As the last turf was replaced, the team involved in the excavation of Cnoc an Fhoimheir ‘the hillock of the giant’ could reflect on two successful weeks. Dr Colleen Batey from the University of Glasgow came to the site and agreed that there was no sign of a Viking boat burial. The last few days could then be focussed on exploring the cist itself in painstaking detail.
The stone chamber was beautifully constructed using four massive and unusual slabs of stone. As several people remarked, these slabs must have taken some finding amongst the boulders of Tiree gneiss, showing how much effort had gone into making this monument. Removing the sand a trowelful at a time, the archaeologists discovered more bones and a flint thumbnail scraper. We found that the capstone, as it was lying, was not aligned with the structure of the cist. In addition, one of the smaller stones blocking the side of the cist looked very much like a piece of pink granite from the Ross of Mull. This would have come from the Skerryvore workshops in Hynish some time after 1838.
A team on the island, lead by Myra MacArthur, has now started the laborious process of wet sieving the sand found inside the cist, finding fragments of pottery, charcoal, a cowrie shell and fragments of modern slate! All of this suggests that the grave has been opened several times in the last four thousand years, sometimes through the side, but at least once by taking off the capstone – not an easy task without modern machinery!
Two other trenches were opened nearby after magnetic tests suggested structures. In these, we found more pottery and flint tools, as well as buried plough marks from fields lost under the sand. The land we have called Lodge Farm since Lady Victoria Campbell lived next door in The Lodge, near a stream and a medieval mill site as it is, has been home to people for thousands of years.
The response from the island has been fantastic, with around twenty volunteers digging, scraping, cleaning and holding survey poles, and over fifty visitors coming to inspect the dig. Almost all the pupils at the school were given a tour of the site.Several cakeswere donated; they did not last long.The weather, you could say,was “mixed”: a mixture of breeze, gales, soaking showers and wind. The sun did shine one day.
At this early stage, Cnoc an Fhoimheir looks to be a grave dating from the Bronze Age, around four thousand years ago. The bones appear to be fromoneman, presumably one of high status. An analysis of the bones, flints, pottery, and charcoal by experts in Glasgow will give us a lot more information. Carbon dating and isotope analysis will tell us the exact date of the bones, as well as information about where he grew up. This will all be included in the full report, due to come out early next year.
The last day was spent returning all the soil into the holes we had dug days earlier. Apparently, this endless cycle of earth moving is what archaeologists do. The cist itself has been covered over and temporarily turfed. Our aim is to restore the bones carefully back in the grave in a few months time, and then replace the capstone. Forme, as a first-time digger, opening this grave and finding a man’s skeleton was a powerful moment, and I feel I want to respectfully put it all back together again. There is always a debate about the merits of leaving monuments like this alone to sleep their historical sleep. I feel that, in this case, it was important to try to understand something about some of the earliest peoples that settled on Tiree. There has been a lot of interest around the island and beyond, and I have already been asked by some of the volunteers to set up a group to organise the next dig!
We are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the major grant that made this possible, and the additional funding from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Windfall Fund.
Dr Darko Maricevic from the University of Bournemouth makes the final archaeological visit of the year in October. He would like to continue his earlier work using geophysics on more of the island’s lumps and bumps
.Centimetre by centimetre,we are starting to discover more about the past of our ‘secret island’.
Dr. John Holliday