Burghead Fort, near Lossiemouth in Moray, is thought to have been a significant Pictish seat of power, being the biggest fort of its type in Scotland. However, it was long believed that the site had been largely destroyed by 19th-century development. Now archaeological work has revealed the presence of a surviving building with intact floor surface within its interior.
The site’s importance was first identified in the 1800s, with the discovery of the Burghead Bull carvings and an enigmatic underground well, but the whole site was covered over in the same century by the construction of a new town. A University of Aberdeen project (running since 2015, and carried out in conjunction with the Burghead Headland Trust, supported by Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service) has dug beneath the 19th-century debris to see what, if anything, has survived from the late Iron Age and early medieval settlement.
Among the finds discovered so far, project leader Dr Gordon Noble reports, one of the most important is a possible Pictish longhouse, as very little is currently known about Pictish domestic architecture.
‘These are significant remains, because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres in Northern Pictland,’ he said. ‘Understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.’
A stone-built hearth survives at one end of the building, and from the house’s floor layers the team recovered a coin of Alfred the Great. Dating from the late 9th century, towards the end of the fort’s life, the coin reflects a period when Viking incursions were having a dramatic impact on northern Scotland, as Norse settlers consolidated their power in Shetland and Orkney and launched attacks on the mainland.
The Anglo-Saxon coin highlights how the fort community was able to tap into long-distance trade networks, Gordon said, while another striking feature of the find is that it has been pierced, perhaps for wearing. Bruce Mann, archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service, said: ‘The fact that we have surviving buildings and floor levels from this date is just incredible – thus research is shedding light on what is too often mistakenly called the Dark Ages.’
This article was published in CA 331.