Friday, April 15, 2016

Charcoal burning platforms of the Atlantic woods of Scotland

Analysis of finds from the archaeological excavation of a series of presumed charcoal burning platforms and a lithic scatter at the western end of Loch Doilean in Lochaber in Argyll has revealed new evidence for activities during the Mesolithic, Iron Age, Medieval and post-medieval periods on the west coast of Scotland.

In January 2014, Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology undertook an archaeological evaluation of a Mesolithic flint scatter and five platforms on behalf of Forestry Commission Scotland, in advance of a new forest road.

An extraordinary spread of radiocarbon dates were recovered from the various platforms and associated deposits, demonstrating a complex and unexpected picture of land use: from the chance survival of deposits from the Mesolithic, through the middle Bronze Age and into the late Iron Age, over which medieval house platform stances were constructed, and finally later eighteenth or early nineteenth century charcoal burning platforms were built.

An assemblage of lithics was recovered from a raised terrace, dating to the Mesolithic period (c. 8500-4000 BC) and based on the exploitation of quartz and flint, supplemented by some bloodstone and other raw materials. The composition of the small tool assemblage suggests a broad range of activities to have taken place at the site, including functions such as hunting (microliths), drilling (meche de foret), scraping (scrapers) and cutting (truncated pieces/knives).

‘The most interesting aspect of this small lithic assemblage,’ noted lithic specialist Torben Ballin, ‘is its inclusion of relatively large numbers of bloodstone artefacts (50 pieces). Although the largest assemblages of Rum bloodstone are known from the Isle of Rum itself, assemblages have also been recovered from mostly Mesolithic sites up to c. 90 km away. It is thought that the area around Rum, with its bloodstone-bearing early prehistoric sites, may define a Mesolithic social territory and its associated exchange network.‘

This is one of an increasing corpus of late Mesolithic sites recorded on the west coast of Scotland. The lack of structural remains, the relatively small size of the assemblage and the small number of tools may indicate that the terrace was utilised for very short period of times, probably during hunting/gathering expeditions when a few new tools were fashioned and existing ones repaired. ‘It is probably no coincidence that the site is located near to Loch Doilean and next to the River Pollach, up which salmon still run to spawn,’ said Clare Ellis.

Radiocarbon dates indicate that two of the platforms were utilised between the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD, one with a central hearth and the other as a stance for a post-built roundhouse. Four other recessed platforms in Argyll have yielded eleventh to thirteenth century AD radiocarbon dates. However, the platform at Loch Doilean contains the remains of a timber post-built roundhouse that would normally be expected to be Bronze Age or Iron Age in date. This roundhouse appears to have burnt to the ground; this may have been the result of a deliberate act as there were no finds from the ‘floor’ level, implying that all useful and precious items had been removed.

Two of the other platforms were built in the late eighteen or early nineteenth century AD specifically for the purpose of producing charcoal. The remaining platform was in fact a natural terrace and upon which burning had taken place in the late fourth century AD.

Neither of the medieval platforms at Loch Doilean was re-used as charcoal production platforms; indeed, they were proportionately smaller than the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century charcoal production platforms.

It is clear from the results of the evaluation of the five purported charcoal burning platforms at the west end of Loch Doilean that neither the previous contention that the majority of the platforms recorded in Argyll and Lochaber were originally constructed as stances for roundhouses, nor the more recent assertion of many professional archaeologists that the majority were constructed specifically for the production of charcoal can be accepted without additional research centred on the excavation and evaluation of many more of these monuments.

The full results of this research, ARO20: Activities in the woods: platforms and a lithic scatter, Loch Doilean, Sunart, Lochaber by Clare Ellis, and funded by Forestry Commission Scotland, has just been published and is now freely available to download from the ARO website – "" \n _blankArchaeology Reports Online.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Charcoal burning platforms of the Atlantic woods of Scotland”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 15, 2016. Available online:

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