Meeting Report: Black Loch of Myrton: an Early Iron Age Loch Village in Wigtownshire

10 February 2017
Graeme Cavers (AOC Archaeology Group)

Over 80 members and guests attended the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society's meeting on 10 February to hear Dr Graeme Cavers of the AOC Archaeology Group speak on the recent archaeological excavation of the early Iron Age loch village at Black Loch of Myrton near Monreith, Wigtownshire.

The project has been funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of The Scottish Wetlands Archaeology Project. Loch settlement in Scotland, especially in crannogs, can be traced from prehistoric to medieval times, most of which are found in south-west Scotland, Argyll and western Scotland generally. Many were built from around 500 BC to the Roman period, and fewer in the early medieval period. Their place in Iron Age society is not yet clear, but their occupants may have had higher social status.

An earlier project at Cults Loch near Castle Kennedy revealed two crannogs in the loch. The loch was surrounded by cropmarks, indicative of agricultural activity probably related to the occupation of the crannogs. Excavation revealed a very good state of wood preservation, although the two structures were initially difficult to identify. Each building had central hearth mounds, but these were not so well preserved. A number of artefacts appeared to have been deliberately buried below the floors; these included a carved wooden box and a wooden ard or early plough share. Dendrochronological analysis of the structural timber indicated the buildings were occupied in the mid-fifth century BC.

The site at Black Loch was rediscovered while work at Cults Loch was finishing. Sir Herbert Maxwell had previously discovered and excavated part of the site finding evidence of metalworking and charcoal. Knowledge of the site was lost in a tree-covered bog with little to see at ground level. Then some large worked timbers were recovered in 2010 when a large agricultural drainage ditch was cut through the site. The farmer reported the find to Stranraer Museum, and the site was investigated. Black Loch is little more than a shallow wetland during winter; nearby White Loch is a substantial body of water with one know crannog.

Firstly, a topographic survey was undertaken, which revealed several raised mounds, now known to be the central hearths of timber round houses. Hearths never survive in round houses excavated on land, but in the boggy conditions at Black Loch they were found to be 2–2.5m in diameter with stone bases. Excavations began in 2014. In the first building investigated, the hearth was rebuilt four times, each one on top of its predecessor. The associated floor surfaces were found in varying states of survival.

The massive central hearth in building 2

Excavation in 2015 investigated a second round-house and revealed another series of rebuilt hearths, necessitated by each hearth gradually sinking into the underlying peat. In this building the lower parts of the main structural post ring, the outer double, wattled stake line in a ring groove and floor were preserved by the wet conditions. The flooring was made up of a matting of woven hazel, alder and willow. Also found were vertically slotted sill beams which would have served to partition the interior of the round house. There was evidence of the use of grasses and reeds repeatedly laid down as a flooring material. Within this was evidence of insects — such as house flies. Some insects were indicative of the presence of animal stock kept in particular parts of the house. One important find was that of a type of grain beetle, previously thought to have been introduced in the Roman period in Britain. Another feature noted were caches of white quartz pebbles under the flooring, the significance of which is unknown.

The entrance to building 2 was particularly well-preserved. Here the outer double stake and wattle ring was replaced with a double line of large oak plans set vertically. This would have created an impressive façade. The trackway to the entrance could be traced — a unique survival in a round-house. It was also clear that a trackway of laid timbers also ran between buildings 1 and 2, suggesting that they were in occupation at the same time.

Excavations continued in 2016, when a trench was excavated from the centre of the site to the periphery. A wooden palisade marked the limit of the site, and a further building was found adjacent to it. Within this was another hearth, but with evidence of a clay domed oven built on a framework of wicker. A sequence of clay domes indicated that the oven had been rebuilt several times. This is the first Iron Age clay domed oven to have been found in Britain.

Few artefacts have been found in the excavations so far, suggesting that the site was abandoned in a tidy fashion. Pottery seems to have been little used in Iron Age Wigtownshire in contrast to sites of the same period in Northern Scotland. Finds include hammer stones, and cobble stones, probably used for leather working. One spindle whorl has been found so far and a small crude ‘thumb’ pot.

The worked timbers from the site provide evidence of the types of woodworking tools in use. It is clear that different types of axes were used on different types and sizes of wood. A considerable amount of environmental material has been recovered for further examination.

Given the difficulties of providing reasonably precise dates from carbon-14 dating in the period 800–400 BC, dendrochronological analysis of the structural oak in the façade of building 2 has provided a provisional felling date of 437 BC, suggesting the Black Loch settlement and the Cults Loch crannog were occupied at the same time.

Black Loch is a wetland settlement, not in a loch, but on wet, boggy peat. It is a wetland enclosure, similar to the palisaded enclosures known from aerial photography throughout south-west Scotland, but more precisely dated. The fourth and fifth centuries BC saw an upsurge in the building of crannogs and wetland settlements, perhaps a defensive response to an increasing external threat.