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Human history "time capsule" on remote Scottish island

23 January 2012

The vanished lives of our ancestors on a remote Scottish island from thousands of years ago have been revealed by archaeologists.

From Machair to Mountains shows how experts uncovered a series of virtual “time capsules” on South Uist in the form of ancient settlements preserved under sand dunes dating from the Bronze Age to the modern era, during a major project undertaken with grant aid from Historic Scotland.

The research challenges the existing belief that the Norse period marked a cataclysmic change in the Hebridean way of life.

Instead of supporting the view that the Scandinavian invaders killed men and enslaved their women and children, the archaeological evidence suggests a greater degree of intermixing and continuity than has previously been accepted.

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said: “This project is a remarkable achievement and describes a hugely significant part of Scottish history.

“The findings show that these remote locations were attractive to human inhabitants from the earliest times and that communities have successfully survived here for thousands of years. The project has added substantially to our understanding of the history of the Outer Hebrides and western Scotland.”

More than twenty years have been devoted to the project by archaeologists and experts from across the UK. The team roamed from the grassy coastal machair plains to South Uist’s mountains, exploring hundreds of sites including Neolithic tombs, Beaker and early Bronze Age occupations, Norse dwellings and blackhouses.

The findings build on earlier work on South Uist by Historic Scotland and other agencies since the 1950s – research that has also uncovered Iron Age settlements, Mediaeval townships and early modern shielings.

Editor of  From Machair to Mountains, Professor Mike Parker Pearson, said:

“South Uist has an extraordinary number of superbly preserved archaeological sites and landscapes from all periods.

“Best known are the settlement mounds of all periods on the island’s machair, the coastal grasslands on shell sand, but the moorlands and mountainous areas also contain remarkable remains.”

Before the South Uist investigations began, sites from the middle and later Bronze Age were almost unknown in the Western Isles. The team discovered late Bronze Age evidence of burnt human cremations at Cladh Hallan, within stone ring settings, as well as burials beneath roundhouses from the same period.

Professor Parker Pearson added: “These structures were built as part of a terraced row and exhibit a marked discontinuity with the past, by replacing the boat-shaped island style of house with the pan-British large roundhouse.

“This shift was as much ideological as economic, and sees the arrival of the sun-wise arrangement of interior activities around 1100BC.”

One of the biggest finds in the machair survey was the discovery that settlement patterns and land tenure show a degree of continuity from the Iron Age to the Clearances.

Historic Scotland’s Head of Archaeology Programmes Rod McCullagh said the findings on South Uist represented a treasure trove of new knowledge.

“The sites compare very well with almost any of the settlements of similar age anywhere in Europe outside Rome and the Aegean,” he explained.

“We have used the information and interpretations coming out of this project in myriad ways. It has underpinned our practice, advice and guidance on the historic environment throughout western and northern Scotland.

“The same influence can also be traced in the thinking and practice of local authorities and those working in research in the same areas.”

The project built on the results of 1950s excavations of Iron Age and Viking dwellings, which were carried out ahead of the expansion of Benbecula aerodrome and the creation of a Ministry of Defence rocket range on South Uist.

With the publication of From Machair to Mountains, the programme is finally drawing to a close. Five more reports will follow, detailing the results of major excavations of Norse, Bronze Age and Iron Age dwellings - concluding one of the most productive, longest running and most detailed archaeological investigations ever undertaken on Scottish soil.

Notes for editors

  • From Machair to Mountains, published by Oxbow Books (ISBN : 978-1-84217-451-7), will be available from Monday 23rd January priced at £26.95 until the end of February, and will then increase to the full price of £35.

  • A member of Historic Scotland’s Archaeology team is available for interview. Please contact Duty press officer to arrange on 07721959962.

  • The researchers were drawn from the SEARCH team (Sheffield Environmental and Archaeological Research Campaign in the Hebrides) and staff from the universities at Bournemouth, Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow, plus experts from the National Museums of Scotland, and the Institute for Archaeology, Prague.

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

For further information

David Gray
Communications and Media Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8588 or 07747 165 289