Case Study: The Pictish Shell Midden at the Sands of Forvie, Aberdeenshire

The existence of a range of shell middens and occupation material at Sands of Forvie, along both shores of the Ythan estuary has been recognised for over a century (Jamieson 1865; Dalrymple 1868).  These have generally been presumed to relate to the extensive prehistoric activity known at the sands (e.g. Hawke-Smith 1980; Warren 2005). However, recent excavations undertaken by the University of Aberdeen, have suggested that at least one of these middens is much later and has shown that evidence for Early Medieval activity in eastern Scotland may be found in unexpected contexts and locations.

Figure 13: Excavations at Sands of Forvie first millennium AD shell midden ©University of Aberdeen

Figure 13: Excavations at Sands of Forvie first millennium AD shell midden ©University of Aberdeen

Excavations were carried out in Easter 2010 on one of the largest shell middens at the Sands of Forvie (Midden A) in response to its erosion and as part of a testing programme to ascertain the nature of archaeological activity at Forvie. During the excavations at Midden A it was found that the shell sequence extended down through some 2.9m of deposits and extended for over 35m in length. This sequence was established through two main columns excavated to the lowest deposits. The most visible and obvious part of the midden was a c.0.6m band of shell dump in the upper portions of the eroding section. This upper midden lay on top of a sand dune (c.1.3m deep at greatest height) that had formed above a series of earlier deposits. One major feature was also located with the layers of sand blow- a fire pit preserved intact. This consisted of a layer of fire-cracked stones on top of a charcoal deposit- interpreted as a steaming pit for opening of the mussels for consumption as found in many ethnographic contexts (e.g. Parmalee and Klippel 1974). There was very little in the way of material culture at the midden apart from one or two stone tools. There were also nice little human touches- e.g. stacked mussel shells- perhaps a form of culinary art!

Six radiocarbon dates were obtained from the midden from the lowest levels to the upper parts of the upper midden deposits. The dates from the midden were a surprise to say the least, suggesting that the lowest charcoal rich layer was formed 325 to 555 cal AD with all the layers above this rapidly forming in the period 715 – 985 cal AD. There was no indication of Early Medieval activity in the midden or known from the immediate area, but the Sands of Forvie excavations show that there was very extensive shellfish gathering in this period creating very large shell mound deposits. This evidence finds some parallel in Denmark where a range of large mussel middens are known to date from the Iron and Viking Ages and appear to represent a renewed and specialize period of shell midden creation (Andersen 2007, 40). The Early Medieval period in Britain is also one where marine protein consumption becomes visible once again after millennia of limited use and it is in this light that the evidence for large-scale consumption of shellfish at Forvie might be placed (e.g. Barrett and Richards 2004). Only further work will help elucidate the full significance of the findings at Forvie, suffice to say the excavation results have massive implications for the importance of the sea in first millennium AD society in this part of Scotland, which can be situated alongside extensive evidence for the coastal fortification in this period (Ralston 2004).

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