Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fragments of stone cross lead to archaeological exploration in Scottish Highlands

Archaeologists are set to explore an enigmatic moat close to a church in a remote corner of north west Sutherland in Scotland, hoping to find evidence of early Christian practice.

The excavation at Inchnadamph will begin on 18 February. The local community history society, Historic Assynt, hopes that excavation of the ancient moated enclosed area will help to explain the origins of perplexing fragments of a stone cross found at the site.

Early ecclesiastical foundation?

Graeme Cavers, AOC Archaeology’s project manager for the dig, said:

“The Inchnadamph site is very unusual in western Sutherland, and there are a number of theories as to what the enclosure might be. The best bet is that it dates to the medieval period, as it is most similar to moated sites of the middle ages found across Scotland, but mainly in the south.

The association with the Inchnadamph cross fragments is particularly intriguing, and it is also a possibility that the site is an early ecclesiastical foundation – perhaps one of the first Christian settlements in Assynt. Getting some dating evidence for the construction will be of major significance in helping narrow down the possibilities.”

Burnt mound with surprising date

AOC Archaeology works with Historic Assynt on the Fire and Water project, which included excavation of a burnt mound at Stronechrubie, close to Inchnadamph, in October 2012. The carbon dating of charcoal at that site has revealed that the mound was used for two distinct periods – one, as was expected, in the mid bronze age, roughly three thousand years ago, and the second,very surprisingly, in the mediaeval period, about one thousand years ago. Quite what was going on in Assynt a thousand years ago therefore seems to becoming increasingly mysterious.

When did Christianity reach Assynt?

Gordon Sleight, projects leader for Historic Assynt, said, ‘The big question is whether there is a relationship between the moated site and the early Christian Cross discovered in the neighbouring churchyard. So it would be great to find evidence for the date of the creation of the moat or artefacts that give a clearer indication of what it was used for.’

One thousand years ago, Sutherland and Caithness were ruled by the Kingdom of Norway, via Sigurd, Jarl of Orkney, who converted to Christianity in 999AD. There are suggestions that the Inchnadamph cross is considerably older than that, but there is otherwise scant evidence to inform historians about when Christianity reached Assynt.

Heritage, a living part of the community

Historic Assynt’s Fire and Water project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Robert Kiln Trust. As well as the Stronchrubie excavation, the Fire and Water project has also run several other associated events including a ‘Finds Roadshow’, a ‘Music Through Time’ day and the inauguration of five heritage trails.

Colin McLean, Head of HLF Scotland, said “This is an exciting project driven by the local residents of Assynt. It demonstrates how our heritage can be a living part of a community bringing people together to learn from and enjoy their shared identity.”

Volunteers and visitors are welcome at the excavation, which will run until 22 February 2013.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Fragments of stone cross lead to archaeological exploration in Scottish Highlands”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 14, 2013. Available online:

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