Islands of Stone: Neolithic Crannogs in the Outer Hebrides

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: School of Humanities

Abstract

This project focuses on Neolithic 'crannogs' - artificially-constructed islands - in the Outer Hebrides. Until recently, crannogs in Scotland were thought to have been constructed from the Early Iron Age (c. 800 BC) onwards. Discoveries made since 2012 have demonstrated conclusively that multiple sites in the Outer Hebrides are in fact 2500 years earlier, with artificial islets a potentially widespread feature of the Neolithic there. Our work has now identified six sites associated with large collections of Neolithic pottery (with four of these radiocarbon dated to c. 3640-3360 cal BC). In some cases, these assemblages have included near-complete vessels deposited directly into the lochs, possibly as a result of 'ritual' deposition and/or feasting; the inertia of the loch bed sediments has ensured amazingly well-preserved ceramics, with levels of completeness unprecedented in Neolithic Britain.

These 'islands of stone' were created simply by piling up large rocks on the loch bed - impressive constructions 25m in diameter and 4m high. On the sites investigated in Lewis so far, no buildings have been identified. However, in one case - this project's showcase site at Loch Bhorgastail - waterlogged worked timbers suggest complex wooden architecture, and impressive levels of organic preservation for a site of this date in Britain. It is possible that some of these crannogs may have been settlement-related, but others are too small to have housed buildings. Their monumental, cairn-like forms echo the contemporary funerary monuments known across the region. Given the deposition of artefacts into the loch around them, it is possible that they may have been special purpose 'ritual' locations. These are enigmatic sites whose function is, at present, hard to understand. They require significant further investigation.

Neolithic crannogs essentially represent a new site type for the period. However, almost all of those identified so far are located within central Lewis - the only area that has been searched intensively. Eilean Domhnuill, N. Uist remains the only definite site known elsewhere. Its presence there suggests, tantalisingly, that many more Neolithic crannogs may lie undiscovered across the Outer Hebrides. This project seeks to address this situation by identifying and then ground-truthing other sites with potential across the islands. We also plan to carry out two seasons of excavation in order to characterise one highly promising site (Bhorgastail). Using cutting-edge scientific analyses, we will investigate what happened at the site and how it related to activity in the wider landscape, leading to properly informed, new interpretations. These new sites have the potential to transform existing narratives of the British and wider European Neolithic.

In order to communicate our results to the academic community, we will produce an open access monograph and additional papers focused on key issues. We will also organise an international conference in order to gather together researchers working on lake settlements across the world. Beyond academia, the project will have impact in a variety of spheres: enhancing tourism in the region through development of an augmented reality heritage app and pop-up exhibitions; improving knowledge of the archaeological resource for heritage management professionals; collaborating with and empowering local archaeology groups; and disseminating knowledge through open days, public talks, school visits and teaching information packs.

Ultimately, the Islands of Stone project will establish a clear interpretation of these new sites, transforming our understandings of the Neolithic and of the enigmatic, multi-period site type of 'crannog' in general. Site categories are rarely pushed back 2500 years in date. New kinds of Neolithic site are almost never found. Waterlogged deposits of this date are extremely rare. The promise that these new sites hold is enormous.

Planned Impact

Previous experience has demonstrated that this project - because it involves underwater exploration, newly-discovered sites, beautiful landscapes and impressive finds - has tremendous potential to capture the public imagination. Our impact strategy as a whole seeks to build on this inspirational core, developing a series of mechanisms through which to raise the profile of the tremendously rich, but currently undervalued, prehistoric heritage of the Outer Hebrides amongst a range of audiences. Our ultimate aims are (1) to improve awareness and enjoyment of the islands' heritage, in doing so boosting tourism and creating economic growth in the region, and (2) to create a solid, grassroots base of knowledge about and care for the islands' archaeology - a sustainable platform on which to build continued expansion in this area beyond the life of the project.

We expect a wide range of people to benefit from the project's findings:

1. Visitors to the Outer Hebrides
Visitors will benefit from the project in a number of different ways. An app to be developed in collaboration with the Ordnance Survey will significantly enhance the heritage-related elements of people's tourist experience, identifying sites to visit and providing authentic information about these in an engaging and contemporary format. Visitors will also be able to enjoy our pop-up exhibition about the Islands of Stone project and the wider Neolithic archaeology of the islands (see below), as well as public talks and open days.

2. Local museums and airports
Three museums and two airports will host our pop-up exhibition. Museums will benefit from being able to showcase a contemporary research project and 'live' excavation alongside their permanent displays, adding value to the visitor experience. Equally, our displays in the islands' two main airports will provide the wider and different audience passing through them with a welcome distraction as they wait and information about things to see and do during their stay.

3. Local archaeology groups (and the wider public)
We will be working with local archaeology groups throughout - notably in surveying sites and excavating at Bhorgastail. Our project partners 'Access Archaeology' have a strong history of participation in research projects. As their letter of support makes clear, the group's activity currently depends substantially on being involved in externally generated projects; they will also benefit from learning new techniques (e.g. underwater survey methods, scientific analysis). We will also disseminate information about the wider research context of our project to local societies and other interested members of the public through talks and open days.

4. Teachers and schoolchildren
We will involve local schools through a wider package of outreach work, including school visits and a teaching information pack. Local people (including schools) will also benefit significantly from the app's availability - in selecting sites to visit, undertaking local history projects, etc.

5. Heritage professionals
Our research will enhance the NRHE and local HER, refining knowledge about known sites and identifying new sites, leading to increased understanding and more effective management of the heritage resource. The project will also help HES to deliver multiple elements of the Scottish Government's Our Place in Time historic environment strategy document, especially those within the 'share and celebrate' theme.

6. Ordnance Survey and Historic Environment Scotland
The OS are very keen to develop their existing app technology to incorporate heritage content. They see this project as a critical pilot study for an application which could be rolled out nation- and even world-wide in future, leading to potentially significant additional financial income. Equally, HES will benefit from the project in a number of ways, with aspects helping to fulfil all five of their designated strategic aims (HES 2016)

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description ARCHAI
Amount £49,776 (GBP)
Organisation UK Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2020 
End 03/2021
 
Description Historic Environment Scotland project engagement session 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Meeting with Historic Environment Scotland and National Museum of Scotland representatives to enable wider engagement with Islands of Stone project and related themes
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Keynote lecture [online] - 'Land, Sea and Sky: the archaeology of coasts and islands' conference, Archaeology Ireland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Keynote lecture [online] - 'Land, Sea and Sky: the archaeology of coasts and islands' conference, Archaeology Ireland given by Duncan Garrow - the title of the paper was 'Island archaeologies and the conundrum(s) of 'insular connectivity''
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://archaeologyireland.ie/conference-2020/
 
Description Talk for Investigating the shore conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk given on investigative methods in coastal and underwater contexts
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://prehistoire-atlantique.blogspot.com/2020/11/investigate-shore-sound-past.html
 
Description Talk to Basingstoke Archaeology Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to Basingstoke Archaeology Society on 'Islands of Stone: Neolithic Crannogs in the Outer Hebrides'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://www.bahsoc.org.uk/?page_id=119
 
Description Talk to Uist Community Archaeology Group, Outer Hebrides 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to Uist Community Archaeology Group, Outer Hebrides by Duncan Garrow on Island archaeologies and the conundrum(s) of 'insular connectivity'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021