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Skye, Uamh An Ard Achadh

Cave (Period Unassigned), Human Remains (Period Unassigned), Bead (Glass), Musical Instrument

Site Name Skye, Uamh An Ard Achadh

Classification Cave (Period Unassigned), Human Remains (Period Unassigned), Bead (Glass), Musical Instrument

Alternative Name(s) High Pasture Cave

Canmore ID 273776

Site Number NG51NE 83

NGR NG 5943 1971

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/273776

Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2018.

Digital Images


First 100 images shown. See the Collections panel (below) for a link to all digital images.

Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Strath
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Skye And Lochalsh
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Archaeology Notes

(Location of the cave entrance cited as NG 5943 1971: this is the major area of excavations).

Information from Simon Birch, 7 February 2006.

NG51NE 83 NG 594 197

Excavation; landscape project. Excavations at High Pasture Cave continued between March and October 2005 (DES 2004, 80-81), resulting in the discovery of 3.5m of Iron Age deposits lying within a natural depression in the former ground surface above the cave. These stratified deposits contained a series of related hearths and surrounded a fine stone-built stairwell. The stairwell would appear to give direct access to the cave, which lies some 5m below current

ground level. The upper 1m of the stairwell (the only part excavated so far) contained the remains of at least four, and possibly five, Iron Age inhumations. Multiple deposits of quern fragments (saddle and rotary), pebble tools, bone/antler pins and animal bone were recovered from around the hearths and stairwell entrance.

Excavations also continued within the cave (Bone Passage), and a wide range of materials was recovered including animal and fish bone, shellfish remains, charred plant remains, metalworking residues, iron pins, bone and stone tools. See www.high-pasturecave.org. Excavations will continue in 2006.

Sponsors: HSA, Highland Council, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise Leader+, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

S Birch and M Wildgoose 2005

NG 594 197 Excavations at High Pasture Cave continued in 2006, resulting in the clearance of the fine, stone-built stairwell discovered in 2005. Excavations within the cave (trench 6) showed that multiple votive deposits (pins, needles, spindle whorls, querns and beads) had been placed at the foot of the stairs. Activity within the cave was shown to be occasional in the ?Neolithic and Bronze Age (pottery and lithics) with increased activity and ritual use from the Later Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Work on the surface included excavation of sections (trenches 5, 9 and 11) across a massive burnt mound which surrounds the cave entrance, sections through landscape features (walls and boundary dykes) and excavation of a major part of the possible round house lying to the NW of the site (trench 7). A series of test pits were dug to evaluate features during extensive geophysical surveys. A fuller description of the 2006 work will be made available through a DSR in April 2007 and through updates of the High Pasture Cave Web Site @ www.high-pasture-cave.org.

Excavation archive held in the Archives of WCAS and AALS c/o Steven Birch and Wildgoose and with the RCAHMS. Finds deposited with the NMS.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland, Highland Council, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise/Leader+, Highland 2007 Fund, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose, 2006.

Activities

Excavation (March 2004 - September 2004)

NG51NE 83 5943 1971

(Location cited as NG 594 197). The first season of the High Pasture Cave Project between March and September 2004 included clearance of the main stream-way to the excavation site (60m down an underground river).

Fieldwork included detailed survey and site drawings of all surface structures, and excavation of a trial trench in the bone passage to assess the extent of the archaeological deposits.

The trial trench demonstrated that the cave had seen extensive use in both the Bronze and Iron Age, with two floor levels (granite slab and compacted gravel) indicating two intensive periods of use followed by periods of midden dumping. Two separate deposits of animal bone and a discrete periwinkle midden suggest deliberate deposition in the cave.

A cave morphology survey was also carried out, with samples removed for dating.

Finds include metalwork, worked antler and bone, carbonised cereals and seeds, decorated and plain pottery, worked stone and worked pumice. The animal bone assemblage is predominantly pig (80-90%) and shows evidence for butchering. There was also evidence for iron and copper smelting and working.

During a series of open days in September, locals and visitors to the island were shown around the site and taken on conducted tours through the cave system.

Sponsors: HS, Highland Council, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise - Leader+, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Dualchas, Jansvans of Portree, Hitch-n-Hike, Stoney Cove Marine Trials.

S Birch and M Wildgoose 2004.

Excavation (2006)

NG 594 197 Excavations at High Pasture Cave continued in 2006, resulting in the clearance of the fine, stone-built stairwell discovered in 2005. Excavations within the cave (trench 6) showed that multiple votive deposits (pins, needles, spindle whorls, querns and beads) had been placed at the foot of the stairs. Activity within the cave was shown to be occasional in the ?Neolithic and Bronze Age (pottery and lithics) with increased activity and ritual use from the Later Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Work on the surface included excavation of sections (trenches 5, 9 and 11) across a massive burnt mound which surrounds the cave entrance, sections through landscape features (walls and boundary dykes) and excavation of a major part of the possible round house lying to the NW of the site (trench 7). A series of test pits were dug to evaluate features during extensive geophysical surveys. A fuller description of the 2006 work will be made available through a DSR in April 2007 and through updates of the High Pasture Cave Web Site @ www.high-pasture-cave.org.

Excavation archive held in the Archives of WCAS and AALS c/o Steven Birch and Wildgoose and with the RCAHMS. Finds deposited with the NMS.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland, Highland Council, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise/Leader+, Highland 2007 Fund, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

S A Birch and M Wildgoose 2006

Excavation (2007)

NG 5940 1970 The third year of a planned five-year project saw the completion of excavations in Bone Passage. Excavations (Trench 17) at the northern end of the cave revealed that votive deposits here differed markedly from those at the foot of the stairs (southern end of cave), where multiple personal items had been

placed, with the emphasis here being on deposition of animal bone collections. In addition a socketed axe of Bronze Age style but made/cast in iron was also recovered from between the paving of floor 2. An exciting development is that seven worked antler pins recovered in 2005 have been identified as tuning pegs from a lyre, possibly the oldest such instrument in western Europe. Work on the surface concentrated on completion of Trenches 14, 16 and 18, all sections through the burnt mound deposits, and the opening of Trench 15 in the forecourt area of the cave – potentially the most important area of activity during the Early Iron Age use of the site. Test pits through possible geophysical anomalies and uncertain landscape features were also completed. The 2007 season also saw the start of a detailed landscape survey. A fuller description of the work will be made available through a DSR in April 2008. Trench 15 and the landscape survey will be completed in the 2008 season. For an insight into the work at High Pasture Cave see the dedicated website www.highpasturecave.org.

The excavation archive is currently held by WCAS and AALS c/o Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose. Finds deposited with NMS.

Funder: Historic Scotland, Highland Council, Highland 2007 Fund and Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise / LEADER+

Excavation (2008)

NG 5940 1970 The fourth year of a planned five-year project saw the completion of Trenches 14 and 15 and good progress in Trench 19. Trench 14 demonstrated that structured burnt mound deposits extended well to the S of the burnt mound visible on the surface. Trench 15 showed that the forecourt area immediately outside the cave entrance had been deliberately structured from at least the end of the Bronze Age, with successive enclosure walls, massive hearths and a formal approach path. Trench 19 demonstrated that structured burnt mound deposits also extended some 25m to the E, and SE, and that these deposits sealed as yet undated walls, postholes and stone alignments. The 2008 season also saw the recording of the staircase and Bone Passage by laser scanner and the long-awaited conversion of the surface contour data into usable computer models (AOC Archaeology Group).

The second season of landscape survey was successfully completed and it is anticipated that this will be finished during the coming winter and the 2009 season. A fuller description of the 2008 season will be made available through a DSR in April 2009. For more information see the website www.highpasture-cave.org

Archive: WCAS and AALS, c/o Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose.

Finds deposited with National Museums Scotland

Funder: Historic Scotland

Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose (West Coast Archaeological Services / Archaeological and Ancient Landscape Survey), 2008

Excavation (2009)

NG 5943 1971 The fifth year of the project saw the extension of Trench 15 to the SE to establish the extent of features recorded during the 2008 season (DES 2008, 115). The staircase leading down to the cave was also removed to establish phasing during its construction. The work in Trench 15 demonstrated that the enclosure walls and built walkways uncovered in 2008 continued to the SE, ending at a cave entrance which had been backfilled with large granite boulders. The work in the staircase area demonstrated that at least three phases

of construction could be distinguished, with access to the stair-head changing through time. The excavation of Trench 19 (burnt mound) was completed, with the uncovering of a buried ploughsoil and underlying ard marks, containing fragments of All-Over Cord beaker. Pits and postholes post-dated this buried land surface but pre-dated the deposition of the burnt mound. Work in the landscape continued, with 25 roundhouses recorded so far and the test pitting of these features underway. A full description of the season’s work will be made available through a DSR in June 2010. For more information go to the website at www.high-pasture-cave.org

Archive: With WCAS and AALS, c/o Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose

Funder: Historic Scotland, WCAS and AALS

Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose – West Coast Archaeological Services / Archaeological and Ancient Landscape Survey

Excavation (1 April 2010 - 10 November 2010)

NG 5943 1971 The final year of field work from 1 April–10

November 2010 included the extension of Trenches 2, 15

and 19 to further evaluate features uncovered during 2009

(DES 2009, 114–115), and the excavation of trial trenches, to

evaluate geophysical anomalies and potential archaeological

features identified across the site.

The excavations in Trenches 2 and 15 revealed further

evidence for the modification of the natural cave entrance,

including various phases relating to the construction of a

paved walkway leading into the cave and the construction

of a stone-built stairwell. The stairwell walls had been

constructed in several distinct phases, while associated

landings and areas of paving displayed the importance of

the continued access to the natural cave passages beyond.

Excavations immediately outside the cave and stairwell

entrance uncovered extensions to a large encircling enclosure

wall and removed the remaining superimposed hearths and

their associated residues. Significant amounts of butchered

animal bone including domesticated pig, cattle, sheep and

red deer, were recovered from these deposits. Small caches

of shellfish remains comprising periwinkles and limpets had

been placed in the walls of the stairwell and enclosure.

The extension to Trench 19 investigated the continuation

of burnt spread deposits consisting of fire-cracked stone and

fuel residues and a suite of features pre-dating the formation

of these deposits. The latter included pits and postholes, ard

marks with an associated plough soil containing Food Vessel

pottery sherds (c2000 BC), and a large recumbent granite

boulder (triangular in shape). The excavations also revealed

a shallow, stone-lined socket for the recumbent stone,

suggesting that it had originally stood upright. However, the

stone continued to be a focus for activity after it had been

laid flat on the ground. Stone paving and a possible kerb

of granite boulders were identified surrounding the boulder,

although no features or small finds were recovered from

below. This small ephemeral monument appears to have predated

the ard marks mentioned above.

The 2010 fieldwork season produced a wide range of small

finds including a considerable quantity of coarse cobble

tools (grinders, hammers and whetstones), quern rubbers,

saddle quern fragments and complete saddle querns. Many

of the quern fragments fitted together, suggesting that they

had been broken on site before deposition. All of the quern

rubbers and complete saddle querns were deposited with

their ‘working faces’ down.

Other finds included glass beads, iron brooches and knives

and a socketed iron spearhead, bone pins and awls, worked

antler objects, a bronze finger ring and double-link chain,

and steatite spindle whorls. A large assemblage of charred

wood, a ceramic mould and cremated human bone were

recovered from residues associated with one of the hearth

settings outside the cave entrance. Some of the wood appears

to be fragments from wooden objects including possible

bowl sherds and the bridge from a musical instrument (from

a lyre).

With the completion of the desk-based work and walkover

survey in the winter of 2009/10 emphasis moved to a test

pitting programme, which aimed to examine all structures

thought to relate to the activities at the cave site. The deskbased

and walkover survey recorded 30 circular structures

(possible roundhouses), a crannog and a stone circle. No

attempt was made to test pit the crannog or the stone circle,

but 29 of the circular structures were planned, at a scale of

1:100 and two test pits were excavated per structure. One

across the wall (to characterise it) and one in the centre, in

the hope of recovering datable materials related to a central

hearth. All 29 sites provided charcoal samples for dating. In

addition pottery sherds, lithics, stone tools, pebble pot-boilers

and saddle quern fragments were recovered. At least three of

the sites appear to date to the Neolithic period and one dates

to the mid-19th century. On current evidence (pottery) the

remainder are probably of Bronze Age or Iron Age date. It

would appear that the building of circular structures is a deep

seated tradition on the Isle of Skye.

For further information regarding the work at High Pasture Cave, see the excavation website (www.high-pasture-cave.org).

Reports: Archive of WCAS c/o Steven Birch. Finds: National

Museums Scotland

Funder: Historic Scotland, Highland Council, Skye and Lochalsh

Enterprise Leader+ and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Desk Based Assessment (2012)

NG 59400 19700 (centred on) In the 2010 entry for the High Pasture Cave site in DES (2010, 104), it was stated that we had found what we thought was the wooden remains of a bridge from a musical instrument. Specialists Graeme Lawson and John Purser have now studied the object in some detail, consulted with colleagues, and have confirmed that this is indeed the bridge from a musical instrument; the earliest yet found in Europe.

The bridge was uncovered in layers of deep ash and charcoal associated with a slab-built hearth outside the entrance to Uamh an Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave), during excavations at the site in August 2010. A detailed examination indicated that the object had been finely crafted and warranted further research. Other charred wooden objects were recovered from the deposits in which the bridge was found, along with partially burnt human skull fragments (possibly relating to a young man), a glass bead and a clay mould.

With notches cut along the top to carry the strings, the bridge is the part of the instrument that would have transmitted the vibration of the strings to the hollow sound-box, to make it ring. Ancient music historians are particularly interested in bridges. Of all the small parts of an instrument, it is the bridge that has the most to tell us about how the player played and how the music sounded. It shows exactly how the strings lay under his or her hand. It is delicately worked from oak (Quercus sp.) and incorporates several subtle adaptations which show its orientation and position on the instrument.

The High Pasture Cave bridge would have belonged to an instrument of a type now extinct in the British Isles, which we call a lyre. Once found all over Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, lyres have always been used to accompany song. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon determinations by Derek Hamilton at SUERC indicates deposition at the site in the second half of the 4th century calBC; almost a thousand years before the earliest known lyre-burials of SE England and the near Continent.

The excavations carried out at the site have produced evidence for a wide variety of domestic and industrial forms of activity including metalworking; while feasting, the deposition of human and animal remains, and evidence for votive deposition of domestic everyday items, questions our interpretations of such sites within the wider prehistoric landscapes of Atlantic Scotland.

Thousands of objects have been recovered and catalogued from the site during our excavations, including several rare and important finds. However, with the discovery and subsequent positive identification of the bridge from the musical instrument, we instantly knew that something quite special had been found. As the project now moves into the post-excavation and final reporting phase, we have to bring together the large corpus of information we have retrieved from the site and set the finds, including the bridge piece, into their wider context.

Archive: Highland HER, RCAHMS and WCAS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland, Highland Council, Skye and Lochalsh LEADER+, Highland 2007 Fund and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Steven Birch, West Coast Archaeological Services, 2012

(Source: DES)

Note (March 2017)

What Lies Beneath

High Pasture Cave is situated on the Isle of Skye 1.5km south east of Torrin. It is the second longest cave complex on Skye and contains 320m of accessible passages. The cave is formed from the Cambrian Durness limestone that outcrops in the area, and shaped by volcanic activity from the central Red Cuillin complex. Caves are sites of endless fascination and trepidation for people. They were some of the earliest sites to be explored by antiquarians. These natural structures, often modified by human hands, are fixed points in the landscape and so are much more likely to endure than archaeological remains on the surface. However, archaeological remains in caves are far from static. Animals, natural processes such as the movement of rainwater and other human visitors to the cave can all have an effect on the stability of the interior, and it was the latter which highlighted the significance of this site. The material which Steven Birch came across in 2002 included animal bone, fire-cracked pebbles, charcoal and pottery, strongly hinting at an important archaeological site.

Since the discovery, fieldwork has included a survey of the cave passages and investigation of surface features, including a geophysical survey, in addition to excavation. Excavations were undertaken by Steven Birch and Martin Wildgoose with help from students, local archaeologists and volunteers and have now been completed. Throughout the investigations, the local community supported and assisted the archaeologists. The impending final publication of the project will not only illuminate this unique multi period site, but also locate it with its broader landscape context.

A Special Place

High Pasture Cave was likely a known waypoint for many years before evidence was left at the cave which would attest to its occupation. It was probably used as a shelter or stopping place by hunter gatherers, and among the artefacts which attest to its early occupation are a leaf shaped arrowhead, a microlith and a polished stone axe. People were clearly present here in the Mesolithic and Neolithic, although why and for how long, we cannot say.

In the early Bronze Age, a small recumbent standing stone and a kerb were installed close to the site. Ard marks, evidence of ancient ploughing, were found below the stone setting. Pits and post holes close to the standing stone indicate the presence of a shelter, which may be the earliest building to be constructed on the site. Within the cave, sherds from 10 vessels were found at the darkened northern end of Bone Passage. Bone Passage remained the focus of activity within the cave until its 'closure' at around 100BC.

The majority of activity on the site dates to the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. Access into the cave began to be modified and elaborated at this time. The precinct in front of the cave saw the construction of several hearths and working surfaces. Paved walkways were installed and three successive stairwells provided access into the cave. Within the cave, there is evidence of the deliberate and patterned placing of objects, or 'structured deposition', dating to the 9th century BC. These votive deposits were at their most concentrated at the point where the paved walkway meets the interior of the cave.

Later phases within the cave have been dated to the 4th-2nd centuries BC, and this includes domestic refuse and lots of burnt material. The number and variety of small finds deposited increased at this time and appear to be more widespread within the cave. A large faunal assemblage points to the use of the site for feasting, and animal and plant remains were also deposited as offerings. Metalworking was also clearly important here, and slag and crucibles are attested among the finds from the site. The importance of fire at the site manifested itself as a massive burnt mound which accumulated at the entrance to the cave. Evidence for feasting activities in front of the cave make it clear that this was an important meeting place.

The site was ritually closed around 100 calBC. It was backfilled with midden and human and animal remains were deposited on top of the stairwell. Clearly this was no ordinary occupation site. Access to the cave appears to have become more defined and controlled. A processional entrance appears to have lead up to the site. Successive walls were erected to delineate and enclose the precinct. Could this be a type of shrine, a special passage leading into the earth which was set apart from normal life? Perhaps a mysterious gateway into another world? We may never be certain, but it is truly a fascinating window into prehistoric life on Skye. Publication of the investigations is expected in Summer 2017.

Dr Kirsty Owen, with invaluable additions by Dr Lisa Brown, Archaeology and World Heritage Team

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