In 2010, on a rocky knoll above the River Glass in Comar Wood, Forest District staff came upon an enclosed Iron Age dun (4th century BC to 3rd century AD). Many such monuments are dotted around Strathglass, but few have been excavated or investigated in any detail.
The Scottish Archaeological Research Framework panel (ScARF 2012) has labelled the central Highlands as a ‘black hole’ regarding the context of prehistoric enclosures, especially in terms of chronology. This excavation aimed to help remedy this problem. In 2013, on behalf of Forestry Commission Scotland, the site was cleared, and an archaeological survey, and evaluation was carried out. The initial survey suggested that the site was a complex roundhouse – most likely a broch or dun.
Excavations revealed the full dun – with an internal diameter of approximately 13m – and the defensive enclosure around it. There were also signs of at least two burning events, with evidence of rebuilding and reoccupation after each. Very few datable small finds were discovered, suggesting that the occupants either removed all material before abandoning the structure or that it was only used on occasion – possibly during times of strife. These characteristics are consistent with other Iron Age roundhouses in Atlantic Scotland.
The lack of small finds indicates that this was probably not a domestic structure – at least not in its final stages – although the dating evidence is indicative of continuous usage over a 300-to 600-year period. This chronology suggests that the site was a permanent feature in the landscape, an idea solidified by the site’s prominent position with extensive views over the strath; as the site report notes, ‘It was built to be seen, but not to be accessed freely.’ Overall, from the evidence, the recently published site report suggests that the dun may have evolved from a chieftain’s defended roundhouse into a centrally located meeting place.
While further excavations of both this site and other similar structures throughout the central Highlands would undoubtedly provide a more informed chronology of the period, this project has proved that ‘keyhole’ investigations can be incredibly helpful in adding to current knowledge.
The full excavation report, ARO23: Excavation and Survey at Comar Wood, Cannich, Strathglass, Inverness-shire, is available for free from the ARO website (http://archaeologyreportsonline.com/reports/2017/ARO23.html).
This article was published in CA 334.