ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 36, July 1998


From deserted crofts to mud-built farms

Low-budget archaeology can often produce remarkable results. Simon Denison reports

The abandoned villages on Raasay, between Skye and the Scottish mainland, cleared last century to make way for sheep, can today sometimes be recognised only as groups of low earthen hummocks in the grass. Some resemble deserted settlements of a far more ancient date.

Here, each spring, you will regularly find a group of archaeologists patiently recording the remains. Most are in later middle age, many retired. In their dayjobs they are (or were) teachers, engineers, electricians, plumbers - none of them `professional' archaeologists, yet their work is making a major contribution to the understanding of clearance on the island.

In these days of multi-million pound contract archaeology, it is sometimes forgotten how much can be achieved by a single individual, or a small group, working on their own initiative with very modest resources. Fortunately a number of such projects exist in Britain, and several - such as the Raasay survey - have been helped since 1996 by small grants from the CBA's `challenge fund'.

The Raasay project began in 1991, and ten abandoned settlements have now been recorded in detail. According to John Macdonald, a retired MoD engineer, many seem to have been abandoned twice - first in 1746, in reprisals following the 1745 uprising, and later in the mid-19th century. Research among islanders has allowed names of families to be attached to individual dwellings, adding to the story of pre-clearance island life.

The researchers, all alumni of Glasgow University's three-year adult-education archaeology course, have also found and recorded a large number of previously-unknown Iron Age, Bronze Age and Neolithic sites during their settlement survey.

The £800 from the CBA over two years has sustained the project, Mr Macdonald says, paying for accommodation and travel, photography and publication.

The CBA has so far helped 32 projects across Britain, with an annual challenge fund budget of some £7,000 provided by English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the Council for Scottish Archaeology. The projects include building and field survey, geophysical and underwater survey, dating, excavation and environmental research.

With a grant of £350, Alan Whitworth of the Yorkshire Dovecote Society has embarked on a photographic survey of all dovecotes in Yorkshire, with added documentary research on the history of individual buildings.

According to Mr Whitworth, a local historian and former graphic designer, 230 dovecotes have now been identified and recorded, adding some 30 to the known total. Many of the `new' dovecotes were derelict or converted, and their original use forgotten. None of the dovecotes were previously listed; now, six are. The society also offers advice to owners on maintenance and sympathetic re-use.

In 1994, Peter Leather, an adult-education tutor at Birmingham University, set up a project to locate the Roman roads running underneath the centre of Birmingham. His project, manned by students and former students but not funded by the university, has also been helped by the CBA's fund.

The project was faced with an interesting problem. Three Roman roads converge on Birmingham, from Wall near Lichfield, Alcester, and Droitwich, but disappear altogether under the modern town. Based on a hypothesis that the roads originally converged on Metchley fort, near the university, the project is conducting geophysical surveys on areas of open ground such as parks and large gardens, and under-takes `watching briefs' at excavations on the possible lines of the roads.

A traditional view was that the three roads converged on Selly Park in the city, and intensive resistivity survey there, without positive results, seems to have overturned that view. With a programme of public events and a web site (, the project hopes to encourage local people to report any relevant finds such as Roman pottery uncovered, for example, while digging their gardens.

An unusual group of mud-walled buildings uniquely found in the Solway Valley near Carlisle, made by wrapping a coil of sand and clay around a building frame from bottom to top (like a coil pot), were traditionally thought to date from the late 17th to the early 19th century and to number about 100. Research since 1989 by Nina Jennings, however, a retired electronics engineer, has established that they were still being built at the start of the 20th century and that the earliest surviving example dates from the 15th. `I have no doubt they were built earlier than that as well,' Mrs Jennings said.

About 170 examples have now been recorded - about 95 per cent of the total group - with scale drawings and added documentary detail, and with dendrochronology dates taken from some cruck timber frames. The work, helped over the past two years by the CBA's fund, has also established that a number of the buildings, but not all, began as longhouses with a byre at one end and living quarters at the other.

The work, which will be published as a book, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved by one dedicated researcher - in this case, without even the use of a car.

Next issue: how low-budget research has dated the oldest timber-framed cottage in England and saved a threatened windmill.

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