house had filled with windblown sand, and was used for the setting of a small stone structure before being filled with large burnt cobbles.

House 640 provides a useful comparison for the partial but previously unique double roundhouse about 100m to the west (House 112). It also highlights the difference between these two multi-cellular houses and the roundhouse (no. 401) in terms of their small size, absence of deep occupation layers and peripheral locations, which seem not to be chronological. The most likely current interpretation is that both multi-cellular houses and roundhouses were in use and in different ways, or at different times or by different people.

The middle roundhouse (no. 401) is remarkable for its extraordinary length of occupation and for the variety of unusual deposits within and below its floors. Although the deepest two of the eight floors remain to be excavated, this house has produced a stratified sequence of pottery types which probably spans most of the first millennium BC. In the top layers were vessels with rounded, thickened rims comparable to those found in 1994 in the double roundhouse in Area C about 100m to the north-west (House 112, associated with a radiocarbon date of 2310 +/- 65 bp, or about 750-200 BC : AA-17477) and in the earliest levels at Dun Vulan. These overlapped with, and were preceded by, vessels with flat-topped rims. Flat-rimmed pottery, consisting of small bucket-shaped vessels, was found in a clear late Bronze Age context (8th/7th century BC) in the Covesea Cave in Morayshire (Benton 1931: Coles 1960). Earlier in the sequence were vessels with flat-topped but inwardly angled rims.

Towards the lower deposits, rims became thickened, concave-topped and almost T-shaped (this characteristic T-shaped rim has been dated in Sutherland to the early first millennium BC), similar to those from the midden below House 112 (associated with a radiocarbon date of 2960 +/- 75 bp, or about 1400-995 BC: OxA-3352).

Because of radiocarbon calibration problems in the 1st millennium BC, the hearths of Houses 401 and 1370 have been sampled for archaeomagnetic dating. Thermoluminescence samples from the site are also being processed. There is another chronological change evident in the stone tools, with flakes of quartz and flint becoming scarce during the house's period of occupation.

During excavations the preserved floor surfaces at all three roundhouses were sampled using flotation, geo-chemistry, geophysics and soil micro-morphology and they revealed a standardised and repetitive use of internal space in all three roundhouses. These patterns were similar to those seen at other Iron Age sites in Wessex (the Fitzpatrick sunwise model), with areas for cooking, working bone and stone and sleeping. Within each of the houses a human skeleton was found buried in the north-east corner, whilst a fourth was found nearby. Excavation had shown the houses were built contemporaneously, so these interments were probably made around the same time. Disarticulated sheep burials were found within the middle and north houses in the south-west corners near the walls.

Discussion. Since this excavation is ongoing, and since only verbal summary descriptions have been published, detailed comments would be premature. However it is clear that the Sheffield University team have discovered a site of crucial importance for Atlantic Iron Age studies, and one which lies at the very beginning of the whole sequence of stone buildings running from about 700 BC to AD 500. One point which may prove important is that there appears to be no sign in the architecture of the hollow-wall construct-ion characteristic of brochs and no sign of the Everted Rim pottery which appears in Shetland a short time later.

Finds. Further deposits recovered from the floors in 2001 included a scattered deposit of clay mould fragments within the entrance area of the middle house [10, Illus. 42]. There were also saddle querns, a gold-plated thick bronze ring (known as a 'hair ring' or 'ring money') [10, Illus. 41], bronze wire, smashed pots and many animal bones. The evidence of metalworking suggests long-distance metal trading connections, as does the gold-plated bronze ring; these are common in Ireland and known throughout Britain but have not previously been found in the Western Isles.

Work continued in 2002 and revealed a Northton-style U-shaped house at a low level. This house was built directly on top of a small cremation cemetery with early late Bronze Age pottery. Underneath, a thick layer of windblown sand covered a Beaker-period plough soil which spanned the entire length of the site.

2. The EIA Figure-of-eight house

The two-roomed, figure-of-eight house (no. 112) was revetted into a late Bronze Age midden, itself dated by a single radiocarbon determination of 2960 +/- 75 bp, and by the presence of coarse, flat rimmed pots. The abandonment of the house is dated by TL on pottery to 2860 +/- 260 bp and by radiocarbon on articulated bone in the same deposit to 2310 +/- 65 bp. This suggests an early Iron Age date, though the flat-rimmed pottery should imply a specifically late Bronze Age date. The walls of the structure were well preserved on its west side, standing to over 1m. Floor layers were also intact and bone and shell survive in the machair sand. The small quantity of tumbled stones and the lack of organic material above the floors suggest that the structure was roofed neither with stone nor turf.

The floor levels in both rooms formed a complex and compressed sequence of thin dark layers interspersed with thin layers of windblown sand. Otherwise the only internal features were a clay-lined stone trough and two post- holes (one of which probably provided a central roof support), in the west room and a group of eight post- or stake-holes, an “informal” hearth and a low stone bench or footing in the east room. The 0.73m-wide doorway connecting the rooms had an extremely low roof, only 40cm above the ground, yet the floor surface under the door was worn thin from use.

Connecting floor layers indicate that both rooms were in use at the same time, with the west room going out of use whilst floor layers were still accumulating in the east room. The heaps of sand around the walls of the east room, its lack of a central post and its use for bronze working suggest that it was not roofed.

Finds. The bronze-working debris in floor layer 233 included droplets, casting waste, including a piece of a clay mould for casting wheel-headed pins (also known as Swan's neck sunflower pins), and also part of a small bronze finger-ring. The pins are typologically dateable to the 6th and 5th century BC by Coles and are found all over mainland Scotland (Coles 1960, 89). Moulds for casting them have also been found in the earliest village at Jarlshof in Shetland (HU30 1).

On abandonment, the building filled up with clean windblown sand in what may have been a rapid natural event. The generally rounded rims are similar to pottery from the earliest layers at Dun Vulan. They may be ascribed to the late Bronze Age on the basis of the TL date mentioned.

3. A late Bronze Age warrior élite?

Cladh Hallan is the first clear evidence of a late Bronze Age settlement in the Outer Isles, just as Dun Lagaidh is the first hillfort of the period to be identified on the west coast (NH19 2). Like Dun Lagaidh, Cladh Hallan has not produced direct evidence of metal weapons but, as also in the case of the hillfort on Loch Broom, leaf-shaped bronze swords of the same period have been found locally. Two were found some time before 1864 at the bottom of about 10 - 12 ft of peat at Eochar, near the north-west end of the island [8, 9], at about NF/7746; they had presumably been thrown into what was then a loch as offerings.

The inhabitants of Cladh Hallan had some high-status objects like the gold- plated lock ring, and a presumably travelling smith made for them (among other things) wheel-headed pins of the same kind as that found near Dun Lagaidh. It therefore seems quite likely that this settlement was made and lived in by a similar warrior élite. Whether there are any strongholds of this period on the island remains to be discovered.

Sources: 1. NMRS site no. NF 72 SW 17: 2. Discovery and Excavation, Scotland, 1995, 110; Ibid. 1996, 110; Ibid. 1998, 103; Ibid. 1999, 91-3 and fig. 24; Ibid. 2000, fig. 32, 97-8; Ibid. 2001, 102-4, figs. 41, 42; Ibid. 2002, 121-2: 3. Armit 2003, 39: 4. Bewley 2003, 52: 5. Campbell 2002, 140: 6. Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999: 7. Mulville, Parker Pearson, Sharples, Smith and Chamberlain 2003, 22-3, 28 and 30: 8. Fojut, Pringle and Walker 2003: 8. Anderson 1879: 9. NMRS site NF 74 NE 13: 10. Parker Pearson, Sharples and Symonds 2004.

E W MacKie 2007

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