The moon and the bonfire. An investigation of three stone circles in north-east Scotland by Richard Bradley
Kilellan Farm, Ardnave, Islay. Excavations of a prehistoric to early medieval site 1954-1976 by Colin Burgess and others, Ed. Anna Ritchie.
These two volumes continue the excellent publication record of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. They are extremely well produced volumes that will grace any bookshelf and both contain excellent if very different data.
The Bradley volume, as the sub-title suggests, is the report on his excavations at the recumbent stone circles of Tomnaverie (1999), Cothiemuir Wood and Aikey Brae (2001). After setting the scene by discussing the origins and objectives of the project and the problems with the dating of recumbent stone circles Bradley proceeds to present the excavation reports of each site. These are clearly written and excellently illustrated. The material results (finds etc) are pretty sparse as might be expected, but the palaeoenvironmental resource is maximised to great effect. The sequence of activity at the site as revealed by stratigraphy and 14C dates is also described. And here is the meat of the volume.
Subsoil burning and cremated bone predated the monumental sequence. The first phase of the monument comprised a stone-built platform associated with Beaker sherds was constructed around 2500-2400 cal BC to provide a level area on top of the hill. The platform had radial internal divisions and a roughly polygonal kerb and had been externally revetted by a rubble bank. The recumbent stone circle had been inserted into this rubble revetment. There was further reuse of the monument in the form of pyro-ritual activity c.1000 cal BC.
Interesting was the fact that the stone circle was the latest architectural element thus challenging the conventional wisdom. However Bradley argues that rather than stand-alone building phases, the elements of the monument may have been designed as a single narrative not least because elements of the kerb and the internal radial lines of the cairn seem to predict the position of the uprights.
As mentioned above, the lateness of the stone circle in the site stratigraphy was contrary to what one might have expected. Accordingly Cothiemuir Wood and Aikey Brae were chosen for sampling to test whether the Tomnaverie sequence was more widespread. It was. Fieldwalking projects by Tim Phillips suggest that the sites were set away from the areas of contemporary occupation thus helping to understand the landscape significance of the monuments.
Bradley then concludes with a thought provoking discussion of stone and timber circle construction in Scotland, the importance of day and night time rituals and the complex narratives that may have been involved at many sites. This discussion will doubtless have far reaching effects.
Whereas Bradley’s volume reports on modern excavations undertaken less than 4 years prior to their publication, the Ardnave report describes excavations undertaken as many decades before final publication. It even seems to show in the cover photographs on the dust jackets: that of Kilellan Farm seems rather faded in comparison to the vibrant colour at Tomnaverie. This said, Kilellan Farm is an important site and Anna Ritchie must be congratulated on the superb job she has done in pulling together the various archives which were, needless to say, of varying quality and completeness. Indeed all the specialists have dealt with this problem admirably. Ritchie describes the excavations herself providing an introduction to the three different grid systems and the overall site stratigraphy and context concordance. The results are then discussed in chronological order from Mesolithic to medieval. The majority of this description is, naturally, devoted to the Bronze Age midden and the tantalising structural features that it preserved, and the later prehistoric souterrain. Like The Moon and the Bonfire, this section is extremely well illustrated with well-chosen informative photographs and line drawings which help illuminate the complexities of the text.
Specialist contributions follow: the pottery, and especially the rich Early Bronze Age assemblage, by Rosemary Cowie, the struck lithics by Alan Saville, the other stone by Ann Clarke and other finds by Anna Ritchie. These sections, and again the excellent illustrations, further confirm the importance of the site and the wealth of material produced. Cowie’s pottery report is exemplary and she puts to rest some old misconceptions such as the Beaker presence on the site (originally identified by Colin Burgess and myself on tenuous evidence and in a dusty Newcastle basement!).
The environmental reports (including snails by the late John Evans) comprise only 22 of the 200 pages. The reports are well done on the evidence that survives but given the overwhelming presence of dark ‘organic’ layers on the majority of the photographs, one cannot help but think that here is an opportunity missed (by the excavators not the specialists). Similarly, radiocarbon dates are few no doubt a result of the shoe-string budgets of the early excavations and Burgess’s scepticism of 14C dates at the time (a scepticism borne out by the subsequent re-assessment of many dates, and the recognition of laboratory errors (BM) and the old wood effect).
These volumes not only present a wealth of important archaeological data for anyone interested in Scottish prehistory, but also highlight the differences between well-constructed and funded programmes of research and lengthy ad hoc poorly funded campaigns. They also demonstrate the benefit of speedy publication as opposed to lengthy delays offering opportunity for the archive to deteriorate making reconciliation of material and contexts difficult. Both Bradley and Ritchie are to be congratulated. The former for his speedy and thought provoking publication, the latter for struggling valiantly with a variable archive, for bringing 20 years’ worth of important excavation to fruition and finally rendering the old interims redundant.
Review Submitted: June 2005
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