One of our pet beefs is with Official History's view that Civilisation starts with writing and that therefore anybody without writing practically lives in trees. We say it's almost the other way round: that the invention of writing put a stop to civilisation, or at any rate a different kind of civilisation. Have a read of this, straight from the archaeological coalface, and run with it as far as it'll go.
Archaeologists who have a head for heights
A NEW archaeological survey of sea stacs off the Western Isles has uncovered evidence suggesting that the rocky outposts were inhabited from a much earlier period than previously thought, potentially revolutionising current thinking about who used the stacs and why.
Hundreds of sea stacs in varying shape and size protrude above the sea along coast of Lewis, in the Western Isles. Some stacs are joined to the mainland by a rocky promontory, while others are completely surrounded by water. If a fragment of land is wider than its height it is considered to be an island, but otherwise it is a stac.
Using the appropriately titled abbreviation STAC, members of the Severe Terrain Archaeological Campaign test their advanced climbing skills to conquer these sheer cliffs and access hitherto inaccessible sites. Established two years ago, the group uses information collected from oral history and old maps before visiting stacs that once showed signs of previous human habitation. "You get onto the stacs and have a root around," says field archaeologist Ian McHardy. "We try to understand what's there and also do a detailed map of each stac."
Until now little has been known about the stacs, although they were thought to be predominately Iron Age and used for defence. The Iron Age was certainly a period of conflict, as can be seen by the number of brochs and wheelhouses on Lewis, so it made sense to think that the buildings on the stacs came from this period and were for this purpose. These new findings may change this assumption.
"We found a much bigger range of time period for people using the stacs," confirms McHardy. "On one stac, Dunasbroc, we found high-quality pottery and some beautiful leaf-shaped flint arrowheads. We can't confirm until we get a specialist to analyse the pottery, but it looks like being of late Neolithic period."
This period – between 3,000BC and 2,500 BC – would put the use of the stacs much earlier than previously thought. While exciting in itself, it wasn't the only surprise the STAC members found on Dunasbroc.
Along the contour of the walls they uncovered a small platform that showed signs of being repeatedly burnt. Its function is still a mystery, and McHardy finds it easier to say what it wasn't used for. "It is in the wrong place for a beacon," says McHardy. "Where it is situated would have been hidden by the headland. And it can't be a kiln. Why would anyone want to build a kiln on a hard-to-reach sea stac?" Which leaves them with a tantalising theory.
"One possibility that we're looking into is that it could have been a cremation pyre," says McHardy. "We know from burial tombs of the same period that they cremated people and this could link the two." They are awaiting tests on a partially burnt bone fragment found close to the site before they can begin talking about their theory with any confidence. If the bone does prove to be human, then this would add to our knowledge of how people from the Neolithic period ritualised death.
Another stac that stays in McHardy's memory is Stac a Chaisteil. "It was the most difficult to access, we needed to absail down to get to the base and then climb up 30 metres," remembers McHardy. "It took an hour to get on and off every day, but we did find a block house (a precursor to the broch), which is rare in the Western Isles."
As the first and only project of its kind in Scotland, STAC is opening up a number of different sites for exploration. McHardy enthusiastically points out that there are more places - especially in Shetland and Orkney - that could benefit from an archaeology team who have been trained in rope safety and climbing. Their eye-opening discoveries can only ensure a bright future for archaeologists in Scotland seeking a bit of adventure.