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Sands Of Forvie

Midden(S) (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Sands Of Forvie

Classification Midden(S) (Period Unassigned)

Canmore ID 165124

Site Number NK02NW 47

NGR NK 007 258

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Aberdeenshire
  • Parish Slains
  • Former Region Grampian
  • Former District Gordon
  • Former County Aberdeenshire

Archaeology Notes

NK02NW 47 007 258

NK 01 25 A series of small-scale fieldwork and desk-based exercises were undertaken to explore the Early Holocene archaeology of the Sands of Forvie. A detailed topographical survey of two middens was carried out (NK 007 258). These features, predominantly of mussel, sit on the main post-glacial raised beach (formed c 6000 bp) and are slumping down the cliff over the popular footpath.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Abercromby Fund, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (NE section).

G Warren 1999


Excavation (5 April 2010 - 15 October 2010)

NK 007 257 and NK 008 261 Two short pilot seasons of fieldwork were carried out on the shell middens and

surrounding soils of the Sands of Forvie on 5–10 April and 11–15 October 2010. The middens in the Ythan estuary have been known of since at least the 19th century and three large middens were identified in 2005, during survey work led by Graeme Warren (Warren 2005, 65–6). The April fieldwork concentrated on the most threatened of these, Midden C, a large eroding face of mussel midden, located near the present shoreline limit.

Excavations at C showed that the midden sequence consisted of 2.9m of deposits, extending for over 35m in

length. This sequence was established through two main columns excavated to the lowest deposits. The most visible and obvious part of the midden was a c0.6m band of stratified shell deposits in the upper portion of the eroding section. This upper midden lay on top of a significant sand dune (up to c1.3m deep), which had formed above a series of earlier more discrete shell deposits. Various pits were found dug into the sand dune, one of which, an intact fire pit, consisted of a layer of fire-cracked stones on top of a charcoal deposit. This has been interpreted as a steaming pit used to open the mussels for consumption, as found in many ethnographic contexts. There were few finds apart from a net sinker in the lowest level and one or two lithic pieces, including one in the fire pit. Six radiocarbon dates were obtained from the lowest levels to the upper parts of

the upper midden deposits. The basal charcoal-rich layer dated to 325–555 cal AD with all the layers above this

forming rapidly in the period of 715–985 cal AD. Samples of shells, sediment micromorphology samples and pollen samples were taken from Midden C.

Further assessment work was carried out on Middens A and B in October 2010. Midden A is a low roughly circular mound, c20m in diameter, located on the main raised beach (MPGT). Within three test pits located on the western face of the midden, two major shell midden layers were found slumping down the raised beach. The midden layers, like those at Midden C, were located on top of a major sand blow event, suggesting that this midden is also likely to be of later date, probably in the 1st millennium AD. The only finds were intrusive pieces of Victorian glass. The midden composition was identical to that of Midden C and pits were also found cut into the lower sand dune layers.

Midden B is an irregularly shaped mound, roughly horseshoe in plan, with a depression at its centre. It is c35m

long NW–SE and c10–15m wide NE–SW, with the SW portion of the mound eroding down the MPGT raised shoreline. This midden, like the other two middens was mainly made up of mussel shell with a small percentage of periwinkle and the occasional cockle. Five test pits were excavated, three on the E part of the horseshoe and two near the shoreline edge on the W part of the midden. The midden was much shallower

than A or C, reaching only 0.3m. A maximum of three shell bearing layers were recorded in each test pit. The shell midden layers generally slumped away from the central depression of the horseshoe, which may have been a boggy hollow with a high water table or spring source in the past. In the NE test pit fragments of antler were found at the base of the midden. Fire pits were found dug into the underlying sand layers. One test pit towards the SW limits of the site found midden layers of an unusual character. Here, although dominated by

mussel, there was a much higher percentage of cockle and periwinkle shells and the upper layers also contained animal and fish bone. An iron rivet or nail was also found in this part of the midden, suggesting that this zone may date to the 1st millennium AD or later. While no direct dating evidence is yet available for Middens A and B their similar character and in the case of A construction, on a major sand blow event,

suggests a later date for these middens and they may be found to be contemporary with Midden C. The shells, animal and fish bone from Midden B are currently undergoing analysis.

A series of five soil test pits was excavated in an area c200m NE of Midden A (NK 008 261), to investigate the soils and land use of the surrounding area before, during and after the formation of the middens. This area contains the remains of rig and furrow and a field boundary, in the form of a low linear earthwork on three sides of an irregularly-shaped quadrilateral field. Three test pits were excavated outside of the field, a few metres E of its SE corner: one on top of a rig (Test Pit 1), one at the bottom of a furrow (Test Pit 2), and one on the S edge of a sand dune (Test Pit 3). The field boundary was sectioned on its S side, just a few metres from its SE corner, and a test pit was excavated to investigate the soils buried below it (Test Pit 4). Finally, a test pit was placed on a low rig within the field that was surrounded by the field boundary (Test Pit 5).

The soil sequences in the test pits shared very similar characteristics, with slight differences in their upper

horizons resulting from land use activities in their particular location. The lowest horizon in all the soil test pits was a C horizon consisting of a reddish brown clay loam – a glacial till derived from old red sandstone. Above this was a very dark brown clay loam that may be a weathered B horizon of a brown forest soil. Above this dark brown clay loam was a thick, homogenous dark brown sandy loam that appears to be a manured plough soil, which developed during a period of increased aeolian sand deposition. This agricultural activity predated a major episode of aeolian sand deposition and formation of sand dunes in the area (including the one on top of Test Pit 3), which on the basis of the radiocarbon dates may have occurred sometime in the 1st millennium AD. This windblown sand deposit was subsequently buried in the medieval or post-medieval period by the field boundary, which was constructed of sandy turf and large stones (Test Pit 4). Within the field enclosed by the boundary wall, the windblown sand deposit was completely reworked into an overlying plough soil and there was a very sharp, horizontal contact boundary between this Ap horizon and the underlying, pre-sand dune, prehistoric plough soil. Outside of the field boundary, the windblown sand deposit was truncated by the furrow

observed in Test Pit 2, and was redeposited on top of the adjacent rig (Test Pit 1). Bulk samples for organic and

chemical analyses were taken from each soil horizon in the test pits, soil micromorphology samples were taken from Test Pits 3 and 5, and charcoal samples were taken from the buried Ap horizon. Bulk soil analyses are currently being conducted and funds are being sought for further analyses. The department is also working on proposals to develop work here into a larger multi-period landscape project.

Warren, G. 2005 Recent fieldwork at the Sands of Forvie, Aberdeenshire. Unpublished report.

Archive: University of Aberdeen (current)

Funder: University of Aberdeen and Historic Scotland

G Noble, K Milek and E Philip – University of Aberdeen

Ground Survey (27 March 2014 - 18 July 2014)

NK 0077 2580 Two short periods of fieldwork were carried out, 27 March – 2 April and 14–18 July 2014, in the area surrounding three mussel shell middens at Sands of Forvie. The three shell middens were identified in 2005 by Graeme Warren and named A, B and C. In 2010 small-scale excavations were carried out by the University of Aberdeen at the middens

and revealed that they dated to the early medieval period. The fieldwork carried out this year was a mixture of geophysical survey and soil survey (using an auger and test pits) and focused on investigating the landscape immediately around the middens.

A magnetometry survey was carried out in the area E of Midden A and in low lying areas between sand dunes E of Midden C. No clear features were observed in the areas between sand dunes near Midden C, and further investigation of these areas with an auger revealed up to 3m of sand before reaching the buried land surface. Some circular features were observed in the area adjacent to Midden A, which corresponded to grassy

mounds visible on the surface. Investigation of one of these mounds by test pit revealed layers of sand and incipient soil formation suggesting that it was a naturally formed sand dune.

In the N of the study area, c100m NE of Midden A, there was an upstanding turf feature, which was also visible in the magnetometry results. On the surface it was visible as an ovalshaped turf mound (c5m by 10m) with a hollow in the middle and turf mounding around the edge, which may have been a wall. Two test pits through this feature indicated that there was a dark, compact and well defined layer c0.2 m below the surface, which based on its compaction and sharp boundaries may have been a floor surface, while the deeper section in test pit 2 may have been a pit.

The position of this structure not far below the surface and sitting on top of a large deposit of sand suggests that it was constructed after the major incursion of sand seen throughout the entire area in the mid-1st millennium AD, indicating an early medieval or medieval date. The small size of this building in comparison to other known early medieval settlements, such as the turf buildings at Pitcarmick, Perthshire, which were up to 30m, suggests that it was not a typical dwelling house. It may

have been a smaller, perhaps temporary, building, possibly similar to a shieling, used for storage or as a base for collecting resources from the surrounding area. The lack of evidence for major settlement close to the middens themselves indicates that people may have been travelling to this area specially to exploit the coastal resources.

Investigation of the soils around the middens, through an auger survey and test pits, showed the formation of podzols on top of windblown sand, with buried soil horizons underneath representing an older buried landscape. Most of the buried soils were dark brown and highly organic and represented the original brown earth soils that formed on top of the glacial till. In the N of the study area the buried soils were found much deeper and had formed on top of a sand dune. These were silty/sandy loams, with high percentages of organic matter, elevated levels of total phosphorus and some charcoal flecks. These characteristics could have been created by the deliberate addition of turf or other organic material to the soils, deepening them and increasing their fertility, suggesting that there may have been agriculture carried out in this area. Based on stratigraphy seen in the section of Midden C, there may have been two phases of land use around the middens during the early medieval period, separated by a major incursion of sand. This earlier phase may have seen the practice of agriculture alongside use of the middens. Iron Age agricultural soils were discovered in 2010 in soil test pits c200m NE of the middens and since radiocarbon dates from these came only from one piece of charcoal it is possible that they were in use right up until the sand incursion during the

early medieval period.

Sands of Forvie has been affected by windblown sand for thousands of years and while small amounts of sand may not have had a serious impact on land use, a major sand incursion, such as the one in the mid-1st millennium AD, would have caused disruption of any agricultural activities

being attempted in the area. After the sand incursion evidence of agriculture ceased to be found in the auger survey or test pits around the middens. However, the use of the middens themselves appears to intensify, with a thick accumulation of shells and fire pits being found on top of the sand deposit. Had the gathering of shellfish been a secondary activity to farming, only carried out because of the proximity of the

resources to areas of agricultural land, then we would expect to see the use of the middens die out. Instead we see the opposite, suggesting that shellfish were an important resource in their own right, important enough to continue making use of the coastal resources in this area even when its agricultural potential was lost.

Archive: University of Aberdeen

Funder: Medieval Settlement Research Group

Lindsey Stirling and Karen Milek – University of Aberdeen

(Source: DES)


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