British Archaeology, no 13, April 1996: Features


Iron Age ridge and furrow? So it seems

And there's more, too. Max Adams describes the gems of the Cheviot Hills.

One of the least well understood of Britain's prehistoric landscapes is that on the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland. This little-known landscape, however, contains some astonishing archaeological gems.

These include a stretch of abandoned ridge-and-furrow, usually interpreted as medieval fields, but which appears in this case to date from the Iron Age; an Iron Age hillfort of unusual design which could have been a hide-out for cattle-rustlers; and a system of field boundaries in use until about 200 years ago which could date from as early as the Neolithic period.

Now, one part of this landscape - the Breamish Valley, some 15 miles west of Alnwick in the Northumberland National Park - is under investigation in a five-year project conducted by the University of Durham's field unit and the National Park Authority.

The possible Iron Age ridge-and-furrow lies around a deserted settlement on Haystack Hill. The settlement itself consists of a number of `scooped hut enclosures' - hut circles sitting on individual, flat, semi-circular terraces `scooped out' of the sloping ground. It is a form of settlement associated with the later Iron Age or Romano-British periods and traditionally dated to c 0-AD400. All around lies ridge-and- furrow, which respects both the boundaries of the settlement and the layout of other elements in the landscape such as dykes, cairns and shepherds' summer huts. The whole area thus appears to represent an integrated landscape dating from a single time period.

If so, this is a remarkable discovery. If both the huts and fields prove to be Iron Age, we will have to rethink radically our view of Iron Age ploughing techniques - and also rethink the identification of ridge-and- furrow elsewhere as invariably medieval. Even if the fields prove to be medieval after all, that implies the scooped huts were still in use in the medieval period, which would be new and interesting in itself.

The possible cattle-rustlers' hide-out is the hillfort at Middle Dean, close to Haystack Hill and lying within the same prehistoric territory. The hillfort, a semi-circular enclosure with a double ring of stone-and-earth ramparts still standing to a height of 2.5m, contains hut circles and thus also no doubt belongs to the Iron Age, though it is perhaps a few centuries earlier than the Haystack Hill village.

It is the hillfort's position, however, that makes it so unusual. Unlike the other 50-or-so hillforts in the National Park, it is not on a hilltop, but sits just below a ridge in a cleft at the head of a burn with precipitous sides. This is not so much a defensive as a concealed position, as the hillfort is invisible except within about 100m. The space between the ramparts would be ideal for coralling, the burn opens out into the flood plain within half a mile, and overall the position makes for an ideal hideout after a quick exit from the valley below. The Border Country became infamous for cattle-rustling in later centuries, and this hillfort may represent the roots of a long-standing local tradition.

It may be that the cattle rustlers of Middle Dean were the people who became the farmers of Haystack Hill some generations later. Most of the dykes and boundary-lines presently visible in the Breamish Valley probably date from the post-medieval period, but many seem to rest on very ancient foundations, some perhaps stretching back to the Neolithic period; and overall, the landscape gives the impression of one that has evolved over a very long period without major revolutionary changes.

Limited excavation on the dykes has revealed a complex sequence of precursors (including possible hedges, marker stones and ditches), and also some sideways movement suggesting the changing territorial fortunes of the owners of land on either side. It is not possible yet to date the different phases of the dykes, but some are almost certainly associated with hillforts. Some also run along a line of Neolithic long cairns, as if `joining up the dots' of an already long-existing Neolithic boundary line.

Further work, and firmer dating evidence, will confirm or undermine these speculations, but already it seems that the present landscape may have evolved continuously from the Neolithic period some 5,000 years ago.

Max Adams is the Director of Durham University's Field Archaeology Unit


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The Highlanders were more civilised than you'd think, says David Caldwell

Urbane savages of the Western Isles

Most people in medieval Scotland saw the Western Islanders as savages. They spoke Gaelic, dressed outlandishly, fought constantly among themselves and even went to war with the Scottish crown. These sentiments, transcribed in Lowland documents, have been passed down to the present, and the myth of Highland savagery still survives.

Yet excavations at Finlaggan on Islay - chief residence of the Lords of the Isles, who ruled the Hebrides in the 14th and 15th centuries - have begun to paint a rather different picture. They reveal a society of some sophistication, with industry and craftwork, foreign trade, money, and diplomatic contact with Europe.

Before the present excavations, conducted since 1990 by the National Museums of Scotland, little remained at Finlaggan save some dispiriting fragments of walling struggling through the vegetation on two islands in a freshwater loch. However, we have now found that as many as 20 buildings stood at any one time on the larger island (Eilean Mor), including a chapel, two halls, kitchens, and other houses which may have been workshops, storehouses and dwellings. Some of these had stone dressings and slate roofs, and all were linked by paved roads. In all, the impression is of a certain wealth and orderliness, in contrast to the squalor of some medieval towns elsewhere in the country.

On the smaller island (Eilean na Comhairle), which was the meeting place for the Council of the Isles, we found two buildings used in the 15th century, one of which may have been the council chamber. Moreover, around the shores of Loch Finlaggan we found traces of other buildings possibly of medieval date. As a whole, the site represents something unusual in medieval Scotland (where villages are virtually unknown) - less than a burgh, but far more than an ordinary nobleman's castle.

One could argue that this proto-urban settlement was the closest such a `savage' society could get to townlife. But the 15th century Lords of the Isles knew all about towns, as they spent much of their time in Dingwall and Inverness, dealing with the affairs of the Earldom of Ross which they had inherited. It seems more likely that the Lords chose not to have fully-fledged towns, rejecting the norms of settled existence of the rest of medieval Europe in favour of their own way of life.

The excavations have suggested, indeed, that the Lords did not need towns; for many of the activities commonly associated with medieval towns, such as commerce and craftwork, seem to have been conducted in the Western Isles all the same. It was long thought, for instance, that coinage was unknown in the Hebrides at the time, but we have now found 25 English pennies of the 13th/early 14th centuries suggesting that some significant trade was being carried out. We have also found French pottery from Bordeaux from c 1300, which seems to represent the remains of jars of imported claret; and sherds of jugs from Ayrshire that may also have contained imported wine.

There is also evidence of craftwork and industry at Finlaggan. We have discovered, for instance, an unfinished harp peg - clearly in the process of being manufactured - as well as three complete pegs; and there was also slag from iron smelting, and waste lead. Moreover, sediment cores from the loch suggest lead was being mined in the area in the 14th century, perhaps for export for use in the roofs of cathedrals, then being built all over Europe.

We now know, at any rate, that there was contact between Finlaggan and continental Europe in the period. The discovery of a 14th century pilgrim's badge from Rome, similar to two found in London, suggests that someone at Finlaggan had made the medieval equivalent of the Grand Tour. And a 14th century enamelled bronze pendant containing the French royal arms - worn perhaps on a belt or a horse's harness - points to the presence of a French nobleman or official at Finlaggan presumably on diplomatic business.

The Lordship of the Isles was wiped out by the Scottish crown at the end of the 15th century; but little was known of the event from documentary sources. Our excavations now suggest that the site was systematically dismantled, with the orderly separation of reusable from broken roofing slates and no evidence of structural collapse. Later buildings on Eilean Mor, from the 16th century, pay no regard to what was there before, suggesting that 15th century Finlaggan was completely razed to the ground, to prevent the troublesome Lords of the Isles ever rising again.

Dr David Caldwell, of the National Museums of Scotland, is Director of the Finlaggan Project


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Five years ago, Peter James and four others proposed a revolution in ancient dating. Now, he says, the debate may be coming round their way

Updating the centuries of darkness

Five years ago this month, I and four colleagues published a book entitled Centuries of Darkness. Its theme was somewhat understated in the subtitle, A challenge to the conventional chronology of old world archaeology, as the book was actually a manifesto for a complete revolution in our understanding of the ancient world before about 500BC.

When the five authors met at the Institute of Archaeology in London in 1985, we discovered a mutual suspicion of the accepted dates for the Late Bronze to Iron Ages in the Mediterranean and Near East. There was, as we described it, `a strong whiff of unreality' about the Dark Ages that supposedly descended on every civilisation in this region at about 1200BC. Areas from Greece through central Turkey to Nubia are supposed to have undergone massive depopulation, while skills such as literacy, metallurgy, ivory working and the art of painting pottery are thought to have lapsed or disappeared entirely for anything up to 300 years; then in the 9th-8th centuries civilisation, and with it all the old skills, revived.

Yet what struck us was the evidence for continuity between the periods before and after the Dark Ages. We were not against the idea of a Dark Age per se. Economic recession is a fact of history, but in this case every strand of evidence we examined - from pottery chronologies to royal inscrip-tions - argued against the existence of such a long Dark Age. In short, the evidence seemed to argue that Late Bronze Age civilisation did not end c 1200BC but more likely around 950BC.

The conventional model raised far too many questions. Why did the Nubians, thought to have abandoned urban life in the 11th century BC, supposedly resettle two centuries later using pottery indistinguishable from that made before they set off on their long nomadic wanderings? Why was an identical problem encountered at Troy over the same time range? Was central Anatolia really totally depopulated between the 12th and 9th centuries after the collapse of the Hittite Empire? Why are the glories of King Solomon's reign in Israel, including the building techniques, ground plan and even the furnishings of his temple, reflected in Late Bronze Age levels supposedly 250 years before his time? If the Greeks founded Syracuse in Sicily in 733BC, after expelling the locals, why are the burned huts of the last pre-Greek inhabitants dated to c 850BC?

The list of such conundrums can be multiplied almost ad infinitum. They range across the whole of the Mediterranean and Near East and have one factor in common - all the areas are dependent for their dating, directly or indirectly, on Egypt. For example, finds of Mycenaean pottery in Egypt enabled prehistoric Greece to be given its standard dates. As a knock-on effect, the discovery of Mycenaean pottery in Sicily, Sardinia, the Balkans and Troy has enabled these diverse regions to be cross-dated with Egyptian chronology. Yet in Centuries of Darkness we examined the basis for Egyptian chronology and argued that it was flawed. We found that Egyptian history could in fact be shortened by as much as 250 years.

The academic reaction to the book was mixed. Some scholars sympathised; others rejected our ideas with a kind of outraged fury. For instance, Kenneth Kitchen, Professor of Egyptology at Liverpool University, proclaimed that the book should be `consigned to oblivion'. But as Prof Kitchen had spent many years developing the accepted version of Egyptian `Third Intermediate Period' chronology (1100-650BC), his fiery reac-tion was expected. Debate continued apace in seminars and publications, including over 70 reviews and discussions.

Now, as research has progressed, it seems that in many ways the argument is coming round our way. Our demonstration that Tell Abu Hawam in Palestine does not provide a fixed point for the dating of Greek Geometric pottery has now been generally accepted. Likewise our suggestion that the illogical 120-year gap between the `Cassibile' culture and the earliest Greek colonies in Sicily should be scrapped has been confirmed in a study by Robin Leighton, an expert in Sicilian archaeology at Edinburgh University, in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

In Israel a new, yet curiously familiar debate has begun over the dating of the first Iron Age settlement in Edom, southern Palestine, with one school of thought placing it in the 12th century, another in the 9th. Both sides have good points to make, but the case for an overall compression of Palestinian dates has recently taken on new momentum through two dramatic discoveries. In 1992 a Greek krater (or mixing bowl) was unearthed at Tel Hadar in Galilee in a level dated by Israeli archaeologists no later than 1000BC. Yet Greek ceramic experts insist that the vessel dates no earlier than about 900BC. In the following year the famous `House of David' stela was found at Tel Dan in northern Israel. As well as providing the first historical reference (outside the Bible) to David and his house, bolstering the case for the historicity of Solomon, it is also threatening to force a complete revision of Israelite archaeology. Carefully analysing its original findspot, Rupert Chapman, Executive Secretary of the Palestine Excavation Fund, has concluded that the stela, which can be historically dated to 825-800BC, must have come from a level conventionally dated to the 10th or even 11th centuries BC. If Chapman is right, the dating of Israelite stratigaphy will have to be reduced by as much as two centuries.

Even in Egypt, whose `fixed' chronology forms the basis of conventional dates for the region, a piecemeal dismantling of the standard model for the Third Intermediate Period seems to be underway. A 20-year `tuck' in 22nd-Dynasty chronology and a lowering in the dates for the 25th Dynasty which we suggested were subsequently put forward in the Journal for Egyptian Archaeology. In conversation, many Egyptologists have expressed to us very different viewpoints from Kitchen's, while two Egyptological reviewers of Centuries of Darkness - John Ray, Reader in Egyptology at Cambridge University, and Aidan Dodson - have now stated in print that Egyptian chronology could be lowered by some 50 years.

The debate about Egyptian chronology could run indefinitely; and many archaeologists have reasonably asked whether scientific dating might not provide a more reliable answer.

As a response to our book, a lengthy analysis of the presently available radiocarbon dates from the Aegean was published in Antiquity in 1992, but the results proved unsatisfactory. Most radiocarbon tests from Greece were done on wood and charcoal, which can produce dates several hundred years older than the contexts they appear in, while there are some `awkward' results which fit our model. For example, timbers from three successive Mycenaean-period levels at As-siros in Macedonia were dated to 1130-850BC, 1310-1020BC, and 1300- 930BC (at 95 per cent probability). Yet the dates expected by the excavator were c 1350BC, c 1450BC and c 1500BC respectively - some two centuries earlier than the radiocarbon results. However, radiocarbon dating has never been stringently applied to the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean; and until it is, it cannot provide the deus ex machina which we all hope for.

In the meantime, the parallel science of dendrochronology is now producing some interesting results. The tree-ring sequence built up for ancient Turkey at Cornell University recently came up with a surprising result for the timbers used to build a gateway in a Late Bronze Age Hittite military installation at Tille Huyuk, near the Euphrates. It transpires that the wood was cut no earlier than 1101 +- 1BC, and possibly many years later (given that there was no bark present on the samples). Yet the con-ventional dating of the Hittite Empire would have it that the gateway was built about 100 years before the wood was even cut.

So as research continues, the long Dark Age that supposedly dominated the early Iron Age in the Mediterranean and Near East begins to seem less credible than ever.

Peter James is a full-time writer on archae-ology and ancient history. Centuries of Darkness, by Peter James, IJ Thorpe, Nikos Kokkinos, Robert Morkot and John Frankish was published by Jonathan Cape in 1991.


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