Community archaeologists uncovered an Iron Age hearth during recent excavations at Thusater Burn. (IMAGE: ORCA)

A community project at Thusater Burn near Thurso – the most northerly town of mainland Scotland – has revealed possible evidence of far earlier occupation of the area. Traces of what is thought to represent an Iron Age settlement were uncovered during an event organised by the Caithness Broch Project – a charity that aims to promote and preserve archaeological sites in Caithness by training the public in fieldwalking, geophysical survey, and excavation techniques (see CA 322).

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) had been using magnetometry to search for Bronze Age double houses in the area when they noticed that readings at Thusater suggested something much later in date: possibly Iron Age, based on the form. A community project already being run by Caithness Broch Project was quickly adapted to investigate, and subsequent excavation revealed the survey to be correct. Over 40 volunteers (trained by archaeologists from ORCA and the University of the Highlands and Islands) opened three trenches, all of which yielded evidence of rubble and stony deposits.

A hammer stone found during the excavations. (IMAGE: ORCA)

Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager for ORCA said, ‘It is incredibly exciting to be involved with the team from Caithness Broch Project and local people investigating this site, especially as this is the first time that it has been excavated. This is the first stage of a project that aims to investigate the wider prehistoric landscape of this area of northern Scotland.’

One of the most significant discoveries was a perfectly preserved, stone-lined hearth that showed signs of heating, but did not contain any ash. This suggests that it had been cleaned out, possibly ready for reuse.

Other key finds included a hammer stone and striking stones, as well as a pig’s tooth – a surprising development, as pigs are usually only present in low frequencies on Iron Age sites. The ORCA team believes that this combination of evidence makes it likely that the area saw primarily domestic use.

Kenneth McElroy, a director of the Caithness Broch Project, said, ‘The dig was a really exciting community event – I was especially pleased to see that for many of the volunteers this was their first experience on an archaeological dig. It was a superb few days, and we’d love to come back to try to find out a bit more about the site.’

An online exhibition of the excavation and its finds can be found at www.orca-archaeology.org/cbpexhibition.html.

This article appeared in CA 342.

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