1.4 The Challenge of Fieldwork in Scottish Medieval Archaeology

Over a thousand years separates the end of the western Roman empire from the Renaissance. This so-called “Middle” age is a period crucial for the history of Britain, creating the territorial, ethnic and religious loyalties still in existence today. The documentation gradually increases from none to sparse to plentiful, but rarely becomes coherent or objective, and historians and art historians struggle to go beyond the sequence of events, the evidence of high status proclamations and propaganda into the varied lives and thoughts of ordinary people.

This is archaeology’s forte, and a wealth of medieval material culture has survived. However, it is no easier to read than the other kinds of evidence and is particularly challenging in Scotland. Few buildings from before 1200 remain standing. With few exceptions, the cemeteries contain no grave goods. Over half of the period is aceramic. The use of organic materials is undetectable other than for a short period in limited places (e.g. 12th century Perth). Bone disappears in acid soils. The locations of the majority of sites have not survived, even as placenames, and physically they are hard to find. For the period 400-1100 there are fewer than 10 houses known on the Scottish mainland (eg Pitcarmick, Portmahomack). These are all different and placed in time only through radiocarbon dating. Those parts of Scotland that are cultivated produce cropmarks, and the less cultivated uplands produce shallow earthworks – and a great many buried structures have been located in this way – round houses, long houses and field boundaries. But as intensive survey shows (eg RCAHMS 1990, 1994a, 1994b, 1994c, 1994d) the remains of habitations from the Bronze Age to the Clearances are often located in the same area, and the signature of the first millennium AD remains undistinguished. When buildings are excavated that prove to belong to the early Middle Ages, they normally have no surviving artefacts in them. Surprisingly, there are a similar tiny number of excavated villages from the later medieval period (eg Rattray, Yeoman 1995). Compared with England and Wales, even Abbeys or Castles or towns have been excavated on a similarly diminutive scale.

The risks and challenges here are great. One risk is that, having no clear Medieval archaeology of her own, Scotland will have recourse to analogy from the sparse documentation or from better excavated England/Wales/Ireland. Medieval Scotland may therefore fail to develop the detail of its own personality. The country is territorially distinctive - like Ireland, Norway, Denmark or Holland - and is therefore very likely to have developed its own solutions to subsistence, economic production, social control and spiritual practice. Knowing about this is not only instructive for the comparisons it gives Scotland with the rest of Europe - it also offers an insight to the independent and differential role that Scotland played in the continental interactions of the day; something that may be of great significance to the political agenda today.

Figure 2: Area excavation at Portmahomack, Easter Ross. Good definition is possible on the sandy subsoil, but it requires a broad open area, a large workforce, a supply of water and a tower © Martin Carver.

Area excavation at Portmahomack, Easter Ross. Good definition is possible on the sandy subsoil, but it requires a broad open area, a large workforce, a supply of water and a tower © Martin Carver.

How could the challenge be met? In the RCAHMS, Scotland has probably the best archaeological archive in the world. There is every advantage in supporting its continued reconnaissance operations for the planning of both new research and necessary conservation. The current penchant for exploring landscapes experientially has a potential for medieval monumentality, especially if compared with the elements of the prehistoric repertoire in the same place (Carver 2009a). Scotland is well-endowed with records of 19th and 20th century agriculture, fishing and living, which are probably more evocative of medieval practices than is the case in other countries (eg Fenton 1999). 

However much progress can be made through survey or analogy alone: for the Middle Ages, high quality excavation is needed. Excavation in Scotland has to move beyond the mechanistic techniques of trial trenches recorded by single context planning and stratigraphic diagrams alone to a multi-method approach served by a multi-conceptual recording system. Scotland has a excellent monitoring procedures in place to ensure that information is not lost. Now it needs to modernise the concept of excavation itself.

Certain initiatives point the way forward: intensive soil mapping followed by targeted area excavation as at Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) has been shown to be effective on soils with little observable strata. ‘Strip and map’ as at Portmahomack is much more informative than trenches as well as less damaging (Carver 2009b, passim). When buildings are located and excavated, their function and use of space (in the absence of finds) may be revealed by chemical and physical micro-mapping, as pioneered by Helen Smith, Hjulstro and Isaakson (2009), Andy Herries (2009), Karen Milek (2006) and others. These approaches to “nano-excavation” are teaching archaeologists to recognise patterns of living (and dying) that otherwise? cannot be seen. The adDNA (ancient dirt DNA) initiative in Greenland showed how, in theory at least, the grazing history of a piece of land could be mapped from a single sample (Hebsgaard et al.2009).

There are several implications here. Whether an investigation is prompted by research or mitigation it must be on an appropriate scale, at an appropriate level of skill and at appropriate level of cost. In most cases each of these levels will need to be higher than in lowland England. Project designs should only be accepted if they have taken account of modern methods of environmental inquiry and on-site remote mapping methods. 

In research, this will also mean Historic Scotland relaxing its attitude to the excavation of scheduled sites. While accepting that most should be conserved, one or two should be released for large scale investigation. Attempts to compromise by issuing permission to dig a small trench are intensely damaging – as at Iona where little has been learnt from numerous interventions and the site has suffered ‘death by a thousand cuts’ (O’Sullivan 1999). Research in Scotland would also benefit from a more international outlook. Archaeologists in Ireland and Scandinavia, in particular, have similar problems of archaeological visibility and have often surmounted them. Scandinavia also has an outstanding tradition of maritime and underwater archaeology, both underdeveloped and both crucial for medieval Scotland. Yet one rarely sees Scandinavian or Irish universities or field companies operating on Scottish soil. Large scale research excavation is necessary, as it has been everywhere else, to establish the basic norms of size and character of settlements and cemeteries. These can help to give context and make sense of sites encountered during development.

Where appropriate, companies may have to accept that a large volunteer component is necessary in their designs, both for fieldwork (to execute large scale trowelling operations like strip-and-map) and to make more intimate contact with local conditions, practices and histories. Competitive tender, which can drive down the price and the standards of investigation must be appropriately moderated by informed peer/curatorial intervention (Carver 2011). In this way there is a far greater chance that creative solutions will be applied to archaeological problems.